Futuristic visions

If you want to see how Silicon Valley elites envision the world, enroll in Singularity University. Their business plan: permanent optimism.

Steffan Heuer (copy) & Courtesy of Berndnaut Smilde and Ronchini Gallery (installations)


Ray Kurzweil

“By 2045 we will multiply the collective intelligence of our civilization, of people and machines, by a factor of one billion. That will be the dawn of the technological singularity—a future that defies our imagination.”

As Ray Kurzweil takes his place on stage, next to a fake fire flickering on a flatscreen, to describe his optimistic view of the high-tech future, silence envelops his audience of nearly 100 executives from 38 countries. Smartphones are whipped out to record every word uttered by the inventor and futurist, who is also a director of engineering at Google. Kurzweil talks to the members of the Executive Program at Singularity University, located in the heart of Silicon Valley, for over an hour about the unstoppable advance of artificial intelligence and microscopic nanobots. The 69-year-old computer scientist claims that, within a few years, these tiny robots will flow throughout our bodies to reprogram our immune systems and connect our brains with the cloud. “Our thinking will be a hybrid of biological and non-biological thinking. This upgrade will make us funnier and more intelligent,” Kurzweil says with the sober conviction of a man who has dedicated his life to researching the synthesis of man and machine. His bestselling books include `The Age of Spiritual Machines´ and `The Singularity is Near´. The titles refer to the not-so-distant day when ever accelerating technological advances will make it impossible to differentiate between people as biological entities and digital systems consisting of hard and software—the turning point when atoms and bytes become one. “The singularity,” argues the visionary scientist in his 650-page tome published in 2005, “will allow us to transcend the limitations of our biological bodies and brains.”

If you’re in a hurry to learn how Kurzweil and other Singularitarians think and to prepare yourself and your company for the dramatic transformation of all areas of life, head to Singularity University. Founded in 2009, the organization has grown into one of the most prominent think tanks for digital transformation. It has not only attracted hundreds of top managers to California but also runs conferences from Berlin to Sydney to prime humanity for the “great challenges” ahead and bring people together to come up with unconventional answers. “We are basically optimists who believe that technology can be used for the good of humanity. That’s why we want to educate and inspire people, and put them in a position to understand and use exponential technologies,” says Carin Watson, referring to technologies such as microprocessors whose power virtually doubles each year. After twenty years as a corporate manager, Watson is now in charge of learning and innovation at SU. In her view, society has a lot of catching up to do if we are to be ready for a ubiquitously connected future in which virtually any question, even a complicated medical diagnosis, can be answered with a dense network of sensors and intelligent devices. “As soon as I graduate from a university, my knowledge is already outdated. It would be naive to ascribe magic powers to new technologies. But they can unlock new opportunities for tackling humanity’s great unsolved challenges, from poverty and hunger to education to health. We believe,” Watson adds with a disarming smile, “in a future of abundance, not of deprivation. And we should all help build this future.”

The Google Lunar XPRIZE competition launched by Peter Diamandis’s X-Prize Foundation sparked the Berlin-based PTScientists’ Mission to the Moon. Audi is a partner to the group and supports the development of the Audi lunar quattro moon rover.

Nimbus Probe, 2010, photo: Berndnaut Smilde

For two years, the Volkswagen Group has been a member of the Innovation Partnership Program at Singularity University, which aims to establish close contact between Fortune 500 companies and Silicon Valley pioneers. The Group organized an SU summit in Germany for over 100 of its executives.

A future where technology prevents people from ever experiencing deprivation is also the favorite focus of Peter Diamandis, who founded the singularity movement along with Kurzweil. The California-based serial entrepreneur’s undertakings include launching the worldwide competition known as X-Prize. He also published a book entitled Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think, whose optimistic tenor is a kind of manifesto for the organization. This positive outlook is based on exponential technologies, i.e. innovations that don’t grow in a linear fashion or incrementally but in giant leaps. “The world is changing faster than any of us are aware,” Diamandis says. “If I think linearly and take thirty steps, one after the other, then I’ve gone thirty steps or thirty meters. But if I take thirty exponential steps, doubling the distance I’ve gone with each step, after thirty steps I’ve gone a million kilometers, or 26 times around the Earth.” This difference calls for individuals to radically rethink their ideas of the pace and scope of change. For companies, it can mean the oft-cited disruption or even the demise of their business models—from the triumph of digital photography to new modes of transportation that can be ordered with an app. And for the planet, Diamandis says, exponential technologies—from manufacturing through robotics all the way to gene therapy—are a huge opportunity to eradicate poverty for billions more people and give them access to clean drinking water and reliable health care. As soon as the Internet has completely pervaded the planet, for example, even the most elite university in the US would be no more than a couple of smartphone-taps away from any African village.

What happens when you think about exponential change? Singularity University’s CEO Rob Nail knows the answer first hand. A graduate of Stanford, Nail sold his biotech startup to a big corporation in 2007 and was looking for a fresh challenge when he attended the inaugural summer program at the newly-founded Singularity University. “I immediately realized that even in my own field I had no idea what was coming up and how fast. That was an unbelievable eye-opener,” Nail recalls. His initial amazement became a full-time job as head of SU in 2011. “We want to counter the permanent doom and gloom in the media with something positive. If we are to live in a world without want, a great many things need to be set in motion in the next thirty years, by governments and politicians, major companies and startups, academics and foundations and investors. We aim to bring all these groups together so they think far beyond their day-to-day operations, develop unconventional ideas and implement them in unusual partnerships,” Nail says. Over the past nine years, this call to actively shape the future has evolved into a global movement. Its epicenter is located in the NASA Research Park, the former civil-military airport known as Moffett Field, south of San Francisco. Singularity rents three buildings next door to a historic U.S. Marines airship hangar; its administration, conference center and an incubator for startups from all over the world are housed here. Every couple of months, nearly 100 leaders hailing from all corners of the globe are invited to attend the Executive Program in California. Over the course of a week, they absorb and discuss the greatest possible array of ideas dealing with the imminent disruption.

Nimbus De.Groen, 2017, photo: Cassander Eeftinck Schattenkerk

Nimbus Himalayas Museum, 2015, photo: Nina Chen

So far, around 3,000 people have taken part in these high-priced, intensive courses in the orbit of tech giants such as Google, Apple and Facebook. Acceptance into this small circle hinges on an application process in which candidates have to describe how they personally intend to change the world. “It’s a one-of-a-kind opportunity to ask questions about exponential technologies and feel the incredible innovative spirit of Silicon Valley,” says Tobias Regenfuß, who heads Cloud & Infrastructure Services at Accenture in Munich and attended the most recent Executive Program, in winter 2017.

“Whether you share Singularity’s vision 100 percent or not—in the past, we all underestimated the speed at which things were changing. I will be able to use everything I’ve taken away from this experience in my daily work and for my clients,” is Regenfuß’s positive review. For Pinar Emirdag, a Turkish physicist, the most exciting component is the fresh view of the world she will take back to her job as head of a small innovation team at State Street Bank in London. “It is crucial to understand the larger social and economic implications of technical innovations. But first, you have to open yourself up and completely change your views and ways of thinking.”

In order to accelerate the transformation across the board, Singularity recently also began supporting and funding promising startups from Kenya to California. Teams that propose innovative ideas for dealing with the big issues such as poverty, health and education can enroll in a seven-week SU incubator before presenting their concepts and prototypes at a demo fair. As soon as the idea turns into a startup, SU Ventures participates in the newly founded enterprise and sets up valuable contacts with mentors, potential business partners and investors. Since its launch in 2016, a total of eleven teams have gone through the incubator, as Monique Giggy, head of SU Ventures, reports. Most of them went on to become portfolio companies. SU Ventures has invested in a total of 58 startups, which have attracted 220 million dollars in investment capital and created over 500 jobs to date. The program’s success stories include the drone pioneer Matternet and Majik Water, whose technology lets poor communities in Kenya turn naturally occurring moisture in the air into drinking water. “Startups that find their way to us,” Giggy says, “are incredibly passionate about what they are doing to make a difference in the world.” Beginning in 2018, the plan is for these entrepreneurs to share their enthusiasm with the Executive Program attendees as well. Managers can then establish contact with young talents right in Moffett Field, to help make the vision of mutual cooperation between man and machine become reality even faster.

Singularity University maintains a global presence thanks to 83 local groups currently active in 48 countries. Attendees of the intensive courses and summits around the world set up the groups to spread the ideas.

Nimbus Roebourne, 2017, photo: Bewley Shaylor. Made possible by: FORM—Building a state of creativity, Australia

Berndnaut Smilde’s Nimbus works present a transitory moment of presence in a specific location. Smilde is chiefly interested in the temporary aspect of the work: “People have always had a strong metaphysical connection to clouds and through time have projected many ideas on them. The installations are there for just a few seconds before they fall apart again. They can be interpreted as a depiction of transience or emergence, or just as fragments of a classical painting. Although the physical aspect is really important, in the end the work only exists as a photograph. The photo functions as a document of something that happened at a specific location and is now gone.”

Further photo credits: Nimbus Karijini, 2017 / Bewley Shaylo - Made possible by: FORM – Building a state of creativity Australia, Bill Wadman, AUDI AG, shutterstock