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TOPIC: Singularity University plots hi-tech future for humans

Singularity University plots hi-tech future for humans 03 Dec 2013 12:48 #1

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Rob Nail walks into the room looking like a Silicon Valley Doctor Who as played by David Tennant - tailored suit, 3D-printed trainers and the Californian twist on the sonic screwdriver, Google Glass.

But despite spending most of his days predicting what the future will look like, he doesn't want to become a time lord.

"I feel more like a robot," says the chief executive of the Singularity University (SU).

He thinks that the gap between humans and robots is closing as biology and silicon increasingly collide.

He reels off examples.

Bionic eyes that combine a Google Glass device with a tiny electrode in the retina and will be available in the US for partially-sighted people in a few weeks' time. It is only a matter of time before they filter down to the wider public. "Useful for pilots.," he says.

He describes apps for the next-generation Google Glass that will allow users to read the heat maps of people's faces to tell if someone is lying or not. "They will either be banned or become a must-have in the world's boardrooms."

And the first re-engineered human is not far off, either. "It will come within the next year, probably initially to offset some disease," he predicts.

"If you want to be at the head of the class in future you are going to have to be enhanced," he says matter-of-factly.

Singularity University is a quintessentially Silicon Valley concept. An organisation some regard almost as a cult, others treat with amusement but which few are prepared to entirely ignore.

That isn't just because it is home to some of the brightest minds on the planet. Or the fact that it is based at Nasa's research park in Mountain View and within spitting distance of the Google campus.

What is making people sit up and take notice of SU is the fact that it has identified a range of disruptive technologies - innovations that can disrupt existing markets - that it believes will change the world, from digital manufacturing to biotechnology, from robotics to artificial intelligence.

As well as highlighting the role they will play in future society, SU also has the modest ambition of using them to solve what it calls the "grand global challenges" - poverty, energy, food, education and disease.

If SU has a godlike figure, it is Ray Kurzweil, Google's chief engineer and the man who has become synonymous with the concept of singularity - the tipping point when artificial intelligence overtakes human brainpower.

He has even put a date on when that will happen so put an entry in your diaries now - "2045 - put feet up and allow robot overlords to take over."

And the bible of SU is Abundance, a book by co-founder Peter Diamandis, which talks a lot about how we will soon have the technological capacity to fulfil the needs of everyone on the planet.

Now SU is spreading its gospel to Europe, hosting its first European summit in Budapest, in the august surroundings of the Liszt Academy.

The phrase you are most likely to hear during the weekend conference is "exponential curve".

This is the idea that technology innovation is no longer a linear progression but an unstoppable mountain of change - with the summit being the seamless integration of the biological and the non-biological.

The joke on campus is that SU is neither a university nor does it teach the singularity.

Instead the organisation, funded by firms including Google, Autodesk and the X Prize Foundation, runs a series of graduate and corporate programs, as well as conferences.
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