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What Traditional Scholars Can Learn From a Futurist's University - Chronicle of Higher Ed

What Traditional Scholars Can Learn From a Futurist's University - Chronicle of Higher Ed

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Published by Jeffrey W. Danese

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Published by: Jeffrey W. Danese on Feb 01, 2012
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4/7/11 1:19 AMWhat Traditional Scholars Can Learn From a Futurist's University - Technology - The Chronicle of Higher EducationPage 1 of 7http://chronicle.com/article/What-Traditional-Scholars-Can/48369/
HomeNewsTechnology
Technology
September 14, 2009
 What Traditional Academics Can Learn From aFuturist's University 
For 9 weeks and $25,000, Singularity U. challenges some entrenched notionsabout learning and technology 
 By Jeffrey R. Young
Moffett Field, Calif.
"We're going to be unapologetically interdisciplinary," said NeilJacobstein, chairman of the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing,during one of the first lectures at Singularity University. "That's not because it's fashionable, or because the faculty took a vote, but because nature has no departments."The students burst into applause.That dig against traditional institutions was par for the course atthe unusual new high-tech university, which wrapped up its firstnine-week session at NASA's Ames Research Center here lastmonth. Students were asked to come up with technological projectsthat would help at least a billion people around the world,reflecting the techno-utopian vision of the institution's founders.Those founders had a bigger stamp on the curriculum than wouldany traditional university president or chancellor. They are Ray Kurzweil, an inventor and futurist who believes artificialintelligence soon will exceed human thinking, and Peter H.Diamandis, a successful entrepreneur devoted to helping humanscolonize other planets.Mr. Kurzweil helped popularize the term "singularity," used todescribe the moment when thinking machines transcend theircreators.Mr. Diamandis co-founded a company that was the first to take atourist to the international space station and is best known forcreating the X Prize, which offers multimillion-dollar prizes tomotivate people to solve grand challenges, like making commercial
 
4/7/11 1:19 AMWhat Traditional Scholars Can Learn From a Futurist's University - Technology - The Chronicle of Higher EducationPage 2 of 7http://chronicle.com/article/What-Traditional-Scholars-Can/48369/
spaceships.
Absorbing Genius
Both men are known for thinking big about the future and forstarting companies that capitalize on their predictions. And bothare, well,
out there
in their views of how radically different things will be in just a few years. Mr. Kurzweil, for instance, just co-wrote
Transcend,
a book in which he argues that technology will soonallow us to replace our DNA with tiny computers that we canreprogram to help fight off diseases.Many of the 40 students who made up the inaugural class said they agreed with some (though not all) of the founders' beliefs, but they appeared far more interested in learning what makes them tick asentrepreneurs. Spending quality time with Mr. Kurzweil and Mr.Diamandis—and with the famous professors on the summerprogram's roster—was a key reason several students cited forshelling out the $25,000 for tuition. As one participant put it: "This is what we're actually aiming for—to absorb as much of the genius as we can."Demand for the program was stratospheric, with more than 1,200students applying to fill 40 slots, according to the institution'sleaders. That makes the program more selective than HarvardUniversity. And Singularity University isn't even accredited.It's all evidence that the university has touched a cultural nerve,playing on hopes and anxieties about how technology is changingsociety—and tapping into an urge to more actively shape thatfuture.Those same forces are leading professors at traditional universitiesto explore similar questions. A high-profile meeting of computer-science professors this year, for instance, explored the potentiallong-term dangers of computer technologies, with an eye towardshaping policies to avoid the worst-case scenarios popular inHollywood movies like
The Terminator.
Singularity University is itself an innovative approach to education, bearing more in common with a fast-paced start-up company thanan ivory-tower university. Some of the professors here—many of  whom teach at traditional colleges during the year—said traditionalhigher education can learn from the entrepreneurial venture.
 
4/7/11 1:19 AMWhat Traditional Scholars Can Learn From a Futurist's University - Technology - The Chronicle of Higher EducationPage 3 of 7http://chronicle.com/article/What-Traditional-Scholars-Can/48369/
A Different Culture
During Singularity University's orientation in June, a cellphonetaped under one of the students' chairs suddenly started ringing.Students gradually realized that each of their chairs concealed anew G1 smartphone—a gift from Google, which makes the softwarethat runs on the phones, and which is a corporate sponsor of theuniversity.It was the first of many corporate-sponsored surprises that madethe university's proceedings feel, at times, like a reality-TV show packed with product placements. (Many sessions were in fact,filmed, and leaders say some of the lectures will soon be madeavailable free on the university's Web site.) Among them:n When one homework assignment was due, the first student toturn it in got an unusual perk—a ride in an electric sports car made by Tesla Motors. All the students received a "lecture" about the car by a company spokesman, as part of a session on emerging trendsin energy technology.n During the first week of classes, the university held a "spit party," where students submitted saliva samples to have their DNA sequenced by a company called 23andMe. The students were latergiven their results as part of a discussion about trends in geneticresearch.n And several students participated in an optional field trip intozero gravity (for an extra fee), in an airplane that made violentmaneuvers to create short periods of weightlessness for itspassengers. The trip was operated by Zero Gravity Corporation, which was co-founded by—you guessed it—Mr. Diamandis. Thestudents dressed up in evening attire (with women wearing shortsunderneath) and called it the first-ever cocktail party in weightlessness.The summer session was divided into three parts: In the first three weeks, students sat through marathon lecture sessions by expertsfrom business and academe. During the next three weeks, eachstudent chose one of four areas of focus for more in-depth study. And during the final three weeks, students broke into groups to work on those world-changing student projects.

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