By Carole Cadwalladr
Take top thinkers from Silicon Valley and science, mix them with scientists, innovators and philanthro-capitalists, and you’ve got the Singularity University – on a mission to seek technological solutions to the world’s great challenges
It’s day one at the Singularity University: the opening address has just been delivered by a hologram. Craig Venter, who was one of the first scientists to sequence the human genome and created the first synthetic life form, is up next. And later, we will see two people, paralysed from the waist down, use robotic exoskeletons to rise up and walk.
But first, the co-founder of the Singularity University, Peter Diamandis, gives us our instructions for the day. Your task, he says, is to pick one of the “grand challenges of humanity” – the lack of clean drinking water, say. And then come up with an idea that “can positively impact the lives of a billion people”.
It’s 9.30 in the morning. Some of us haven’t even had coffee yet. There’s about 50 of us present and the room has been divided up into tables, one for education, another for poverty, another for water, and I’m not sure where I should sit. Diane Murphy, the university’s PR executive, hesitates for a moment and then directs me over to the table marked “food”. “Tell you what,” she says. “Why don’t you take Ashton Kutcher’s chair over there. He’s not coming until later.” (When he does arrive, he pulls up a chair at the next table over. What can I say? If Ashton Kutcher fails to solve global hunger, it will be my fault.)
The Singularity University is really not much like a regular university. And not just because it’s a place that manages to accommodate the likes of both Venter and Kutcher (and where, during a Q&A session, somebody asks a question about taking the Singularity University into the ghetto, and it turns out to be from the musician will.i.am).