Singularity University Curriculum Suggestions (Running List)

February 17 2009 / by Alvis Brigis / In association with Future
Category: Information   Year: 2009   Rating: 10 Hot


Stating a lack of social focus as a fundamental problem, I recently joined the ranks of those critiquing the tentative Singularity University (SU) curriculum.  I found (and still do) the proposed courses to be too hard-tech centric, which is often a critique I level at singularitarians and transhumanists who often seem to project their current selves into a post-Singularity future, thus impairing the visioning of how we get there.

At the same time, I want to clarify that though I do agree with the crux of Jamais Cascio's argument that, "A useful Singularity University ... would be one that dove deeply into the nature of disruption, how society and technology co-evolve, and how we deal with unintended and unanticipated results of our choices," I believe his suggested curriculum goes too far in that it does amount to a "social studies/liberal arts crash course with a future twist" as Brian Wang pointed out in the discussion thread.  It's not the sort of thing that will appeal to economic movers and shakers.

Still, I strongly disagree with Wang's assertion that, "The politics, ethics and social matters do have their place but as part of a TED conference or a conference specifically on the risks and issues. Trying to force feed it in this kind of program will not work."  My issue being that I believe politics, ethics and social matters to be part of convergent acceleration.

The emphasis needs to be on the manner in which all of these technologies, trends, and issues fit together.  (Please follow below the fold for Proposed Curriculum.)

Because an understanding of the fundamental interdependence of these issues is critical to grocking acceleration and singularities, there's simply no room for too much emphasis on details and symptoms.  In order to provide max value to diverse entrepreneurs, scholars, social activists and the business community the basic story needs to be told - a story that paints an accurate picture of the interplay between technology, society and environment.  This is far more critical than exposing people to all of the new developments in a given field (once they get the core perspectives and skill sthey can then go out an apply that understanding to all fields).

So here's my attempt to split the difference between the two schools of thought - a proposed SU curriculum that relies less on specific technologies and specific social issues for its strucutral integrity and instead focuses on the convergence of exponential Communication, Information, Technology and Intelligence ("CITI Group") as the bones of a program that then explores subcategories through the lens of acceleration and convergence:

  1. Accelerating Change - Drivers, NBIC Convergence, CITI Convergence (Comm, Info, Tech, Intelligence - all exponentials), Punctuated Equilibrium, Singularity Scenarios, Evo Devo
  2. Future Studies & Forecasting - Technique, History, Alternative Models, Critiques
  3. Technology (Hard) - Accelerating Computation, Robotics, Nanotech, Biotech, Storage, Energy, Transportation, Open Source, Technology & Convergence
  4. Information - Data, Structured Data, Memes, Open Source / Commons, Biomimicry, Quantification, Information & Convergence
  5. Communication - Trajectory of ICTs (interactive communication technologies), Social Media, Zuckerberg's 2nd Law, Metaverse, Communication & Convergence
  6. Intelligence - Theory/Definition, AI, IA, Individual Intelligence (Flynn Effect), Social Intelligence, Neural Nets, Intelligence & Convergence, Education
  7. Environment - Ecosystems, Biomimicry, Built Environments, Space, Oceans, Cataloguing Species, Swarm Intelligence
  8. Human Evolution - Historical Context, Medicine, Enhancement, Intelligence, Social Computation, Conflict (Guns, Germs & Steel model), Hierarchy of Needs, Psychology, Identit, Genomics
  9. Social Dynamics - Diffusion Theory (barriers to tech), Law, Ethics (Transhumanist, Neo-Luddite), Generational Change, Power & Conflict, Scarcity, Political Pendulum, Punctuated Change
  10. Economy & Opportunity: The Acceleration Story, Opportunities, Disruption, Entrepreneurship, Open vs. Top-Down, Shortening Product Cycles, Specific Platforms and Applications, Philanthropy, Human Capital
  11. Unlearning: Jack Uldrich, "If scientific/technical knowledge is doubling every 7 years that means that everything we know today will represent only 25% of future knowledge in just 14 years. Before we can take advantage of this new knowledge, it will require a great many (and very intelligent) people to unlearn what they spent much of their life learning."  Teaching students and business-people how to fix their established biases (which have served them well for some time) to better fit new knowledge and economy will be critical to managing accelerating change.

What do you think?  Let me have it. :)

As indicated by founding members Bruce Klein and David Orban, SU is still in the process of formulating curriculum and actively exploring early reactions to their effort, so hopefully these suggestions will prove helpful as they continue to articulate this important program. 

I encourage you all to jump in on this dialogue as well, to provide suggestions or offer useful critiques as this effort takes its next steps.  Though the SU is free to forge its own destiny, everyone who believes the acceleration story needs to diffuse has a vested interest in this process.  We're all in this together.  Constructive criticism will help accelerate such efforts, minimize backlash and get the word out.

Running list of curriculum reactions and suggestions:

  • I added Unlearning as #11 at Jack Uldrich's suggestion. 
  • John Moravec at Education Futures writes, "What’s missing, however, is a human capital development focus.  As the world approaches the Technological Singularity, how can we design better human capital futures?  Moreover, what are the social, cultural, and educational elements we need to start studying and working on today to ensure our success? …our survival?" -- Thus, I've added Education to #6 and Human Capital to #10
  • John Timmer at Ars Technica writes, "It seems, frankly, a recipe for either superficial understanding or an overly narrow focus on a topic. ... [T]his isn't to say that nothing good will come of Singularity U. Sometimes, a superficial grasp of a field is all someone really needs, and productive informal interactions can develop in just about any environments. It's pretty clear, however, that the actual structure of the program doesn't lend itself to the grand visions being pronounced by its founders" -- I think this proposed curriculum addresses the thrust of these concerns.
  • Peter Glaskowsky at CNet, whom I had the pleasure to meet at October's Singularity Summit, writes, "It seems to me that it would be more useful to take these students and executives through some classes on philosophy, theology, politics, sociology, and history--fields they're probably not sufficiently aware of and that are much more directly related to the causes of, and possible cures for, social problems."
  • Kurzweil explains for the San Francisco Chronicle, ""Accelerating technologies is really what the university is focusing on. ... We're at a point where we can apply these exponentially growing information technologies to address the pressing problems of humanity. Health and medicine. Poverty. Democratization."
  • Karl Fisch, Director of Technology for Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colorado, writes, "Nice, but I would like to see them add an educator track, and hear how they are going to work with K-12 schools. Mr. Kurzweil and Mr. Diamandis, I'm volunteering (along with my PLN) to help with that. Seriously, please contact me. I think we could use our global network of educators to help get you connected to K-12 teachers and students."



Comment Thread (6 Responses)

  1. Alvis: I’m a little biased here but I feel SU should offer a course on “unlearning.” If scientific/technical knowledge is doubling every 7 years that means that everything we know today will represent only 25% of future knowledge in just 14 years. Before we can take advantage of this new knowledge, it will require a great many (and very intelligent) people to unlearn what they spent much of their life learning.

    Posted by: juldrich   February 18, 2009
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  2. I like that reasoning Jack. Even the most forward-looking will have much to reorganize upstairs.

    Posted by: FutureFly   February 18, 2009
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  3. @ Jack – Great point. I could see that fitting into #9 or #10, but it’s such a significant change to our behavior that I’ll add it as #11.

    Posted by: Alvis Brigis   February 18, 2009
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  4. My initial thoughts on this prospect were posted here; my thinking has modified somewhat since though.

    Not too surprisingly, given their history of technology hardware and application invention, both Mr’s Kurzweil and Diamandis emphasis that aspect of the proposition; a question of their personal sense of competence, I expect. I don’t think I quite concur with Brian Wang’s criticism (he says with no little trepidation :)), but I do agree that Mr. Cascio’s argument does overstate the importance of the traditional humanities and liberal arts approach too.

    For myself, I would encourage as broadly accessable a curriculum structured toward emphasizing the individual’s accomodation of and adaptation to implimentation of these admittedly desirable technology’s societal impact. Taking Mr. Uldrich’s argument I hope a degree further, a significantly important aspect of unlearning superceded knowledge has to include making the prospect less threatening (ie: frightening to the rapidly overwhelmed individual’s perspective) by making it more readily attainable in as diverse as possible an individual application. My impression is that most “luddites” consist of fearful, uninformed individuals banding together in mutual support of the (admittedly, often not well understood) technologic status quo ante; deliberately creating the social atmosphere that encourages such a response seems curiously short-sighted to me.

    I suppose the debate resolves down to the model of application the SU founder’s endorse, transition to an individual-as-producer model or some modification of the current market structure (or even out-right socialized distribution of some central to-plan production quota). Absent that, it’s hard to get down to the level of specific suggestions.

    Posted by: Will   February 21, 2009
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