A day at Singularity University, where the future belongs to glowing plants and robotic elephants

Men and women in suits and sweatshirts mill about, speaking in a mash of languages. It’s midway through the week at the Singularity University executive program, a seven-day institute offered several times a year where, for $12,000 a ticket, participants get a crash course in fields like biotechnology, neuroscience and robotics.

“Burning Down the House” blares over the speakers, prompting everyone to settle into their chairs. Inventor and serial founder Saul Griffith takes the stage. He wears a beard, jeans tucked into boots and a shirt the color of an ice cream sundae. It’s difficult to tell if he’s about to chastise the room or give a speech. He announces that he hasn’t prepared anything, so he’s just going to give a tour of his desktop.

Singularity University Saul Griffith

Saul Griffith presents a robotic arm sling. It has no hard parts, yet it can improve strength and bring control back to people who have lost it. Photo by Signe Brewster.

Over the next hour and a half, he meanders between drones covered in electricity-generating turbines, natural gas-powered cars, custom bikes and how math is changing design. He charges that the 3D printer is both the Chia Pet of the 21st century and a Trojan Horse hiding a real technological advancement. He tosses the crowd a stuffed pink elephant–a prototype for what later morphed into a robot.

Singularity University Saul Griffith

A prototype for a robotic elephant is passed around the audience at the SU executive program. Photo by Signe Brewster.

After lunch, he’s replaced by a more reserved John Hagel, a consultant and author who lectures at the university. Then comes X Prize founder Peter Diamandis, who makes the case for incentive-driven challenges.

All of the speakers had one thing in common: they covered what SU labels “exponential technologies.” Generally, they’re connected by their fast-moving nature and potential to fundamentally change how the world goes about its business. Most are only being made possible by the rapid decline in computing costs. And they all have the potential to solve what SU has dubbed the world’s grand challenges: problems like global health, water, energy, the environment, food, education, security and poverty.

Life at SU

SU has three core programs, including its executive program, startup accelerator SU Labs and a summer program that targets recent graduates. While the executive class runs for seven days, the summer program lasts 10 weeks and is focused on teams, each of which builds its own project. Both educational programs feed into the accelerator. As first reported by Gigaom, SU will also launch a $50 million venture fund this year to further boost its affiliated startups.

Its headquarters building is tucked along the side of the main quad of the NASA Research Park in Mountain View, Calif. The historic Hangar One, which Google will soon take over day-to-day operations from NASA, hulks over Moffett Federal Airfield just beyond the quad. Walk a few blocks away and you reach SU’s classroom, where large windows and a high ceiling contrast the old mission feel of the main building.

A historical photo of the quad, showing Hangar One in the back before its shell was removed. Photo courtesy of NASA.

A historical photo of the quad, showing Hangar One in the back before its shell was removed. Photo courtesy of NASA.

The outdoor areas of the research park are nearly abandoned, but SU’s headquarters stir with some activity. Startups like health device maker Scanadu and micro-gravity 3D printing pioneers Made in Space make their home in its halls.

SU is not an accredited university, but its atmosphere is certainly collegiate. Interactions between the executive program participants were chummy. SU summer program graduates speak of their classmates with a distinct fondness; at SU, they’ve finally found peers with the same interests.

CEO and associate founder Rob Nail, who is also an angel investor and director of adventure goods company Alite Designs, said that when someone attends an SU educational program, the school has three goals for them. First, the experience should fundamentally change their perspective on the future of technology and the role it will play in shaping the future of Earth.

“We call it exponential thinking: actually look at the accelerating pace of technology instead of the very linear one that we’re historically schooling and everything is based on,” Nail said. “They leave here fundamentally thinking that the future looks different than when they came in.”

Singularity University's classroom on the Nasa Ames campus. Photo by Signe Brewster.

Singularity University’s classroom on the Nasa Ames campus. Photo by Signe Brewster.

Second, they should take note of and be prepared to use the resources offered by the world and SU. Third, SU wants to empower them to play a role in the future and think at scale.

“There are plenty of people that will make lots of money making small apps to do nonsensical things, whereas that same capability could be used and deployed to target curing cancer or solving other different types of problems that could be much more meaningful on the planet using basically the same types of skills,” Nail said. “It’s just a mindset to strive for higher order problems.”

The goal is that people eventually come back with an idea that fulfills all of these criteria, some of which will fit into SU’s startup accelerator program.

Spotting startups that look into the far future

SU currently has 24 startups in its accelerator, most of which were founded by at least one SU program alumnus. Their startup might be focused on an idea generated at SU or outside in the real world.

Managing director of new venture development Sandy Miller said that all of the startups focus on a grand challenge, but their commercial product isn’t necessarily decades away. Made in Space, for example, will send its 3D printer to the International Space Station this year. It formed just four years ago.

Made in Space's printers are rugged, as they have to survive the launch into space. Signe Brewster

Made in Space’s 3D printer in the startup’s clean room at SU headquarters in late 2013. Signe Brewster

Or take Modern Meadow, which was founded with the goal of making lab-grown meat and leather. While producing tasty, edible meat is still a way off, the company is already drawing close to commercializing its leather. It will start with the high-end fashion market and then move into the auto industry.

The key, Miller said, is for the startups to be at least one or a few years ahead of the market.

“Be ahead, but not so far ahead you can’t even see the dot in the distance,” Miller said. “The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the FDA, they probably haven’t started to think about how they’re going to regulate the meat Modern Meadow is starting to develop now.”

That kind of frontier appears again and again in SU’s portfolio. There’s Cambrian Genomics, which prints DNA with equipment cheap enough for anyone to afford. There’s the Glowing Plant project, which hacks a plant’s genes to make it naturally glow. These advancements are happening now, and they’re not about to wait for the rest of the world to catch up.

“We have those fun examples from science fiction, from TV that some of us grew up with, where you push a button and a meal pops out of your TV,” Miller said. “This starts to put some of those things together. That dot so far on the horizon, that possibility, starts to become closer.”


Taking a responsible look at the future

All of the projects coming out of Singularity-affiliated companies have a mad scientist quality to them. But once they reach the hands of other mad scientists, will they be used for good or for evil?

Nail said it’s a question that plagues him. He’s concerned by drones and weapon-carrying robots. He’s also afraid of technology that is under the radar enough to escape regulation and public discourse.

Rob Nail

Singularity University CEO Rob Nail

“I’m very excited and happy to showcase companies like Glowing Plant, but I’m also very concerned about companies like Glowing Plant because of the inevitabilities of someone taking that similar technology and doing far more reckless and terrible things,” Nail said.

It’s an odd fear to come from someone wearing Google Glass; a mark of a confident hyper-early adopter. But his next point clarifies the contradiction: the early adopter is aware, and has the power to shape the dialogue and experience for later users.

Nail said when SU associates itself with a project like Growing Plant, it uses it as a vehicle to incite awareness, including controversy. SU wants people to weigh the positives and negatives, and maybe help drive what level of regulation new technology needs to have an overall positive effect on the world.

“How do we start that discourse amongst politicians, amongst citizens and amongst corporate groups so we can figure out what future we want to live in?” Nail said. “That’s what I keep coming back to. These technologies keep coming out. They’re not going to stop. They’re going to take us some place and either we’re going to be surprised by it or we’re going to direct where it goes.”

Making the future

Back on stage, one of SU’s newest methods for fostering that discourse is on display. Under the new SU Corporate Innovation Exchange, SU Labs startups can pair directly with corporations, the founding members of which are Coca Cola, Lowe’s, Hershey’s and Unicef. The startups can develop a new product for a corporation or provide a fresh take on an existing product or service.

Then the SU Labs startups come on stage. One by one, they talk making engineering genes easy enough for anyone. They pitch altering pet cats’ gut bacteria so that the litter box smells like banana or mint. They explain how technology could eradicate organ shortages for people who need implants.

They aren’t overwhelmed by worries they will enable the wrong people to create mutant organisms. They’re more excited about the potential for good. And with SU at their back, we can hope citizens, corporations and governments see that kind of potential too.