In a spare one-room office at Nasa’s Silicon Valley campus, a small band of futurists is plotting to save the world. The means are not a revolutionary technology or a new world order (though both may be byproducts). Rather, a new, pseudo-academic institution called Singularity University is going to solve our grand challenges: poverty, hunger, energy scarcity and climate change. Among others. Through a combination of techno-optimism, wide-eyed idealism and belief in the perfectibility of human beings, these well-connected geeks are creating an institution meant to legitimise their most extreme thinking.
Forgive them for dreaming big. We’re in, after all, the cradle of the personal computer industry, the neighbourhood that brought forth Hewlett-Packard, Apple and Intel. The Googleplex is just north of SU’s office, Yahoo’s campus just south. Nasa tests the wings of its spacecraft here. Stanford University is up the road. And the Singularity team has landed some of these titans as partners in its endeavour.
Nasa offers more than office space: it’s the host, and will grant access to its specialists and facilities. Pete Worden, the director at Nasa’s Silicon Valley-based Ames Research Centre, is an enthusiastic supporter and brought the university on campus. Meanwhile, Google, the first corporate partner, has contributed $250,000 – and Google co-founder Larry Page attended the first meeting on the university last autumn. As one Singularity staffer said: “Here in Silicon Valley, we’re at the centre of the vortex.”