Kicking Off Singularity Studies

20 August 2009


extreme academe

Today’s Financial Times has an article about the so called Singularity University. The FT gave a rather hyperbolic cover blurb to the story: “Extreme academe: Teraflops and killer robots at the university trying to save the world.” Thus, in the eyes of the Financial Times, this absurd exercise is given the status of a legitimate university. So much for journalistic standards.

The article is written by Simon Daniels, CEO of Moixa Energy, who, he tells us, is one of 40 selected from 1,200 applications. No doubt Daniels views himself as one of those elites who is going to save the world for the rest of us. I’m glad the scholars at the Singularity University enjoy such a high level of self-esteem.

Someone once said, in response to the question as to why corporations hire management consultants, “Because they can.” And why do CEOs and executives go to the Singularity University? Because they can. Despite endemic poverty in the world — and, of course, the poor will always be with us — and despite the recession, there is still a lot of money in the world looking for a place to go. One place for that money to go is into the coffers of the Singularity University. This way Kurzweil and Diamandis get to pal around with even more movers and shakers, and the singularity scholars get to tick off another item on their been there, done that list.

Daniels tells us that the Singularity University is supposed to “educate ‘a cadre of leaders’ about the rapid pace of technology and to address humanity’s grand challenges.” Wonderful. I feel much better already to know that Daniels and his ilk are taking field trips to the National Research Supercomputing Center to see the supercomputer there. I hope they didn’t steal any knobs off the consoles as souvenirs. And, of course, they are engaging in this sacrifice of their valuable time all for my benefit.

I have previously discussed the fallacy of believing that society can educate “leaders” in The Future of Literacy. If anyone thinks that an absurd stunt like the Singularity University is going to educate leaders that will make a difference in the future, then I have a bridge to sell them. And if they have money to burn by attending the Singularity University, I’m sure they can afford a bridge too, and why not?

It is a particular irritant to me when I hear advanced industrialized democracies characterized as being meritocracies. This is simply not true. And it is only in a very loose sense that we can even think of the most advanced industrialized societies of our day as being “democratic.” Sure, we hold mostly clean elections and we can cashier our rulers for misconduct, but we are a long way from anything like a genuine democracy.

Who you are, where you are from, and who you know still has everything to do with how far you get in the world. I wrote about this previously in The Birth Lottery, but it bears repeating because we will understand nothing about how the world works unless we understand that wealth, power, and privilege are almost always kept “in the family” so to speak.

At this point in my rant, someone is sure to point out to me a few cases of self-made men who came up from nearly nothing to be great successes in their industries. Yes, it does happen. But it is rare. Even within the ossified feudal society of the Middle Ages, where social mobility was rare, there were always a few cases of men born into poor or uninfluential circumstances who went on to assume positions of wealth and privilege. Given the fact that our societies today are supposed to be so different from that of the feudal societies of the Middle Ages (and, in fact, they are), it is remarkable how little has changed in terms of social hierarchy.

The exceptions to the rule are exceptions, i.e., outliers. They are played up in the media precisely because they are exceptions: they constitute an amusing human-interest story. The rule remains the rule, and the rule is that the well-connected and the wealthy disproportionately monopolize positions of leadership and influence. These are the kind of people who go (and will go) to the Singularity University, and these are not the people will “save the world” (as though the world needed saving).

We pretend to have democratic institutions, and we pretend to have a meritocracy, but it is mere pretense. The most brilliant individuals might improve their status in the world incrementally, but they will not come into positions of privilege except in the rarest of circumstances. The people who do come into positions of privilege are the merely passably bright members of the already privileged classes. They have the head start, and those coming from behind cannot realistically hope to pass those with the handicap of birth on their side. At best, the truly knowledgeable can hope to become an adviser of those who possess a de facto hereditary claim to power.

What the world really needs is not the Singularity University, but universal (or as near universal as possible) primary education around the world. It is widely disseminated education that reaches millions, and not elite education for forty people at a time, that makes the biggest difference to society in the long run. This is a non-privileged and non-elite approach that involves no CEOs, no field trips to see supercomputers or to the Joint Bioenergy Institute, and no headlines on the Financial Times.

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I’ve written about the Singularity University previously in The Singularity Has No Clothes and several subsequent posts.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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