Exponential Thinking at Singularity University

June 16th, 2015

Last night I attended the 2015 opening ceremony for the Singularity University Graduate Studies Program (GSP). The event was held at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. Although I wasn’t participating in the GSP myself, I came to witness the opening ceremony because it’s one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever seen. Last year, I attended the GSP opening ceremony for the first time. I left the event with a renewed sense of hope for the future of humanity. This year’s ceremony was even more inspirational!

An Overview of GSP

A flood of participants paraded into the room, each carrying a flag from his or her country of origin. (One guy carried a dozen different flags like a true global citizen)! They all looked enthusiastic and happy, like they knew they would change the world.

This summer, these highly motivated and intelligent people will be designing workable solutions to global problems such as poverty, malnutrition, environmental destruction, and, more locally, the California drought. In order to participate in the GSP, applicants had to go through a selection process that included scoring top placement in Global Impact Challenges (which I suppose are like hackathons for solving real-world problems as opposed to first-world problems)!

In order to qualify for the GSP, an applicant’s solution prototype must utilize technology as well as be scalable and feasible in its final implementation. After that, the participants in the GSP will compete for a chance to implement their solution in the Singularity University Startup Labs.

The Keynote

Following the grand entrance of GSP participants, the keynote speaker, Muhammad Yunus, entered the stage. As unassuming as he was, Yunus has an impressive track record. As a social entrepreneur, Yunus has spurred economic and humanitarian progress in his home country, Bangladesh, by helping individuals start their own businesses.

For example, many small villages in Bangladesh lack electricity and access to phones. Yunus helped the women in some of these villages start their own phone “timeshare” businesses by lending them phones so that they could charge customers to use these phones. With little or no experience using modern technology, these women learned how to grow their businesses exponentially. Through entrepreneurship, these people became self-sufficient and enterprising.

People have asked Yunus why he does business with third-world inhabitants rather than simply donating resources. Yunus argued that, while he has nothing against “philanthropy,” he understands that charities tend to be inefficient and one-directional. A lot of time and money is wasted simply in accumulating the funds. Only a fraction of the money goes towards making a tangible difference for the people that need it. Furthermore, the donated money is used just once rather than a virtually limitless number of times.

In order to have a thriving economy, money needs to keep changing hands. Yunus had the practical vision to see that helping disadvantaged people start their own businesses and create jobs made them more self-sufficient at the end of the day. He understands that people, whether they are rich or poor, educated or illiterate, are human beings. What makes people human is their compassion, tenacity, and creativity. People more than just money-making machines or mouths to feed. According to Yunus, everyone is an entrepreneur. Given the right opportunities, anyone can create value in the world. It’s all about being proactive, resourceful, and willing to try new things.

As a businessman, Yunus is only interested in business opportunities that lead to social progress, not just money to line his pockets. For example, Yunus wanted to address the problem of malnutrition. At one time, many Bangladeshi children were missing key vitamins. Yunus created a business to solve this problem. He wanted to sell yogurt that tasted good and contained the missing vitamins. Although the yogurt was a success, Yunus wasn’t satisfied with the packaging. Although plastic was cheap and convenient, Yunus insisted on making the packaging biodegradable. After his research team presented him with a cornstarch prototype, Yunus asked if he could eat the cup. Yunus continued to push for a better cup design. Not only would the cup be biodegradable and edible, it would have to be nutritious as well.

Through his real-world examples of social business, Yunus exemplifies a progressive and practical attitude towards the future of jobs and education. In the old days, learning meant sitting in neat, little rows in a classroom, absorbing rote information and then spitting it out on an exam. Today and tomorrow, education is becoming more hands-on and decentralized. Formal education, I believe, is on its way out as the price of tuition continues to inflate and as the job market evolves. Traditional education is not keeping up with the rate of change, and therefore, isn’t necessarily the best route to job security. Beyond the classroom, Yunus implores his students to be “job creators” rather than just “job seekers.”

Finally, Yunus leaves us with “three zeros” to work towards: zero unemployment, zero poverty, and zero net emissions. Specific, succinct, and practical, these goals are truly motivating. Even if it takes a while to achieve these aims, I dont think they are farfetched given the rapid growth of technology.

Closing Words

Peter Diamandis, author of Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think (2012), and Ray Kurzweil, a prominent futurist, talked a little bit about “exponential thinking,” an approach to problem solving that capitalizes on the prolific growth of modern technology. One only needs a basic understanding of Moores law to appreciate this exponential growth.

Armed with the expansive library we call the World Wide Web, knowledge is more abundant than ever before. Instead of having to memorize a bunch of facts and formulas, its more practical to look up these things up as needed. A basic part of exponential thinking is being able to use the resources at ones disposal. Because of technology, we have a vast ocean of knowledge and tools at our fingertips. If I learned anything valuable at this talk, its to make the most of what I have (which is quite a lot)!

In conclusion, I left the talk with a renewed sense of optimism in my heart (and a delicious cupcake in my mouth).

Categories: philosophytechnology