Friday, October 19, 2012

Singularity University's Graduate Student Program: FAQs




Over Summer 2012, I attended Singularity University's (SU) Graduate Studies Program (GSP12). I have been getting a NUMBER of questions about the experience, and I've answered many of them here. 

Please note that everything I've written is my opinion alone, not anyone else's. For any official definitions, information, etc, I urge you to visit the official SU Website


1. What is SU?

I would urge you to check their website for their official definition. But here's my take on it..."SU" or "Singularity University" was founded by Space Entrepreneur Peter Diamandis and Inventor/Entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil in 2009. Both are MIT grads, and famous for having innovated concepts, and creating unique companies (and in Kurzweil's case invented truly revolutionary products). Peter had read Ray's book titled "The Singularity is Near" and was so inspired by the concept that it moved him to create an education program around it. The result is SU.

What it is or what it does or what its goals are, is constantly evolving. It didn't seem clear to anyone I asked, including the staff and affiliates, who all gave me different answers/definitions while I was there. It is supposed to be a "non profit educational institute", but its MUCH more of a for-profit incubator. Or atleast that's what they are turning into

The easiest way I would define it is a guinea pig lab. The hope is that if you throw together a bunch of smart people from diverse backgrounds (in the same vein as IDEO, MIT or TED style), give them a lot of knowledge against the backdrop of Silicon Valley, you will get great output. 

They were in the process of filming a documentary about SU while I was there. Perhaps when that comes out, it will make more sense...

Here's a trailer of the GSP2010:



2. What is "The Singularity"??

For the unabridged version, read Ray Kurzweil's book "The Singularity is Near" or watch Documentaries "The Transcendent Man" or "The Singularity is Near." That might shed some light. 

Since I find the official definition(s) confusing, here's my take on it...it is a term coined by Kurzweil to indicate the point at which "machine intelligence will eclipse human intelligence." According to him, machine intelligence is growing at an exponential rate compared to human intelligence. At some point (I think he predicts 2045 or 2050), machines will meet and then become smarter than humans. That point of meeting is called "The Singularity."


3. Do you believe in "the Singularity"? Do they preach it at SU?

No I don't believe in the Singularity, nor do you need to in order to attend SU. Nor was I the only one who didn't believe in it. 

SU doesn't force any doctrine per se, except that there is an underlying theory of it floating around. Its why they teach you about "exponential technologies" (i.e. technologies that are improving at a rapid or 'exponential" rate). They do show you the Singularity Documentaries (see #2 above), and Ray Kurzweil delivers a few lectures on the subject. But Ray is a gentle soul...he doesn't force his doctrine or ways of thinking on anyone... 


4. How did you hear about SU? How did you come to attend it?

I heard about SU from Peter Diamandis (coFounder of SU) in 2008, while I was working for him at the XPRIZE Foundation. Then, it was still a concept that he was working hard to put together. It was a phenomenally enticing idea -- a summer of interdisciplinary education with game-changing faculty, and innovative people. 

Peter kept encouraging me to apply and attend the first year in 2009; and thenceforth with every class. But I was tied down. Fortunately, things came together (schedule-wise) this year; I applied, and was accepted.


5. Is SU a real University??

No. You have to be accredited, in order to be a University. 

SU has no full-time faculty and very limited full-time staff. SU is modeled after the International Space University (ISU) also cofounded by Peter Diamandis; both of which focus on interdisciplinary education, and supplement university education with practical elements like practitioner-based lectures, field visits, workshops, and projects. 

There is no campus per se. SU leases (I think) facilities on the NASA/Ames Base in Mountain View, CA; two small buildings -- one houses their operations and incubatorial activities, and the other classroom space in which the GSP (and other programs) are held. 



6. Have you attended International Space University (ISU)? Can you attend SU if you are an ISU alum?What's the difference between SU and ISU?

No, I have not attended ISU. You can attend both, without any issues, as there were classmates of mine who were ISU alums. 

The key difference (amongst many other things) between the two is their subject focus. ISU is focused entirely on Space and Space-related issues. SU is MUCH broader and generalistic. Although housed on a NASA base,  "Space" is only a SMALL part of the programs and activities.


7. What is the Graduate Studies Program or GSP?

Check here for the official definition, and goals. From what I have been told and experienced, it is their flagship education program that is spread out across 10 weeks in the summer at the NASA/Ames campus in Mountain View, CA. 

It brings together a diverse group of participants and over the course of the ten weeks exposes them to a variety of topics through practitioner lectures, workshops, site visits and group projects.

Check out a video of our class: 



8. Who generally attends GSP? What is the curriculum?

You can see some alum profiles and the curriculum on the website. Students are supposed to come from "everywhere" and be doing "everything". So essentially, anyone can apply to attend. Also, SU has generous scholarship packages to cover those who cannot afford the steep $25,000 fee. This makes it possible for anyone to attend once accepted.

The curriculum and the profile of the student class seems to change every year. It is supposed to be ten weeks (as of this year) of exposure to "exponential technologies" (an SU term for technology fields that are developing at a rapid rate); you are supposed to come away with an understanding of what the following fields are and where they are heading in the next 10-15 years: medicine, neuroscience, aerospace, Finance, Economics, Law, Policy, Ethics, Energy, Environment, Artificial Intelligence, Computing, Entrepreneurship, Biotechnology and Nanotechnology. 

During my program (summer 2012), Lectures/Classes ran for the first 7+ weeks, followed by Team Project work for 1+ weeks, and the last week was dedicated to "Launch" (a term for the last week meant to teach you how to take your team project and turn it into a company, if you so wish).

Your team project is supposed to take your knowledge of "exponential technologies" to address one of the Global Grand Challenges -- issues that supposedly affect the lives of 1 Billion people. These include energy, water, environment, space,  global health, poverty, education, and security.


9. What was your class composition like?

I don't remember the exact stats, but here's a close guesstimate: 80 students representing ~36 countries. The youngest participant was 21 (from Indonesia); the oldest was 52 (from Spain); the average age was around 28. ~10% of the class was from Asia + Sub Saharan Africa combined; North America had the largest representation, then Europe, and finally South America; the middle east was also minimally represented.


10. What's a typical day like?? Do you get weekends off?

Days are LONG, with 6-day work-weeks. Most weeks, you only get Sundays off. We did not even get Independence Day (July 4th) off. 

Of the 10 weeks, 7.5 weeks are "lecture weeks"; followed by 1.5 weeks of "group project"; ending with a "launch week." 

The "lecture weeks" (Week 1 thru Week 8.5) were the longest and least flexible (and least fun for me!). Class started at 9AM; and often went as late as 11PM. One day, it went until 1:30AM! The typical lecture day was broken up with meal breaks, and "wellness hour", though these were often eaten into to allow for unstructured student activity (discussion groups, hobby groups, etc). So you could easily go 18 hours without much of a break. Skipping lectures was not allowed; students were admonished and even punished for missing class or being late.

The monotony of "Lecture weeks" was mitigated by staggering lectures from different fields or by having panel discussions or working groups instead of a pure lecture. Sometimes you had workshops, and if you were lucky a "field visit" that actually took you off-site. But it was common to have 12-15-hour days of incessant lecturing.

The "Group Project" period (week 8 and 9) was the most flexible (and most fun for me!). Meals were provided as scheduled, but the rest of the day was yours to do with as you pleased. This allowed you and your team to structure your day as you wished, consult necessary people, conduct research, do deep dives into field work, tinker/build, and develop a focused team project.

"Launch week" (Week 10) was a light and relaxed combination of Lecture and Group Project Weeks, that started at 9AM and ended somewhere between 3-5PM. I found this period to be particularly insightful. Lectures focused on imparting practical information about how to launch a company. Immigration lawyers, patent lawyers, seasoned entrepreneurs, incubator officers, loan officers, angel investors, venture capitalists, and alumni all came to present us with information that was relevant to building and launching a company here or abroad. Resources were discussed and shared. 


11. What is the team project? How do you choose your team and your project? What happens at the end?

By the fifth week, you were expected to have formed a team of four (in the past, it was larger teams but they cut it down based on feedback), though how you do it and what you decide to work on is entirely upto you. This disorganized team-formation had its own issues. Because the program is SO packed, you barely have time to meet all the people in your class, know their interests, and come up with a coherent team. Naturally, there was LOTS of drama and hurt feelings, gossiping and rumors. Many teams broke up and re-formed over the course of the ten weeks. By the end of the program, there were 20+teams (for a class of 80) that ranged in size from one to a team of 12.

Your team project can focus on "anything" (as we learned this was not true, see #12 below) so long as it uses "exponential technologies" as a means to change a Billion lives, and must address at least one "Global Grand Challenge" of water, energy, food, global health, environment, poverty, space, and security. People come up with all sorts of things -- drone companies, urban agricultural pods, water companies, wifi companies etc.

I greatly enjoyed this portion of SU, in fact, my favorite part. I loved the flexible schedule, greatly enjoyed getting to know my teammates, loved working jointly on a project we were all passionate about, and generally learned a lot. The last two days of the "Group Project" period are extremely stressful because you have to present your concept first in front of a panel of judges in a semi-public, and later a public forum. 


12. What was your team project?? What happened to it?

My team and I wanted to focus on important and intractable issues that were ignored by SU's curriculum and previous student groups but could potentially be addressed by technology, including war, drunk driving, sex trafficking, pedophilia, rape, corruption, etc. We ended up focusing on "War", specifically the "Mexican Drug War" because it has the highest casualties in the world right now and is happening on the US-Mexico border everyday, located just south of where we were. 

It was an absolutely fascinating thought experiment to see how to apply technological solutions to this problem. We researched the causes, brokedown the problem further, and decided to focus on disrupting the supply chain of drugs. I think we came up with a very interesting and innovative solution that was fun, safe and legal.

However, hours before we were due to go on stage, the SU staff got nervous and asked that we change our concept to be less "controversial." It was enormously frustrating and disappointing. We did change everything to fit within their comfort zone; but it was a "sell out" and we were too worn out to pursue things further. The project effectively died at that point. 

For a place that supposedly challenges "the establishment," promotes entrepreneurship and risk-taking, along with audacious ideas, and based in the heart of the liberal Bay Area, I was grossly disappointed, both with their decision and the way they handled the whole thing. 


13. What typically happens with Group Projects?

Ours was an atypical situation. Most students choose more conventional paths and projects; and then turn some of these into companies that are either incubated within SU or elsewhere. Sometimes the teams stay together; sometimes they change their focus; sometimes they break up and the concept lives on with another group. To date, a few companies have come out of GSP, the most successful of which is GetAround (car-sharing company). Others include MadeInSpace (3D printing in space); 9th Sense Robotics (robot company); and Scanadu (mobile medical device company)


14. Is there a connection between TED and Singularity U?

This is probably one of the most-asked questions I get and its a little complicated to answer!! I think SU has taken a LOT from TED, and continues to be influenced by TED in a number of ways; though as far as I know there is NO official connection. 

Both SU co-founders Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis are regular TEDsters (TED attendees). Peter has spoken a number of times at TED, and many of the speakers and investors at SU are people whom Peter has encountered at TED either as attendees or speakers. SU was also officially launched during TED2009.

SU has taken a lot of its day-to-day programming style from TED. Music indicates the start or end of a lecture; lectures go back-to-back and are not interrupted; they have strict time-limits with a countdown clock staring you in the face. Everything is filmed. There is free-seating. And, evening sessions have a relaxed atmosphere, similar to a TEDU or evening TED sessions.


15. Is there a preference for TEDx or TED-related people to attend as students?

This, #16, and #17 are also very popular questions. I can't answer them, to be honest. This is what I do know...

Four TED Fellows have attended to date (as far as I know): Luke Hutchison, Yara Shabah, Sarah Jane Pell, and myself...I think about one every year. I'm not sure if they were TED Fellows before they got in (I was!) or if that had any impact on the decision to be admitted. But I do know that SU tends to like the same things that the TED Fellows program likes in people...so it doesn't surprise me that TED Fellows are admitted when they apply.

I know a few classmates who have attended TEDx events and even spoken at a TEDx event; but again I don't know if that influenced the admissions officer in any way.


16. What are the big differences between the TED and SU; and the TED Fellows program and GSP?

Well, there are HUGE differences in terms of length, focus and output of both TED/TED Fellows and SU/GSP. I wouldn't even compare the two; its like comparing apples and oranges. Rather than get into it, I would recommend that you visit both websites and decide for yourself.

That said, one TELLING difference between TED and SU is in the gender differences (which consequently reflects the thinking) in the leadership and upper management of both organizations. Interestingly, TED has a lot of strong, intelligent women behind each of its highly successful programs; from TED to TED.com to the TED Prize to TEDx, women at TED run a significant portion of the decision-making and operations. All of them have gotten their positions because they are outstanding at what they do; it just happens that they are also women. Yet this strength reflects in much of their culture and output --- the nurturing environment that enables creativity, and the quiet success that comes from high quality work that spreads by word-of-mouth; not aggressive marketing. Both men and women equally thrive there.

SU is very much the opposite...a traditional "Old Boys Club," with men (largely caucasian males) holding all the upper management and chair faculty positions; women generally have supportive roles, and are clearly not treated equally. While there were no female faculty chairs, we did have a few speakers who were female, some of who were outstanding and should've (or could've) been Faculty Chairs. Sometimes the differences were stark: for eg, two of our Teaching staff were astronaut-physicians (they were NASA Astronauts, with MDs) -- one caucasian male, and one African American female. Both were excellent, yet one (caucasian male) was a Faculty Chair with significant stage presence and title; the other was barely acknowledged. No one could tell me why. Similarly the one female Associate Founder of SU (who had written the first check) was a qualified lawyer, and anthropologist (and in many ways more qualified than her male counterparts), yet was only publicly acknowledged or given a role as an MC at events. 

SU consequently has a very masculine and "Western" push to everything -- a focus on branding and reputation (sometimes at the cost of quality), a culture of partying and drinking, a rampant air of self-congratulation (or chest-beating), and a very aggressive marketing style. Granted the student body at SU had a 50:50 male to female ratio, but that could've been because they just got a woman to head the Admissions. I don't really know. But this difference was extremely stark and obvious to me, and permeated into every aspect of the culture at both places. 


17. Is it easier to become a TED Fellow if you go to SU?

Another super popular question that I can't answer officially. From what I understand of the TED Fellows program, the answer is "no." Nor would I encourage you to do something (including attend SU) just to improve your chances of becoming a TED Fellow. 

Just so you know, I did work for TED (after I became a TED Fellow) and assessed TED Fellow applications for a brief period, so this answer is coming from some experience.



18. So, what did you really think of SU or GSP? Would you recommend the program to me??

Hmmm...tricky. I'll probably answer this very briefly for now. There were things I greatly appreciated about the place and the program, and others I didn't. I've communicated these points with the staff and hope they will take them into account.

Would I recommend GSP?? I think it really depends on what you are looking to get out of the program. Its a great place for a young, fresh up-and-comer who is trying to see what's "out there"; people who have grown up in areas where they haven't had the chance to get out and experience something else, or someone in a tired routine looking to jumpstart their lives. If you have already thrived and accomplished and met a good "tribe" of people in your own parts, chances are that the program will be disappointing.

SU has more of a "throw the spaghetti against the wall and see what sticks" mentality. The program is a whole lot of random-somethings that they've collected over time and knotted together -- lectures, workshops, people, field trips. They don't necessarily weave together seamlessly, nor do they come together in a coherent or consistent fashion. The quality is extremely erratic. So it can be enormously frustrating if you are a serious student or entrepreneur. 

Frankly, I don't think they really intend to change that culture.

To be honest, I love the concept of the GSP and SU, and I think they are important. But they have a LONG way to go before achieving the vision of that concept. 

For my part, I was bored through most of the lectures and detested the "chest beating" culture that dominated my time there. My favorite parts were the group projects where I had the chance to dive into real problems, and build meaningful relationships, or learn from classmates who had really accomplished things, or in the last week when we got to learn the real nuts and bolts of starting a company. But this was only 25% of the program, that cost a whopping $25,000. 


My bottomline: I DO think SU would make a fabulous incubator, which they started recently (see SU Labs). They are incredibly well-connected, based in the heart of Silicon Valley, love networking and advising, doing great PR, and have fabulous work space. Almost all the people within the top management are all entrepreneurs themselves, so their advice comes from a depth of experience. Honestly, incubation plays to all their strengths, and I believe they will be incredibly successful at it...

Of course, this is just my opinion...


Have more questions?? Email me!

5 comments:

Luke Hutchison said...

My own short summary (as an SU GSP alum), in case it is helpful to somebody: SU has very little to do with Ray Kurzweil's ideas or the "coming technological singularity" per se, and much more to do with (1) the interdisciplinary study of technologies that progress at exponential rates, (2) scaling those technologies to an exponentially wide scale in order to solve global grand challenges, (3) developing your knowledge and skills as an entrepreneur, and (most importantly, possibly) (4) building your network of connections with movers and shakers / game-changers in many different fields. By the end of SU you won't be an expert in every one of the ten or so fields covered, but you will be conversant in a lot more of them, and able to work collaboratively with people who are experts in other fields out of the ten than the ones you are already an expert in. Highly recommended, and probably life-changing if you give it 110%. (N.B.: You won't sleep much for about 10 weeks, and you might come out of SU running a startup unexpectedly.)

Yara Shaban said...

I also wanted to share a part of my personal experience as a comment on your post, but since it is too long to post here I made this link: http://bit.ly/RT7YF4

pragzz said...

@Luke, thanks for your comments. I would agree with you on everything you've written...

pragzz said...

@Yara, I thought your comments were spot-on, actually. Our class' biggest feedback this year was the lack of time/space devoted to peer-to-peer learning, which were for me the highlights. I would also agree that the side projects were the ones that did the best. In cases where those turned into team projects, there was much greater success...but this was rare for a few reasons: there was no time for a lot of unstructured discussion, and it was hard finding the right students to collaborate with (again a time issue).

Even though I am an American and a Californian, I also had significant culture shock at SU. The alpha-male/female mentality was overwhelming and very off-putting. Several of my classmates felt the same way. And this was MOST obvious during the team projects stage...when many teams broke up constantly and reformed. I know several people who got very stressed during that time. In general, the program did a poor job of managing the alpha personalities...who were very disruptive in class and averse to group collaboration.

Food was also a significant problem for those with dietary restrictions, particularly anyone who ate kosher, halal, vegetarian or vegan food. Hopefully they will be a bit more mindful as they start to let in more international students from Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

And I would agree that they did a poor job of taking care of their international students. I do think they have tried in some ways to mitigate that: they now have a mandatory sexual harassment and cultural training session, and they have culture nights. I also think that "Launch Week" helped address questions of immigration and such. But beyond that, in the everyday culture of the program, there is a lack of cultural sensitivity: in terms of food (see previous paragraph) and drink (heavy emphasis on drinking alcohol), a curriculum that centers almost entirely on the history and developments within Europe and North America, and a lack of acceptance of religious or cultural philosophies that weren't western.

lrg said...

Great comments and insights - I do hope these get implemented to improve this nascent organization with so much potential, especially the chest-beating comments in particular! Lol--a point only minorities and women in particular would even notice! The others will wonder what are you talking about!