Saving the world with technology — Singularity University goal

by News

Ray Kurzweil in 2009

Mountain View, Calif • Singularity University is a unique and wonderful institution devoted to multi-disciplinary education and executive outreach. The institution also offers executive education programs and every summer hosts Graduate Studies Program. I have been here all week as a communications coach.

This summer, some 80 startup entrepreneurs and technologists have been given 10 weeks to develop a big, viable idea or technology that can help humanity. They must build prototypes then prepare a business and marketing plan, pitch to find investors, customers, donors or partners. There will be three chosen to make final presentations by Singularity staff and participants.

So far, Singularity has fostered 26 startup firms in medicine, biotech, artificial intelligence, robotics, energy, environment, computing or social enterprises within regional communities.

“We want to positively change the lives of a billion or more people each decade,” said Singularity’s Co-Founder Dr. Peter H. Diamandis, author of Abundance in an SU press release. Co-founder is Ray Kurzweil whose 2005 book inspired the university’s name and purpose (“The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology”).

Here is a sample of this year’s team projects that I worked with:

• A project called miROculus has devised an early warning system for cancers and other maladies. It does so by detecting markers in the blood, known as microRNAs, released from tumor cells or healthy cells which start to suffer from changes in our body’s physiology.

MicroRNAs appear in our blood stream like biological fingerprints at a crime scene.

Early detection can save lives, and hundreds of millions of dollars in healthcare, if these bio-fingerprints are found before symptoms appear.

This process can detect the 91 cancers, roughly 50% of the total, with identified microRNA markers. Such screening may also detect bio-markers involving ischaemic heart disease, diabetes, hepatitis and rheumatoid arthritis, among others.

• A project nicknamed “bio box” would allow the millions of people suffering from leukemia and other cancers, those undergoing chemotherapy and those who are HIV-positive to easily monitor their own white blood cell count at home. This is necessary to identify malfunction of the immune system.


• Governments in Europe and the U.S. are legislating against burying or composting biomass and one project (“green carbon”) proposes to use a low emissions kiln process called flash carbonization to convert wood and crop waste into a high-BTU charcoal. Charcoal is used as a fuel to generate power and throws off fewer emissions than coal, not emitting nitrous oxide or sodium oxide. It is used to make silicon used in microchips, solar panels and other high-tech products. And research shows that it can also be used as additive to arable farmland where it helps prevent the depletion of nutrients such as nitrogen or phosphates and also helps to retain moisture.

• Another team wants to provide small drones with sensors and photographic equipment equipped to scour farmlands and find diseases or nutrient depletion levels in crops to improve harvest outcomes. Farmers will be able to order the service by phone or online or through agents in villages or possibly churches.

• “Lab on a Chip” can diagnose malaria in remote areas among infected people as now exists but, more importantly, carriers (now only identified in labs). Blood on a chip is fed into a handheld device that can diagnose within seconds. Patient information, such as seriousness and location, is transmitted by wireless to central health authorities for epidemiological purposes.

This will make it possible to map new outbreaks, define hotspots and prevent repeat occurrences by identifying carriers. This technology can also be used to diagnose sepsis and other diseases.

• App Lab is a do-it-yourself app developer for mobile phone users. Currently, such apps cost $15,000 and take months for a professional to build.

Mobile phone use is ready to explode and estimates are that in the next ten years, there will be another 2 billion users. This app-maker is ahead of the curve and equivalent to the telephone revolution. With App Lab, all you need is a phone, imagination and ten minutes.

• One team has developed a “big data” project to provide teachers and students with tailor-made information and best practices from around the world. It’s a super-search system, based on individual criteria that can be updated, to find information from lectures to scholarly papers, slide shows, videos, bar graphs, unique methods of teaching and other learning and teaching tools.

There are 17 projects in total and others include a means of diagnosing diseases through the retina, programming of nano-bots to replace labs that do DNA research and creation of a substitute meat and poultry aimed at eliminating the environmental degradation caused by livestock.

Of course, turning ideas and technology into enterprises or household innovations takes years, expertise and luck. But these participants are tech-savvy and many have a track record of successful start-ups.

The most unique aspect of Singularity’s initiative is itself a game-changer because it aims to harness technology to solve the world’s biggest problems.