How would you tackle the problem of helping a billion people in ten years? That was the question posed to Singularity University's first graduating class, who formed four teams to tackle it. Their visions have just been unveiled, and are pretty interesting.
If you haven't heard of Singularity U, you probably should have—it's a fascinating idea, not like a traditional university at all (which is why it's unaccredited). It's mission is to boost the opportunities of the future leaders in high-technology fields like bioscience or robotics, with an emphasis on convergence of different techs to solve that billion people in ten years question. Why does it attract MIT and Harvard types, who have to spend $25,000 in tuition for a nine-week course? Because the school's board includes people like the futurist Ray Kurzweil, X-Prize CEO Peter Diamandis, funding comes from NASA and Google, and because at graduation you get to present your product ideas to a group of venture capitalists who may very well fund you to make it a reality.
That's just happened for the first time, so lets look at the individual ideas:
Team Xidar Global Disaster Response tried to conceptualize systems to let people communicate in the aftermath of an apocalyptic event. The idea is to create a "new paradigm for disaster response" that overcomes the usual comms network nightmare after a crisis. The multi-pronged approach includes automated GPS-assisted evacuation from disaster areas via smartphone apps and even network-uplinked live medical information from "eTriage" bracelets that will help medical professionals correctly prioritize their rescue efforts.
Team One Global Voice has tapped into smartphone/mobile phone technology as well, but in this case they've tried to work out how to use the spiraling sales of the devices to "accelerate economic development." Far beyond merely connecting people up to talk about business, the team has imagined a cloud-based modular software platform, accessible via the Web, that would let people quickly snap together an application that would help with specific educational or commercial tasks. The idea is to make it easy to find a job, advertise for employees sell your wares over the net or share other info—all things that could drive economic development in developing nations.
Team Gettaround has clearly been watching SyFy's show Eureka, and suggested an "intelligent transportation grid." It uses information gleaned from cell phones and other sensors to track traffic conditions dynamically, which, when coordinated by a clever algorithm, could manage traffic problems as they emerge, and even let people rent out their cars when they don't need them—it's a first step to having commuters think of "access" to any vehicle being more important to actually owning one, and it'll be good for the environment. Ultimately the team plans include automated driving by smart cars.
Team Domus 3-D Printing/ACASA has the most immediately tangible idea—similar to one we've written about before. The whole point is to combine advances in rapid prototyping and rapid manufacture and scale them up to deal with housing problems in the developing world. The idea is to make printable homes that are fast, cheap, environmentally sustainable through their use of local resources.
All of that sounds pretty interesting. And it's certain to impress the key NASA staff listening to the presentations at NASA's Ames Research park later today (where the university is based), along with the numerous venture capitalists who are attending. At least we're assuming it will—apparently most of the teams fully expect to secure initial funding to take these ideas off the page and into reality. That sounds like a pretty big success for the first class at SU, and the university as a whole: "The inaugural class of students and the inter-disciplinary curriculum successfully executed on the mission we envisioned" is how Kurzweil himself puts it. Will we see its high-tech innovation hot-bed model spreading to other academic establishments around the world?