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2.3.2009 Unique university coming to Bay Area this year
Al Saracevic, Chronicle Staff Writer

A new university is sprouting up in the Bay Area this summer with quite an ambitious charter: solving the world's biggest problems.

Singularity University, which will be housed on the NASA Ames base near Mountain View and begin classes in June, is the brainchild of Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis. The two world-renowned scientists were expected to unveil their plans at the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference beginning in Long Beach today.

The school hopes to attract students from a cross section of emerging disciplines - including nanotechnology, biotechnology and information technology - to tackle huge issues facing humanity. Pandemics and global health care concerns would be typical in scope and import.

"We are reaching out across the globe to gather the smartest and most passionate future leaders and arm them with the tools and network they need to wrestle with the grand challenges of our day," said Diamandis, who is perhaps best known for his current work as chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation, a group that gives $10 million awards to teams working on breakthroughs in fields such as space travel and genomics. "There is no existing program that will offer the breadth and intensity that SU will offer."

At the core of the university's mission is Kurzweil's theory of "Technological Singularity," which theorizes that a number of exponentially growing technologies - such as nanotechnology and biotechnology - will massively increase human intelligence over the next two decades and fundamentally reshape the future of humanity. In his 2005 book, "The Singularity is Near," Kurzweil famously predicted that artificial intelligence would soon allow machines to improve themselves with unforeseeable consequences.

"Accelerating technologies is really what the university is focusing on," Kurzweil told The Chronicle. "We're at a point where we can apply these exponentially growing information technologies to address the pressing problems of humanity. Health and medicine. Poverty. Democratization."

Kurzweil, known for his inventions along with his futuristic writings, will act as chancellor and trustee of the new school. He'll be joined by Diamandis, who will act as vice chancellor and trustee, and Salim Ismail, a former Yahoo executive, who will work as executive director.

Kurzweil and Diamandis began talking about creating the school last year, which led to a semi-secret meeting on the grounds of NASA Ames on Sept. 20.

Nobel Prize-winning scientists joined up with NASA engineers and executives from companies like Google Inc. to brainstorm ideas for the new university.

In the end, Google provided some money and NASA provided the physical space to house the school.

Google co-founder Larry Page played a key role in focusing the school's mission, encouraging its founders to "address the grand challenges of humanity," according to Kurzweil.

Unlike a traditional university, Singularity will consist of a single, nine-week course of study every summer, during which 120 students from a cross-section of disciplines will mix together to tackle weighty issues. Tuition will be $25,000. Candidates will be chosen mostly from graduate and post-graduate programs around the world.

"Disruptive innovation usually comes about when you mash together different disciplines," said Ismail, who will be the hands-on manager of Singularity U. "It's important to note that we intend to complement the Stanfords and MITs of the world. We hope to bring together the products of those schools and help connect them."

Singularity will also be offering three-day and 10-day courses for business executives throughout the year, hoping to give them a glimpse of the future in their various industries.

"The Bay Area is the ideal place for this university to be placed, given the venture capital community, the entrepreneurial community and the academic community already in place," said Diamandis.