“There’s really no other institution,” explains Ray Kurzweil, “that studies the exponential growth of information technology and how it can solve the major problems of the world.”
Kurzweil, the director of engineering at Google, sees such emphasis on information technology as the unique contribution to U.S. higher education of his brainchild, Singularity University (SU). This, however, is not the only unique feature of SU. The university is perhaps the most developed example I have encountered of Slaughter and Rhoades’ academic capitalism theory.
SU takes its name from Kurzweil’s book, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, and, more generally, from the concept of technological singularity. In the book, Kurzweil predicts that we are approaching a moment in which it is possible through the study of genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics to see artificial intelligences that surpass the cognitive abilities of the human brain and medical advancements that overcome the limits of human biology.
Entrepreneur and scientist Peter Diamandis was inspired enough by Kurzweil’s ideas to suggest building upon the model of the International Space University and create an institution of higher learning. After convening a meeting at NASA Ames Research Center with “50 of the leading thinkers” in 2007, SU was founded. It runs two academic programs at its campus in Silicon Valley: a nine-week summer graduate studies program and an executive program.
The curriculum of these programs is closely tied to Kurzweil’s book, which is perhaps not surprising, given that he is the Chancellor. The institution’s short history is described via a TED Talk Kurzweil gave on technological singularity. Students take courses on:
Future Studies and Forecasting
Policy, Law, and Ethics
Networks and Computing Systems
Biotechnology and Bioinformatics
Medicine and Neuroscience
AI, Robotics, and Cognitive Computing
Energy and Ecological Systems
Space and Physical Sciences
Not exactly the liberal arts. Then again, SU is fairly clear about its mission to “assemble, educate and inspire a new generation of leaders who strive to understand and utilize exponentially advancing technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.” Who are these leaders? Based on the website, they are attractive, highly accomplished young people from around the world. SU profiles one past participant in the categories of entrepreneur, policy influencer, academic, big thinker, NGO leader, and technologist. The bottom line is that, unless you are a Business Week Entrepreneur Award Winner or Harvard Medical School student, you likely won’t earn one of 80 spots out of 1,600 or so applicants.
What do students get from their SU experience? Diamandis underscores the interdisciplinary nature of SU: “if you come in as an expert in nanotechnology, you’re going to learn about molecular genetics, you’re going to learn about medicine and human enhancement, and AI and robotics…you’re going to learn the vocabulary, you’re going to find partners to start new companies.” This is just one of the ways in which the lines between institution of higher learning and business incubator are blurred at SU. To top it all off, students also get access to a global network of geniuses-to-be and budding millionaires.
The university gets its funding from a string of corporations and venture capital funds, including Google, Nokia, and LinkedIn. These corporations will have first pick of students to fill any vacant positions on their research and development teams. Therefore, any major problems that are solved at SU come not from research conducted at the university itself, but rather from corporations funding the institution or companies started by students. This is a university created by the private sector for the private sector.
With its concentration on select domains of knowledge, corporate sponsorship, business incubation, and other marketeering activities, SU epitomizes the interplay between higher education and the new economy. The new economy, in the words of Slaughter and Rhoades, “treats advanced knowledge as a raw material that can be claimed through legal devises, owned, and marketed as a product or service.” SU clearly caters to those with advanced knowledge that can be transformed into marketable products or services. Any solutions generated by SU to save humanity will need to be purchased.
The mechanisms through which higher education connects to the new economy constitute what Slaught and Rhoades call an “academic capitalist knowledge regime.” This regime "values knowledge privatization and profit taking in which institutions, inventor faculty, and corporations have claims that come before those of the public.” By contrast, the public good knowledge regime, as the name implies, views “knowledge as a public good to which the citizenry has claims.” The authors acknowledge that these two regimes are starkly differentiated only for analytical purposes. In reality, there is substantial overlap.
Although SU is emblematic of the academic capitalist knowledge regime, other institutions, including publicly funded colleges and universities, are connecting to the new economy, adopting practices found in the private sector, and seeking new sources of revenue. At my own institution, the University of Maryland, state funding per student has steadily declined over the past decade. In order to remain competitive and retain top faculty, campus leaders have looked to sources of revenue beyond dwindling government appropriations.
These sources include the University of Maryland University College, an online education profit center. Additionally, the university unveiled M Square, which is public-private partnership with a real estate investment trust designed to offer “incubator space for start up companies” and “build to suit options for larger technology clients in Maryland’s largest research park.” Most recently, the Honors College launched a new living-learning program dedicated to advanced cybersecurity education. Defense contractor Northrop Grumman helped fund the program, and students are eligible for internships and mentorship opportunities at the corporation.
My point is not to predict a corporate take-over of U.S. higher education. The state, big business, and higher education have always been inextricably linked. It is rather to highlight the new types of relationships emerging as higher education positions itself as a key site of knowledge production in an economy whose competitiveness hinges upon harnessing educated workers and advanced technology.
The singularity may be near, but it is also, frankly, creepy. Forgive me for not sharing Kurzweil's enthusiasm for robotic red blood cells. Singularity University is likewise problematic, signaling a shift with clear implications for social justice in American higher education. As the state rolls back funding of higher education, the public good functions of universities retreat with it.