Top students from 35 nations around the globe have kick-started this year's activities at Singularity University, taking on a set of humanity's grand challenges — an agenda that includes recasting the future of space exploration.
Singularity University derives its name from the mind-bending book by American inventor and futurist, Ray Kurzweil: "The Singularity is Near."
The term "singularity" has been used to refer to a future time of rapid and accelerating development of various science disciplines like biotechnology, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, robotics and genetics.
Kurzweil is co-founder of the Singularity University (SU), with one goal of the institution to show how these rapid developments occur today, sometimes so common that we do not see them for what they are. One example is when a graphics card of today is faster than any supercomputer of just a decade ago.
Singularity University is based at the NASA Ames Research Center campus in the Silicon Valley. It was established in September 2008 and gathers together leaders of various fields dedicated to technological advancement.
Among the university's notable founders are: Georges Harik, a former Google, Inc., distinguished engineer; Haymar Hedge Fund founder Keith Kleiner; and author Sonia Senkut, a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute in California. Google, Inc., ePlanet Ventures and Autodesk are the university's corporate founders.
To boldly stay in space
This year, one element of the university's 10-week graduate studies program is titled: "To Boldly Stay — Extending Humanity into the Solar System."
The other team projects are more anchored to Earth, tied to looks at sustainable water assets, food for cities, home energy use, and "upcycle" — waste reduction and reprocessing into useful products.
For the space project, students are addressing a range of issues, from the rapid and less-costly robot scouting of the moon, Mars, asteroids, and other deep-space destinations to new designs, to new materials and technologies that could transform not just where humans can go but what people can do when they get there.
"In space, we know how to 'boldly go' at this point, but we have very poor, demonstrated experience in staying there," said Chris Lewicki, team leader of the SU space project and a top flight engineer with several NASA Mars missions among his space credits.
Get down to business
In shaping the SU space project, the "going-in" intention is also to focus on finding safe and interesting sites for humans to visit. Additionally, a key study task is to understand the space resources available to humans that permit "living off the land."
There's also need to appreciate the hazards that off-Earth destinations pose in terms of their local environment. Lastly, the study team is delving into synthesizing robotic and human exploration, how best to exploit the strengths of each.
Lewicki told SPACE.com that the 10-week study won't engage just true-blue space cadets. It will also be fueled by entrepreneurial thinkers, information and bio-tech experts, computer and software specialists.
That mix, he said, is meant to get down to business in space, akin to the way that software and micro-electronics has gotten on the surface of the Earth where you have the benefit of a yearly product cycle.
Making the space enterprise sustainable and robust are the watchwords, Lewicki added.
"I'm looking for things where you can do something that's adequate, not perfect, but allows you get to that next step," Lewicki said. "What's the simplest thing that we can do to answer question … so that the next thing we do is better."
The space project study team is geared to identify little stepping stones, "things that mere mortals — not government agencies can do — that will move us incrementally forward," Lewicki added.
No stranger to moving the future closer to today is Peter Diamandis, co-founder and chairman of Singularity University. He's also chairman and chief executive officer of the X Prize Foundation.
"The Space Team Project at SU this summer is going to look at the impact of exponentially growing technology on space-related exploration and missions," Diamandis told SPACE.com. "The tsunami of technologies that are descending on humanity need to be considered and incorporated into NASA's plans for accessing the solar system over the next three decades."
We are living in a time of rapid technological exponential growth driven by Moore's Law, Diamandis pointed out, such as computer power that doubles every 12 to 18 months.
"Anything that is becoming an information science is on this same rate of rapid growth," Diamandis said. That includes advancements in biotechnology, such as sequencing genomes, bioinformatics, nanomaterials, embedded networks and even solar cell production, he added.
"One of the most powerful effects of these exponentially growing technologies is their ability to allow small groups of individuals to do what only governments could do before," Diamandis said.
Space innovation explosion
Putting on an "imagine this" thinking cap, Diamandis is quick to spotlight the infusion of innovation into space exploration in fields that include:
Biotechnology: Design synthetic biological help life forms that can help to digest carbonaceous chondrite asteroids and cough up water, carbon dioxide and oxygen. Or create new microbial life forms that can thrive under the environment of Mars and be a food stock for livestock that can feed humans.
Nanotechnology/Nanomaterials: The creation of carbon nano-tube impregnated composites or metamaterials that changes the way spaceships are built.
Computers: New generation pico-satellites which weigh 100 grams have the computational ability of today's 100 kilogram satellites, but cost a few tens of thousands of dollars instead of tens of millions of dollars.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Robotics: Imagine AI systems like HAL — of 2001 movie fame — but without the dark side. AI can assist long-term missions or allow robots on Mars, Europa or the asteroids to conduct true exploration without humans in the loop.
Medicine and Neuroscience: The potential for a new generation of Brain Computer Interface that permits astronauts to interface with robotics for full immersion exploration of deep space.
Changing the space game
So how could all this impact NASA's long-term mission, given the exponential growth of key technologies?
"It will make each technology/hardware dollar spent far more impactful," Diamandis said. What becomes possible is designing and executing hundreds of low-cost missions rather than dozens of high-cost missions, he added.
"This approach, typical of software, allows for rapid experimentation, failure, discover and ultimately breakthrough success," Diamandis said. That would also allow small teams that are self-funded or funded through non-traditional means to explore and experiment in doing new things in space, he added.
Regarding the empowering of future space travelers, Diamandis concluded, harnessing such innovations may also yield an "Astronaut Explorer Enhancement Program." That prospect could be borrowed from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's war-fighter enhancement program — a scheme meant to soup-up the physical abilities of its soldiers in war zones by biological and technological tinkering.
SU's Graduate Studies Program began June 19 and will end in late August.
As for Lewicki, team leader of the SU space project: "I'm looking at getting educated as much as, or more, than the students themselves."
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Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades and he is past editor-in-chief of the National Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines and has written for SPACE.com since 1999.