Singular Sensations

In an exclusive program in Silicon Valley, Israeli scientists are being exposed to cutting-edge technologies that will enable them to develop ways to help humanity meet its toughest future challenges

At NASA's Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California, 80 scientists are coming up with inventions that will change the world. The scientists include geneticists, nanotechnology engineers, artificial intelligence experts, entrepreneurs, social activists and businesspeople - all of them carefully chosen from among 1,600 candidates from around the world.

Three are from Israel: Erez Livneh is working on an unusual sort of treatment for AIDS; Ronen Amit is hoping the technology he has been working on in the past 12 years will enable us to communicate with computers the way we communicate with each other; and Sharon Niv is developing methods that will enable people to be happier through the use of biofeedback techniques.

They and 77 other lucky people from around the world are participating in this year's summer graduate program, lasting about two and a half months, under the auspices of what is called Singularity University - an interdisciplinary institution located in Sunnyvale, California. The program is funded by NASA, Google and other sources. The aim of the university, which is in fact not a conventional degree-granting university at all, is to expose program participants to the most advanced technologies and up-to-date research in a variety of disciplines, and to help them carry out projects aimed at meeting the greatest challenges in the realms of water resources, food, energy and space.

Last year three Israelis participated in this progam: Yonatan Adiri, adviser to President Shimon Peres; Dr. Yitzhack Schwartz, an expert in pediatric cardiology; and Shai Machnes, an Israeli physicist specializing in quantum computers. Another Israeli, Eitan Eliram of the Foreign Ministry, took part in a shorter executive program for managers.

The inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil has set out the doctrine behind the program, based on an idea that was actually first described by science fiction author Vernor Vinge in 1982. Kurzweil promoted this idea in two of his books, "The Age of Spiritual Machines," published in 1998, and "The Singularity is Near," in 2005, which attracted tens of thousands of believers.

According to Kurzweil, by 2045, people will no longer be dying of disease and old age, and technology will reach a point in which people and "thinking machines" will join forces and become a unified entity. Singularity University represents the more practical aspects of his concept of singularism, and focuses particularly on presenting promising technologies to entrepreneurs who will apply them.

Hundreds of students from around the world vie to fill the 80 openings in the institution's annual 10-week, advanced course, whose tuition fee is $25,000. Managers, investors and academics compete for a place in a smaller, nine-day managerial program. Both courses feature encounters with leading figures in the fields of nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, energy biotechnology, robotics and computers.

In mid-June, Livneh, Amit and Niv began their studies at Singularity. First, participants hear something about different fields, then the courses are given and toward the end the students work on group projects. The goal is frighteningly ambitious: They have to undertake a project that will potentially affect no fewer than a billion people within a decade.

For example, in 2009, four initiatives were born at Singularity: The first, CiviGuard, seeks to create a new paradigm for disaster response through novel solutions; the second, Acasa, aims to develop technologies that will facilitate construction and design of homes in developing countries; the third, Gettaround, is a platform for vehicle sharing; and the fourth, One Global Voice, makes software tools that enable people to create applications in the fields of commerce and education.

"I heard about Singularity University in an interview with Ray Kurzweil about a year ago when I was considering starting a doctorate in bioinformatics at Bar-Ilan University," says Erez Livneh, 33, who has a master's in the field from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot. "To me, he is something of a modern prophet. He believes that humanity will soon experience a tremendous wave of progress that he calls singularity. In the past, technologies were created once every few years, while today we are reaching a point where technologies will completely change in a few days. The human race is changing."

The selection process Livneh underwent once he decided to apply was torturous. "I went through three stages, with many questions and inquiries. The selection is strict. The admission rate is lower than at Harvard Business School. I wrote an essay about what I believe to be the greatest challenges facing humanity, and explained how I can lead change in the country I live in."

After his acceptance, Livneh received partial financial assistance from the Ilan Ramon Scholarship Project (which supports "future Israeli space leaders" ) and from a foundation belonging to Singularity. He paid the rest - tens of thousands of shekels - out of his pocket: "This is a substantial expense, but I wasn't willing to pass up such an opportunity. I put my life on hold. I wouldn't say that I'm sacrificing anything by being here, because this is a wonderful opportunity and an enriching experience. Whoever gets here stops his life and enters a totally different world."

Access for everyone

Livneh is speaking to Haaretz via Skype a few days after starting the program. He is focusing on a new treatment for AIDS, and aspires to make it accessible to Third World countries.

"The current treatment of viruses is based on vaccination, but there is no vaccine for AIDS," he explains. "That is why several anti-viral medications are combined in a cocktail. The problem is that the viruses develop tolerance to medications, the medications are expensive and not everyone has access to them, and the treatment is tough and unpleasant.

"I propose a totally different strategy: I won't disrupt the virus. On the contrary: I give it exactly what it wants. I create a strategy of deception and build virus 'traps.' Microscopic bodies posing as cells will present everything the virus needs. The virus will mistake them for real cells, become trapped and then be destroyed. The virus can inject its genetic load into the cell only once, and it will attach itself to the wrong cell and thus self-destruct. This is a breakthrough technology that can save millions. I don't know of a similar clinical approach in current scientific research around the world."

Adds Livneh: "I want to promote this clinical approach socially and not commercially, to help as many people as possible. Not that I won't patent it, but I want to use my knowledge to heal people. I'm not against people getting rich through science, but there are developments that must reach as many people as possible - and this is one of them."

Do you feel that you are an emissary of Israel in the program?

Livneh: "There certainly is a matter of honorably representing Israel. We wear tags with our names and flags, and everyone knows I'm Erez Livneh from Israel. People here are welcoming and want to know what is happening in Israel and what it's like there. There are people here who have no clue about the Israeli way of life, and you can only tell them in a face-to-face encounter."

Who are you studying with?

"People from all over the world: Ethiopia, Denmark, Canada, the United States, Italy, Hong Kong, Jordan, New Zealand and Australia. Everyone has at least two or three skills. There are entrepreneurs here, engineers and all kinds of scientists, but also businesspeople who embarked on their first enterprise at age 15. There are entrepreneurs here who established 10 to 20 companies, some of which make millions. There are social activists in various spheres, such as one from Nigeria whose life's work is to promote the status of women and education. There's an activist from Brazil who started an educational project that has affected 80 million people."

Isn't it daunting to think that you're expected to develop an invention that will change humanity?

"There certainly are expectations. There's a network of experts and financial resources. We're put in touch with almost every person we want to meet. The expectations are as high as the investment in us. We're expected to do great things. The dynamics that have developed here even in one week are amazing."

Livneh notes that "the people studying here are not naive, even though they are idealists. They understand human nature. There is no doubt that technology is advancing faster than wisdom ... Despite that, we want to lead the public to healthier and better places, so that in a few decades we can have an impact and know we did our best."

It doesn't bother you that such a program takes place once a year, at the initiative of private firms? Shouldn't this be the job of governments?

"The general trend in the world is that the power of governments is declining and the power of private initiatives is growing. In the past there were governments that tried to stop progress and failed. The Bush administration, for example, tried to stop stem cell research. Did that help the government? On the contrary: It left American science lagging behind, while Israel and Europe advanced."

What new developments are expected in nanotechnology?

"There's talk about the way tissues can connect to a computer or battery - for example, via a device that will check the sugar level of people with diabetes and even inject insulin. And that's at the 'simple' level of nanotechnology. We're talking about machines that will swim inside our bodies, that will use sugars in the bloodstream as a kind of fuel, about machines that fix the body and destroy invaders - and at a more advanced stage, microscopic devises that will be able to create anything: food, equipment and other machines like them."

What about artificial intelligence?

"There have been many discussions about this - for example: What is intelligence? When does a machine become intelligent? Does a robot have rights? When you're dealing with 'installing' technologies in the human body, you have to ask if this doesn't create ethical and social problems. The public has to understand that we take ethical implications seriously. We're not galloping intentionally toward a technological future that will create problems, but this train can't be stopped and the flood has to be channeled in desirable directions.

"We understand the genes in the body better. The term 'genetic therapy' is already not science fiction. In the not-too-distant future, a person born with a certain disease, say, cystic fibrosis, will get an injection of the repaired gene and will recover. A genetic disease will no longer seal your fate.

"Another important area concerns quantum computers - hardware that has been talked about for years, but that we still haven't succeeded in building. The minute we do so, everything we know now about computers will be irrelevant."

What do you think of the brain drain from Israel?

"It'a tragedy, and it's absurd. Quality people are trained for years, the institutions of higher education in Israel are at an excellent level, we're at the international forefront in some areas - and in the end Israeli scientists have nowhere to return to. It's a failure on a national scale. We're a state without many resources. Our main resource is talented people - and they're leaving us because they have no choice."

Revolutionizing software

Ronen Amit, 48, studied computers at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, and has since worked in software in a number of countries. He recently completed an MBA at Tel Aviv University, and participated in setting up the Tupai and Scio technology companies, and in the past 12 years has worked, with others, on developing a new technology that he claims could revolutionize the software world.

"This technology deals with the automation of knowledge," Amit says. "The aim is to turn the various contents and resources on the Internet into a kind of 'collective brain' with semantic uniformity, with which you can communicate as we do with each other, with questions and requests, in natural language. The technology automatically turns every question and request into a unique semantic application that fully reflects its meaning ... The application that is created uses this layer of collective mind as an operating system and combines information retrieval, calculation, deduction and even learning - all in real time. It is similar in many ways to what goes on in our head when someone is asking a question or making a request aimed at retrieving or exploiting the knowledge we have. The technology enables information to be gleaned automatically from different sources, whether via natural language, databases or an expert."

Amit reached Singularity University after he read about it on the Internet.

"Anyone who follows the technology world and reads blogs hears about it," he says. "I'm still trying to comprehend what is going on here - it's like drinking from a fire hydrant. The knowledge flowing here is tremendous. There's an awesome group of people here."

Whom do you meet?

Amit: "The people are divided into two main types: scientists, most of them with PhDs, and business and social entrepreneurs. The latter group includes people who don't have an advanced degree, but know how to get things done, and most have already moved mountains. There's an entrepreneur from Chile who created an organization that deals with 40 million people from 18 countries, on the basis of stable business models, not one-time contributions, and looks at weak populations as a market, for all intents and purposes. I got to know a 20-year-old here who created an organization that connects thousands of students from across the globe to executives at the world's biggest companies, like Boeing and DuPont, who serve as mentors to the students. I share a room with a South Korean astronaut who is also a boxing champion, mountain climber and expert in cognitive science."

What project will you work on?

"I'm still debating. I think I will want to work on the technological platform that I've been busy with for the past 12 years, to help meet the great challenges facing humanity. In the meantime I'm learning about various ideas. People sit here until the late hours of the night and think about science, technology and ideas. The prevailing principle is that despite the difficulties, if you persist you will ultimately succeed ... You are taught to aim high and not fear failure, because only that way can you launch a project that really changes the lives of many people."

Sharon Niv, 26, reached Singularity University after completing a bachelor's in neurobiology and a master's in clinical psychology. Now in her third year of doctoral studies at the University of Southern Calilfornia, Niv is researching emotional disturbances and anti-social criminal behavior.

"The toolbox used by clinical psychologists is old and mainly based on conversation with the patients," Niv says. "We don't use the knowledge we have about the brain to solve problems. I propose to try and teach people to use certain brain waves in order to feel better. It's a kind of biofeedback. The goal is to find methods that will enable the therapist to create in the patient the same biofeedback that leads to happiness and reduces depression."

Niv says that moods can be improved through yoga and guided breathing, but also via virtual reality technologies and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI ), which together can enable therapists to watch brain activity in real time and change familiar thought patterns. Virtual reality technology, she explains, is good for treating phobias; biofeedback based on MRI technology can help with depression.

Niv: "Some of the therapists use such methods, but not many. I wonder if we can take these tools and make them simpler for psychologists, who usually have average technological abilities, and enable them to offer more effective treatment. Research has demonstrated that brain waves in the left hemisphere can be altered by calming exercises, breathing and yoga, and help the patient feel better. When patients learn to reach this state of relaxation, they also emerge from depression. Many clinical psychologists don't know how to use biofeedback or to teach the method to their clients. A study conducted among Buddhist monks, every one of whom practiced 10,000 hours of meditation, showed they are happier than 99 percent of people in general ... This proves that we have much more work to do with the brain."

How would you sum up the first weeks at Singularity University?

"Amazing. I'm learning a great deal. There are many areas I don't know about: nanotechnology, robotics, artificial intelligence. I won't gain a deep understanding of them in 10 weeks, but at least I will become acquainted with them."

What project are you planning?

"I want to work to improve the mental health of people. Even if it is not a solution for people dying of hunger in Africa, it can still influence millions."

Matt Rutherford