Altruism is Currency (Singularity Part 2)

In this second post about Singularity University, I thought it would b nice to lay down some very important facts that frame most of the learning that happens there.  First, the fact that in order to be an entrepreneur you have to be an optimist.

Too often in this world we are convinced by the media, our news feeds, and our surrounding chatter that the world is inherently “bad.”  We read about disease, disasters, and technologies that will destroy all privacy and ruin our lives.  It is true today that there is still darkness in the world, diseases that are not cured, unpredicted disasters, and technology that seems invasive.  It is also true that today global problems pale in comparison to the same problems just 20 or so years ago.  Take for example, the fact that today you only have a .03% chance of dying a “violent” death.  This is down from over 15% chance in the early 20th century.

So why do we still feel unsafe, stressed, and worried about the world we live in?  Meet your Amygdala.  The Amygdala is a pesky part of our brains that made it possible for us to evolve.  This is the part of our brain that is a “hot circuit” for fear.  The same thing that makes us jump when frightened, and allows our bodies to react ultra fast to danger.  Millions of years ago, that danger would be to out run, or out hide a predator.  Today, modern media has exploited this piece of human anatomy as a hot circuit that we biologically can not ignore.  We can’t help but be engaged to “bad” news.  Its the same reason we find entertainment in a horror film.  The problem comes when we overlay this biological fact with the advanced, media-rich world we live in today.  Twitter, Facebook, push notifications on our iDevices, and advertising make it impossible to turn our amygdala off.


Understanding this, we can step back and realize these world problems that are so “insurmountable” are not so impossible after all.  In fact, EVERY problem we know today can be solved with a simple formula:   Technology + Capital + People .  In some cases we don’t even need all three.

Maybe we shouldn’t identify our biggest problems today as ‘problems’ at all.  They are the biggest opportunities of all.  The faster we can execute on these opportunities, the better the whole human race will be.  Of course, we’ll find something to do with that amygdala, more bad news is certain to flood our society – but this shouldn’t stop us from moving forward today.

One big question I had when listening to the SU debunk myth after myth about the world’s grand challenges (hunger, water, energy), was ‘what will we do when we live in a world with so few problems, there is not enough work to keep everyone busy solving them?’  It’s not such a crazy thought.  Yes, we will inevitably create new problems by solving others, but surely the trend is a downward one.  It was at this point Neil Jacobstein shared a profound thought: Altruism Is Currency.

I won’t pretend I didn’t check wikipedia to be sure I knew what Altruism means:  Its the “principle or practice of concern for the welfare of others.”  Let that sink in for a second.  In other words, because nothing in this world is impossible, it means that we can begin to spend our time practicing altruism: solving problems for others. As the human race continues to grow through technology, the tools we create along the way can be used to solve the problems of our neighbors.

This turns out to be an incredible way to calm the amygdala.  By giving to others, our brains create more Oxytocin – the chemical that helps to counteract the amygdala.  This is the same chemical created when we laugh or love.   This is perhaps the strongest argument that we solve problems exponentially with technology, because as one problem is solved, we are physically compelled to help others with the technology – speeding up the solutions to the world’s problems.

I’ll stop here for this post, and continue with more SU thoughts in a 3rd post.  For now, I’ll end with a quote that is brought to mind as we realize just how quickly some of the world’s problems can be solved:

Impossible is Nothing


SU Part 1 – An Introduction to Singularity


“The future is here, it is just unevenly distributed”


I first learned about Singularity University while reading “Abundance” by Peter Diamandis earlier this year.  As I read, my brain felt like it was on fire.  The companies described in the book were not only super-fascinating, they were solving big problems.  Moreover, the ideas behind “Abundance” were positive ones.  They focused on what good could from technology and how despite what is typically covered in the media, the world we live in today is hundreds of times better than any previous generation by every account.  I knew I wanted to learn more and as it turns out, Diamandis along with Ray Kurzweil had created a program in Silicon Valley for this specific purpose.

My first involvement with the program was when I was invited to the SU campus at Moffett Field – a magical place that had the feel of NASA’s days gone by mixed with a  private college charm. Stepping into the repurposed Air Force buildings, I got an immediate glimpse into the future.  Drones being hacked on, 3d printers humming, young, obviously intelligent folks jumping on stage for a two minute pitch then sharing a beer with classmates in the warm Mountain View evenings. I had the pleasure of speaking to the Singularity GSP class several times over the summer, and found myself looking forward to every visit I got to make to the campus.  It wasn’t long before I knew I needed to attend.

SU Classroom

Luckily, I found out they offer a 7 day intensive “Executive Program” that brings business leaders and innovators from around the globe to be educated in subjects that relate to “affecting the rising billion.”  I immediately applied and was thrilled when I learned I was accepted.

The program started with Diamandis himself on stage in a hotel ballroom (unfortunately this October EP class was a transient program due to the government shutdown closing Moffett Field) sharing slide after slide of exponential charts and graphs, and explaining how the SU experience is about shifting the lens with which we view technology.  His enthusiasm was contagious, if not a little grandiose.

Courtesy of Singularity University.
Courtesy of Singularity University.

My biggest take away from day one?  The caliber of my classmates.  During introductions, dinner, and networking hour I was floored to learn about all of the interesting backgrounds.  CEOs, CTOs, and Founders of some of the worlds largest companies.  Real estate developers from Silicon Valley  and retired bankers looking to start their new projects.  Successful entrepreneurs who had recently sold companies and were ready to have another go at it… I couldn’t help but feel out of place…

This was a common thread among all of the presenters as well:  super-credible speakers, talking about scientific or industry facts, with an overlay of predictions and advice for the future.  A very nice mix of then, now, and future fed to the class in an actionable way.  I was hooked after the first two days, and figured I would finally check my cynicisms for the week to see just how enlightening the experience could be.

The first thing that had to be accepted was that we live in an “exponential universe” but that it is human nature to think in a linear way.  Science has proven the exponential part to be true.  Moore’s Law is the simplest form of this – the idea that computers will be capable of processing twice as much data at half the cost every two years.  Example after example is made of how this changes the world time and again.  The fact that companies are disrupted faster today than they were a hundred years ago is tangible proof that we are on an accelerating timeline for advancements in technology, and those not capable of realizing the exponential world will quickly be left behind.

A simple example of linear thinking vs. exponential thinking it illustrated here:  Notice a linear mindset means consistently overestimating only to be disappointed in the early days of a new technology, then underestimating once the technology actually takes off on the exponential trajectory.

Linear vs. Exponential

With my new exponential hat on – I was prepared for one incredible week of learning, thinking, and networking with some of the smartest people I’ve ever met….