Kris Ostergaard spoke about future and failure

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If you have not heard of the Singularity University, it’s time to do a Google or Youtube search and dig into it. Not because it’s great or it sucks; but because it is definitely worth acknowledging.

This university does not give you a degree as such, but will try to open your mind and widen your horizon. Granted that this trend has been around for a while and TED talks are a good example of a non-profit intellectual sharing economy of thoughts and ideas. Singularity University based and founded in the Silicon Valley, however is geared towards management level, will charge you for it and promises to deliver more.

If you can’t go to the mountain, it will come to you. Last week the nordic branch of the Singularity University which is based in Copenhagen offered its first seminar here in Helsinki. The two day event in the Finlandia House offered lectures plus panels and pitches by selected startups during the breaks. 

The most interesting and intriguing speech was the lecture by David Roberts on Disruption. David Roberts is a SU Faculty member for technology disruption and exponential leadership, award-winning CEO, and serial entrepreneur with ventures worth over $100 million.
The well prepared presentation with slides and videos was engaging for the full length of it. Lots of original thoughts were included. As a professional speaker David was in full control of his presentation. He may not have presented this set for the first time, but it really didn’t matter if you hadn’t seen or heard it before.

In one part of the presentation he showed a video of a group of lions attacking a buffalo calf, only for a crocodile to show up and try to steel it from them and then the herd of buffalos coming back for the calf and forcing lions to retreat. Courage and risk taking! Then the remarkable photo from entomologist and photographer Alex Wild of an ant facing a finger. “The ant dose not comprehend what’s behind the finger,” he says. “this is the state of our knowledge about the universe today, but we are learning fast and soon our knowledge will explode.”

Other speakers included Anousheh Ansari - space explorer, and XPRIZE Foundation CEO, who  spoke of her commercial trip to space. Iranian born Telecom entrepreneur had always dreamt of going to space and when exited her company, she had the means to do so. She became the first Iranian to go to space at the age of 40. That was when Peter Diamandis,  hearing one of her interviews sought her out and asked her to contribute to the X Prize, which became Ansari X Prize.

The prize offered US$10,000,000 for the first non-governmental organization to launch a reusable manned spacecraft into space twice within two weeks. It was won by the Tier One project on October 4, 2004, the experimental spaceplane SpaceShipOne was designed by Burt Rutan and financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, later acquired by Richard Branson.

Dr. Tiffany Vora - Faculty Director & Vice Chair on Digital Biology and Medicine at Singularity University in Silicon Valley talked about the future of medicine and discoveries on DNA and its use in data storage. 

Another speaker was Dr. Habib Frost, who has invented a device which could be inserted into a patient’s aorta at the time of resuscitation. The device will pump a balloon to prevent the blood from flowing to lower extremities and thus  improve oxygenation of the heart and the brain which are more essential at the time. Habib became a medical doctor when he was 23 and established his company Neurescue before he graduated, got a scholarship to spent 10 weeks in Silicon Valley Singularity University and later became a faculty member like all other speakers of this event. In his lecture he spoke about sensors and machine learning in medicine, and DNA technology in addition to his own invention.

One disappointing aspect of the seminar was the rather obvious product placement in the speeches and slides and the environment. Founder and CEO of SingularityU Nordic Laila Pawlak moderated the main event changing from one Marimekko outfit to the other. Certain brands and exhibitors were mentioned often in and between lectures. A certain brand of coffee, a coffee shop chain, a could service, etc. would pop up in the slides whenever an example was needed. 

It has become a trend for the Business seminars to soften the tone by including a talented but victimised presenter, speaker or performer. I am not sure if the message is “aren’t we lucky to have everything?” or “if she can do it, why can’t you?”. The “Quota Victim” of this event was Fatemeh Qaderyan, a 16 year old Afghan student whose team was initially refused a visa to the US to participate in a robot-building competition, but then got it with the help and pressure of some US organisations, won the silver prize for “courageous achievement”, tragically lost his father in an unrelated ISIS attack in Afghanistan, and won numerous awards and branded as a human rights activist. 

Singularity University is very protective of its lectures and lessons. Non of these can be found online and even the program or the speakers, or the prices of the tickets of the Helsinki event can not be seen on the site anymore after the event. 

The Association fo Finnish Advertisers however still has the fees for attending and advertising on its site at the time this article was written. For €25k + VAT you got 25 tickets and “visibility” for your brand; buy ten more tickets and you get two free places in the upcoming Executive Seminar in October.

Having experienced the seminar which was by all means a nice experience, it’s hard not to wonder, why are so many events looking and feeling so similar nowadays. These lectures, panels and pitches could have very well been a part of Nordic Business Forum, Slush, Arctic15, or some other international event of the same category. The SingularityU Nordic even mentions in its press reales on expanding to Finland, that they do not mean to be a threat to Nordic Business Forum or Slush. 

Whatever the name and organiser of these events, Is it worth paying over a thousand Euros to wonder en mass with your peers in lectures that you could probably listen to for free on YouTube or TED? Is it the networking, the atmosphere and inspiration or the fact that when you pay for it, you would value it much more?

I interviewed Peter Diamandis, the Executive Founder and Director of the Singularity University when he was speaking at the Nordic Business Forum a couple of years ago in Helsinki. As Elon Musk, Diamandis also believes that the world we live in is merely a simulation of grand design. Nothing is real! Who runs this simulation and why? I asked. “I don’t know. You have to ask philosophers and scholars. Maybe we never find out.” he replied. “But knowing this, I still wouldn’t change a thing. I would do everything the same way as I have done so far.”

If that is true, you are just paying simulated money to sit in a simulated hall and listen to a simulated person simulate a lecture. So go and see for yourself. 

 

Alexis Kouros - HT

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