Monday, November 30, 2015

Singularity Debunked - The Emperor Has No Clothes

I went to this excellent presentation by Nikola Danaylov in Rotterdam a couple of week back. It's a rather effective deconstruction of Singularity University, expressing the opinions many observers have expressed for some time. But I haven't seen it so well articulated as this. I hope the discussion leads to a better organisation when it starts up in the Netherlands shortly. Here is the transcript of Nikola's talk, taken from his Singularityweblog website;

Here is the gist of my presentation The Emperor Has No Clothes: Socrates Deconstructs Singularity University. I will slice SU in a variety of ways. Some good and some bad. Some large and some small. Some will make sense and some may not. And some my be just totally wrong. In fact, I very much hope that they are totally wrong. I will attempt to deconstruct Singularity University’s name, business model, strategic context, mission statement and accomplishments, organizational structure and their global plan.

 Singularity University’s Business Model in 5 words:
Create scarcity to sell abundance
…And charge an arm and a leg for it.

Some may call this a paradox. Others can call this hypocrisy. So it is up to you really what you want to call it. Let me explain further and to do that I need the 3 most seminal books related to Singularity University: the Singularity is Near, Abundance and Exponential Organizations. [4th SU book everyone should read is Future Crimes]
Let’s see how SU fits within the space of those postulates:

OK, the Singularity is Near but clearly not near enough for its own titular organization to be actually about the singularity. So, again, as Salim Ismail often says, SU is not about the singularity. The question is why is it not?! What is more important than that?! If an organization where Ray Kurzweil is a chancellor, where students get a free copy of The Singularity is Near, and which has the word singularity in its name, is not really about the singularity then what organization ought to be about the singularity? And why name it Singularity in the first place? That’s like saying that chocolate fudge is not about the chocolate?

OK, enough about the singularity you may say.

If it is not about the singularity, it must be about abundance, right?

Remember the business model: Create Scarcity to Sell Abundance

Well, let me give 2 examples: talk about just the most recent 2 examples – David Roberts’ OCE Discovery presentation and the most recent phone call about starting SU chapters in Canada and elsewhere…

In short, in the birthplace of abundance, scarcity rules. And it is even worse because it is not the real natural scarcity one may find but it is one that is manufactured on purpose. We have those lecture videos in abundance. We have keynotes in abundance and as Chiara and the other girl admitted we have all kinds and lots of other SU videos. But not for distribution. Now, to me that sounds more like one of the big music labels from 15 years ago. Or some of the 100-year-old book publishers. But it surely doesn’t sound like the abundance mindset of an exponential organization.

So keep in mind the business model I said: Create Scarcity to Sell Abundance

But the point here is that, despite Peter Diamandis‘ brilliant book on Abundance, Singularity University clearly does not take it seriously because it has both a scarcity mindset AND a scarcity business model.

Let’s talk about the 3rd seminal book that I believe everyone must read – Exponential Organizations:

The question is simple – is Singularity University an exponential organization?

Well, let me answer it this way: To this day I have not met one faculty member or GSP student of any year who has told me that they thought SU is an ExO. In fact, in my recent interview with Salim even he said that Singularity University is not.

So the question is how long can you sell others on the idea of ExO’s if you are clearly not one?

I already touched on the name and the books, and the discrepancy thereof. Let me talk about Singularity University’s Mission Statement now i.e. its Massively Transformative Purpose:

Positively Impacting 1 billion people within 10 years

..and, we are not even close to the 125-250 million people we should be at if it is an ExO and follows its own goal’s stated timeline.

Let’s further judge Singularity University on its own record and according to its own goal to “educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges”

Has it been successful?! You may say “Yes” but I will say “Not so fast!”

7 years after its beginning, as far as Grand Challenges are concerned I personally fail to see a single grand challenge where Singularity University has directly been able to make a measurable difference, let alone “solving” it.

In addition, when it comes to the “educate, inspire and empower” mandate SU has had some notable success, but I would like to suggest that when one takes into consideration the Singularity University resources – its location, trillion dollar network, revenue stream, human resources, sponsorship and so on – it does not have a very good ROI. [Other than in publicity.]

For example, Khan Academy and Wikipedia both have better ROI as far as “educate, inspire and empower” are concerned, with much less hype too. And they are both actually exponential organizations.

If there is one area where SU has been undoubtedly successful it is to feed its own growth, raise and/or charge more money, to hire more people and spread the hype of its own legend. What is worse, I will argue that SU is already starting to show diminishing returns to scale – i.e. as Singularity University grows each unit invested in it will bring about fewer and fewer units of the desired outcome, while the previous two examples arguably still show accelerating returns per units invested. And that is one of the major differences between an exponential and classic organization.

Here are some other problems with Singularity University i.e. major obstacles to achieving its own mission statement – some are tactical and some are strategic:

Tactical: Singularity University’s current model does not scale

In my view SU is not an exponential organization; it does not scale. The business model of bringing people to a location and educating them is a thousand years old. Flying over and doing customer specific seminars is better but is still only a marginal improvement on that. So, in short, the tactical problem is that Singularity University has embraced a closed garden, classic scarcity educational model.

So perhaps the biggest break-through will come in a tactically new business model and structure which scales well – just like the Khan Academy, Udacity, Courcera etc, are all scalable and structurally new in a way that SU is not. Now, I am not saying Singularity University should necessarily become Khan Academy, but I am saying that it cannot claim to be a 21st-century organization, and hope to scale up its impact, if it is embracing an old model and structure – as it currently is. So, instead of embracing what has existed for millennia, SU must be brave in innovating and embracing a new type of institutional structure and business model.

For example, currently SU is a closed garden – i.e. the only way that people can learn any useful material is to join one of the paid programs and attend Singularity University. In this sense, SU is actually very much behind the curve of even “old fashioned” universities that have the courage to put their courses on-line for free. SU so far has been lacking any such courage which means it is even further behind than old-school universities: What’s the use of improving your curriculum every 3 months if only a tiny number of people paying big money will actually see it?! Is that the way to make exponential change?!

For example, I am hearing from a number of people that some faculty at SU are afraid to publish the gold mine of hundreds of videos that SU has been sitting on for years because they are afraid nobody will actually attend the paid programs afterward. Now, do MIT, Stanford and Harvard not have the same problem?! Then why are they fearlessly publishing many of their own courses for free?! Why Tesla can open-source all of their amazing innovation and SU cannot?! What organization is more likely to go exponential?! Whose ideas are more likely to spread?

In short, if SU wants to change the world it has to be the living example of an exponential organization that is clearly changing the world. The longer the gap between its preaching and its own self-persists the more its credibility is going to diminish.

More tactical flaws:

Singularity University is elitist and top down – it seeks to make change from the top down via “leaders” rather than the bottom up via, for example, networks. [It is also convenient for SU that usually leaders can pay while masses of people cannot]

Singularity University has financial incentives not to change: both personally – where key SU people likely have a personal and/or financial stake at SU, but also institutionally – where SU takes a cut from incubated businesses, which is fine if its main mandate is to produce businesses and to make money. But as long as this is not its mandate then this mechanism is not optimal.

Singularity University has a paid model of education – i.e. it aims to educate but only those who have money to pay for it. And if you don’t then SU provides no help whatsoever.

Singularity University has a single model of implementation aimed at accomplishing its goal – have an idea, start a company, create a product or service to sell – so that SU can have their 5%, and you will change the world. Well, if the Internet, the WWW or Wikipedia were created in SU they would have failed miserably because none of them fits that simplistic Silicon valley monetization model. And it is hard to argue they did change the world and maybe they did it because luckily those entities didn’t embrace the SU model. This single model, however, also leads to a lack of structural diversity of the SU projects because they have to fit the one and only mold proposed as opposed to following a more natural evolution-type of an approach which leads to diverse outcomes.

Singularity University is centralized, bureaucratic and hierarchical and is becoming even more so. Naveen Jain himself told me a couple of years ago that SU is becoming such a bureaucracy that is impossible to get anything done.

Strategic Flaws: Embracing an old socio-economic paradigm.

Singularity University is not looking at creating a new socio-economic paradigm but instead takes the easy road of seeking the most comfortable way to fit in the current one.

Salim often says during his presentations that “SU is not a university and is not really about the singularity”.

I covered the first point already and gave examples of how in some ways even traditional universities are more courageous, more current and even more impact-full than SU currently dares to be. Others such as Udacity and Khan Academy are clearly more scalable. So if Singularity University is not a university then why is it running what is more-or-less an old university model?!

During exponential finance many speakers gave examples of shortsightedness and inability to focus on the longer term so why is Singularity University only focusing on the 5 to 15 years from now – at the most? Why do we not focus at least a little bit on the potential ways of how our current socio-economic capitalist paradigm is likely to change the closer we get to the singularity?!

To me capitalism is by far the best that we have so far but it is not different from other economic systems – it was born during the industrial revolution and is rather likely to die in our lifetime – before or around the singularity. This is what evolution is all about – nothing stays forever, nothing is ever perfect but is always changing and evolving. Thus it only makes sense that capitalism as we know it will also have to at least change or potentially even go extinct.

I am not saying Singularity University should not make money or not embrace capitalist models. It absolutely should. But it should not be limited only to those. And it seems to me that currently SU is a classically structured organization with a corporate model focused on selling, making money, spreading the Silicon Valley capitalist gospel and riding the exponential wave as much as possible rather than being the living example of creative innovation – be it structurally – as a new kind of institution, or strategically – as one focused on fundamentally different strategic goals than anyone else.

And so the main implication of all of the above is that Singularity University is not structured to actually address its own mandate. If SU wants to change the world it has to naturally start with itself and be the living embodiment of the change it seeks to spread. And this is much different from being “a benefit corporation” or whatever other legalese nonsense it currently is.

The Singularity University Global Plan revolves around 3 elements chapters, salons and competitions.

We have videos but we are not allowed to distribute them. If you want a local speaker it has to be approved by SU headquarters AND you have to apply for a license. Think about this: are exponential organizations those who need to issue a license to have a saloon discussion? Or are they the ones where decentralization rules?

Tightly regulated branding. Everyone in the chapters participates as a volunteer but only past graduates can be chapter leaders. Which, of course means, just like if you are a scientologist for example, that you have to pay to climb the organizational latter. Chapters must be non-profit. But they secure sponsors and run events and competitions. Roman Catholic Church is also non-profit. But all the profit, the control, the power, branding and the credit flows to the center. While all the work is, of course, done by the periphery.

“Bringing Singularity University to this place and bring SU to that place.” So SU has become the mission. Where as I thought that the mission is to improve the life of a billion people and SU is hopefully the best means to achieve that. But that is what happens to all bureaucracies – their first rule is self-perpetuation and self-preservation. Roman Catholic Church done the Silicon Valley Way. With scaled franchising and all.

Singularity University is like the Catholic Church – everything material etc flows to the center and is controlled by it. More and more tightly than ever.

It is like SU is saying: The emperor is dead long live the emperor — the gatekeepers are gone so let all old gatekeepers come to SU because we are the gatekeeper of exponential technology and the Gods of disruption. And so again, in essence, it is the same old cry “the Emperor is dead long live the emperor.” My cry here tonight is rather different: “The emperor is dead. SU has no clothes. The hell with the monarchy. Long live the republic.”

At any rate, time is advancing, so let me finish here with Peter Diamandis’ brilliant 6 D’s of Exponentials:
  • Digitalized – it is absolutely not digitized. That’s why a small-time amateur blogger like me can have more traffic on my YouTube channel than Singularity University. 
  • Deceptive – yes it is deceptive, it sells exponential i.e. it sells something it does not have in the first place. How can you sell exponential org if you are not one? 
  • Disruptive – Yes, it is very disruptive but mostly to people’s and organizations’ bank accounts. Started by charging around $100,000 went through $200,000 and, most recently from 1/4 to 1/2 of 1 million dollars per event. Clearly it will reach a billion dollars way before reaching a billion people. And will disrupt the balance of a number of bank accounts no doubt. Started not for profit and now it’s somewhat half way but the reality is that it is totally for profit if you actually watch what’s being done. Furthermore, how disruptive and exponential can be a few middle-aged people who fly first class and ask for half a million to do a two-day event?! Revolutions are made by the young and the poor… I can think of a few people whose middle name is disruption and they don’t fly in first class and don’t make the big money. The people who do are business people. People who disrupt, well they just go around and disrupt… it is what they do, whether they are getting paid or not. 
  • Dematerialized – Singularity University is geographically clustered, based on in-person learning and funded by an artificial scarcity based business model. 
  • Demonetized – it is the exact opposite of that. It is very monetized and trying to be even more so all the time by raising its prices and creating artificial scarcity. 
  • Democratized or Decentralized – Singularity University is neither. It is a classic top down pyramidal structure. So there is nothing fundamentally new, democratized or decentralized about it. 

And so I find it be a great irony of exponentials that 7 years later Singularity University is none of those things either.


As I said in the beginning of my talk today: The Emperor has No Clothes.

Singularity University is not about the singularity. SU is not a about abundance. SU is not an exponential organization. And the exponential irony is that SU charges enormous amounts of money by going to all kinds of organizations that are none of those things themselves and asks them:

Do you know about the Singularity? Do you know about abundance? Do you know about exponential organizations? And then tells them that they should listen if they want to survive.

And of course, this is what I just did. And so I do hope that SU has a big fat check for me today – and I am happy with only $100,000 (laugh) because I am giving them the warning they love and get paid to give to others. Which is simply this:

Disrupt yourself or be disrupted. Lead by example and from the front. Seek to monetize abundance, rather than scarcity. Put the mission before the organization. Live your message. Do these and you will reach your goals. Fail to do so and you will fail as an organization.

So, if Singularity University is not about the singularity, not about abundance and is not an exponential organization then the natural question is, of course: What is SU all about?!

Well, humor me with this absolutely crazy and totally outlandish hypothesis:

Singularity University is a child of silicon valley. And silicon valley is about one thing: start a business, build it up and sell it. In other words Silicon Valley is about IPO’s. It is about taking companies public. And, the strategic drift that I have been getting based on all the observable changes and what’s been happening for the past few years is that Singularity University follows that mold and is being built up and groomed with the idea to eventually be sold to someone like Google, for example.

So, ultimately, Singularity University is about selling to the highest bidder. Most likely Google. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that. But that is a fundamentally different purpose than impacting the life of a billion people.

Where does this leave us?!

I honestly have no clue. But I do know that when the Singularity Hub never called me back to become a staff writer for them that was like winning the lottery because I will not be here tonight if I they had called. Because it would have not occurred to me that I can do it on my own. I also know that while I do love Singularity University SU does not have a monopoly over exponential technology, disruption or the future of humanity. So while it is great to have a strong organization it is even better if we have more than one. We need many, many Singularity Universities. That is why for example when people are sometimes surprised that I allow other tech bloggers and podcasters to post on my blog, link to their sites and quote “steal my audience”, I reply that it is totally awesome. Because I believe in the mission more than I believe in my own organization. Because I believe we need many, many singularity universities, singularity blogs and singularity podcasts. And because I believe in abundance.

And so I plan to keep doing what I do best. Even if, at times, that comes at a high price. And I think that now you may have a better idea as to what that might look like. But in the end of the day I am not here to be right. And I am not here to make money. Unless, of course, Yuri has my $100,000 check somewhere there. I am here to start a conversation. I am here to tell you that our Emperor has no clothes and it is our responsibility to say it loud and clear.

And so, in that sense, I admit that I am here to make a ruckus. But the rest is up to you. And so, as always, the question is:

What are YOU going to do?!

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