Your homework: Impact positively the lives of a billion people

My takeaways from the Singularity University by Maria Ritola.

Six months ago I landed at Nasa Ames Research Park to start a 10-week Graduate Studies Program (GSP) at the Singularity University with a group of 78 people (53 % of them women!) from 45 different countries. The experience was important to me in may ways. My thinking widened and I got a chance to meet a unique bunch of people who I’m now lucky enough to call my close friends.

Singularity University is not a university and singularity is not its only focus. I’d say it’s a huge learning machine targeted at solving the most pressing problems in the world with a curriculum sent from the future. As described by a student from one of the previous GSP-classes, the experience is like finding the golden ticket to visit the chocolate factory. Tons of interesting things going on all the time and you hardly get to (or want to) sleep as you start developing a chronic fear of missing out right from the first days of the program.

Now, on a Sunday afternoon six months after, I immersed myself in all the notes I kept in order to write down the most important takeaways from last summer. Here’s the result – a list of ten points I realise I keep coming back to again and again in my thoughts and talks.

1. Your homework is to impact positively the lives of a billion people

This is what I love about the Singularity University: in no other school is your one and only homework to impact the lives of 10ˆ9 people. A recipe for that? Get an understanding of the challenge you want to solve for humanity. Then, figure out a way to do that by leveraging exponential technologies such as AI, robotics, biotech, virtual reality, 3D-printing, blockchain, neuroscience or digital fabrication. After all, as mentioned by one of our faculty members, our greatest fear should not be of failure, but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter.

2. What’s your moonshot?

Here’s the first advice that came from Singularity University’s co-founder Peter Diamandis last summer: Go 10x bigger rather than 10 % bigger.


  • We have everything we need to impact the lives of a billion people. You don’t get there by making things a little bit better. We all know that.
  • When you shoot for 10x improvement you approach the problem in a radically different way.
  • Going 10x better is never 100 times harder.
  • Finally, would you buy a computer that’s 10% better? Thought so. Whatever product you bring into the world, it needs to be vastly better or people will not care.

The second half of the GSP was dedicated to building these moonshots. These are some of the companies that took off during the summer:

Aipoly puts machine vision in the hands of the visually impaired. With just one push of a button your phone will tell you in a few seconds what it is that you’re looking at.

AIME uses machine learning and big data analytics combined with artificial intelligence to predict the time and location of infectious disease outbreaks.

And my own startup Iris AI is a Google Maps of science. Iris an artificial intelligence helping innovators and entrepreneurs navigate the world of science.

3. It’s all about the people

Singularity faculty member Paul Saffo said it in the very first week of the program. If there’s something that you’ll remember afterwards, it’ll be the people and the conversations you had with them. Couldn’t agree more with Paul. Now, looking back at the program I mostly remember these interactions during the classes, at night in the patio, in the lab, by the hangar, on culture nights and during weekend trips.

Participants of GSP come from very different backgrounds. If I needed to name one thing that unites them it would be the strive to make change. Just to give an example, there’s Mariana, a 23-year-old Brazilian who runs her IoT startup to enable farmers optimise crops through better decision making. Then there’s Habib, a medical doctor whose company is creating new devices for the treatment of cardiac arrest. And Monica who builds drones to measure air pollution. The educational backgrounds of the participants range from DIY hacking to PhD studies. We had medical doctors, scientists, big data experts, designers, social entrepreneurs, lawyers, film directors and many more.

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4. The first thing to go with lack of sleep is the executive function you’d be using to test your executive function. Please sleep.

Week 10 was about to start at GSP with the above message in our inboxes from Kathryn Myronuk, one of Singularity University’s leading forces. Singularity Uni’s unofficial name is the Sleepless University and there’s a reason for that. The managing director of GSP actually warned me about this during the interview process with a recommendation to sleep as much as possible in advance to cover the upcoming deficiencies.

At Singularity there is a lot of things going on, days and nights. On a typical night, you would find students outside by the patio talking about e.g. building a radically transparent economy with the blockchain, the ability of computers to dream and to be creative, and the opportunities and controversies related to the CRISPR-cas9 gene editing system. Some people moved to the lab at night to hack current ways of diagnosing a heart attack and to cure a cancer, or just to play around with robots, 3D printers, later cutters or drones.

5. Sacred cows make the best burgers

Connecting the dots is only possible when looking backwards. Therefore, when building your company you need to trust your guts. Find the biases that exist around you and remember that you will never be able to get to play with 100 % confidence. The person to act first on incomplete information is probably going to succeed.

Here’s some good advice from Paul to navigate the world of uncertainty: Start looking for industries that haven’t changed or have been failing for a while. It’s these sacred cows that make the best burgers. Train your peripheral vision as the biggest events are rarely on the cover of New York Times, but usually somewhere in the back.

6. I do not have a photographic memory & I don’t have an AI bot in my neocortex… yet

Exponential mindset – that’s what you walk out with from the NASA Ames on the last day of the program. In practice it means that solutions that sound undoable, and most probably foolish as well, will be applicable in a not-very-distant future thanks to the exponential growth in the advancement on science. The reason why human beings are not good at understanding this is because they’re linear thinkers by default.

Although Singularity University’s curriculum is heavy on tech, discussing mind-blowing future technologies (like the AI bots envisioned by Peter) or recent breakthroughs, isn’t really the point of the program. There are tons of TED-talks, blogs and magazines doing that job already.

The point, as I see it, is that the whole context of thinking gets stretched. Thanks to the GSP I now understand the potential of cutting-edge technologies way better and know where they need to be applied. Of course I don’t know everything about them after a 10-week experience and can’t hack the system on my own. But I do know now who to talk to and whom to work with to make things happen.

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7. Don’t believe the hype! Technology is never the main driver of social progress

If someone asked me to recommend just one talk from last summer, I’d mention the one from Kentaro Toyama. His point about leveraging technologies to improve the lives of the world’s poorest must be grounded in a deep understanding of the problem and its root causes can’t be highlighted enough. Without that, we will only end up amplifying pre-existing differences in equality and wealth.

Technologies only amplify the capacities that are already out there. In terms of education, for instance, kids with greater vocabularies get more out of the content online. Teachers who don’t know how to deal with students with cognitive challenges won’t reach any better results by distributing new tablets in the classroom. If a company fails to make profit, everyone knows that investing in new laptops won’t fix whatever problems there are. However, there are quite a few examples elaborating how social problems have been tried to solve like that. Technology is only an amplifier of human conditions and we should not forget that.

8. Thinking is a terrible way to think

Innovation doesn’t happen in abstraction, it happens in practise. So, you have to get your hands dirty to maximise your learning. Tom Chi, co-founder of Google X and creator of the first Google Glass prototype, run a 25 minute-workshop with us during which we identified a problem we wanted to solve, created our first prototype and tested that prototype with a user.

Listening to users is the key. That’s when you start learning and that’s what saves you from spending weeks or months on something that has been tried a thousand times before. There are several billion people who are experts in their own situation and there’s a lot to gain just by observing and listening to them. Tom had his team create a new iteration every day for weeks. That’s a pretty good benchmark for any team focusing on creating something valuable.

9. Start before being ready

Steven Pressfield’s Do the work is a book worth reading (thanks Pascal Finette for the recommendation). I keep coming back to one of the paragraphs in that book to remind myself that it’s totally normal to feel insecure and vulnerable in front of change. Here it goes:
Our brain, if we give it so much as a nanosecond will start producing excuses, alibis, transparent self-justifications and a million of reasons why we can’t/shouldn’t/won’t do what we know we need to do”.

10. Together

There’s one special thing about the notes this blog post is based on. There’s literally hundreds of pages covering 150 lectures, and more. There are quotes, images and discussions, all created collaboratively by the GSP-students on Google Docs.

This is just to flag one of the many great things we achieved last summer by working together. Thanks to the collaboration and genuine support we gave each other, we grew, and will keep on growing, way bigger and more impactful than just the sum of 78 minds.

The importance of collaborative power is beautifully summarised by Alaina Krause, a thought leader in digital governance: “Whether we’re facing climate apocalypse on Earth or colonizing Mars, the deciding factor between human civilization being extractive and oppressive, or cooperative and generative, will be how much we as a species have practiced the skills of equitable collaboration on a day-to-day basis – hearing diverse viewpoints and synthesizing.”

For the first time in the human history we actually have the tools in our hands to scale up, transmit and learn more of these skills in a networked, peer-to-peer way on a global level. Amplifying the good that is already out there is made possible by various technologies that are quickly becoming both cheaper and more accessible to people throughout the world. To me, learning to leverage these tools to break silos and pointless barriers that exist in our society with my peers at GSP, was the core of the whole experience and, I believe, the beginning of many awesome ventures.


Writer Maria Ritola works as a researcher at Demos Helsinki. She is also a co-founder of Iris AI@MariaRitola

Photos: Abi La, Andrea Yriberry, Senja Larsen.