February 29 2008 / by Alvis Brigis
Category: Technology Year: General Rating: 13
In 1993 Vernor Vinge informed NASA and the rest of the world that we were all quite possibly on a crash-course with a technological singularity. This meme spread quickly through the ranks of futurists and tech intelligentsia and now, 15 years later, it appears on the verge of diffusing to the mainstream, where it will no doubt continue to challenge life-views and generate ice-cream headaches.
I had the good fortune to catch up with the Hugo Award winning sci-fi writer / mathematician for a MemeBox phone interview during which he filled me in on the impact the idea of the singularity has had on him and his hopes for the rest of us.
The following is an excerpt from that illuminating session:
MemeBox: To start, what do you mean by the Technological Singularity?
Vinge: It’s a term that all sorts of people have different takes on and use in different ways. My take on it is that it’s plausible that with technology we can, in the fairly near future, create or become creatures that surpass humans in every intellectual and creative dimension. Then events beyond that time would be as unimaginable to us ordinary humans as opera is to a flatworm.
MemeBox: How has the concept affected your writing?
Vinge: I’d like to say that science fiction writers are the first occupational group that was impacted by the Singularity, whether or not it actually happens. We are the first group that has been impacted because it is essentially impossible, ... a great challenge, as an ordinary human to write fiction about the Singularity, and especially afterwards, for people who are also ordinary humans.
MemeBox: When we talk about this notion of heading toward a singularity, why is this significant to humans right now? Why should someone strive to understand this?
Vinge: I think it has a lot of popularity right now because of the possibility that it could happen in the near historical future. Related to this is the process of going there, is addressing questions that humans have pondered and debated about since they began pondering and debating. And it is really remarkable to be in an era in which questions about consciousness, intelligence and creativity are all subject to a substantive form of research and discussion [unlike] before
MemeBox: How far out you can see? How would you quantify your own vision?
Vinge: I think the horizon that one can predict is actually not too long. ... We really want to believe that we can predict things about the future, and in terms of surviving now and near a very fast change, it becomes very important to realize how unpredictable things are … but I think thinking about it is very important, and studying ways to think about it is very important.
MemeBox: What responsibility does one’s imagination and vision of the future impart?
Vinge: I think one’s vision, both in terms of threats (scenarios that have distinctly bad outcomes) and one’s vision about other scenarios and methods that may counter the bad scenarios, can guide a person to do things that both lead to good outcomes and also have the best chance of leading to a good outcome.
So what’s the prognosis?
Vinge: As long as we stay in a positive-sum game … we are doing very, very well for the world as a whole. [Creating] a situation where everybody can walk away from a deal better than they were before is actually of towering moral importance, even though at first glance it may appear to be at best morally neutral.
Tune in early next week for Part Two of Vernor’s interview in which he lays out some trends and tendencies, not predictions :), spanning the next 10 years.