Is Vernor Vinge's Singularity The End Of Days?

Author Vernor Vinge explores freedom, science fiction, and the singularity in his concerning essay on the fate of mankind.

Vernor Vinge is a former San Diego State University math professor and a Hugo award-winning science fiction novelist. He is best known for his novels and novellas A Fire Upon the Deep (1992), A Deepness in the Sky (1999), Rainbows End (2006), Fast Times at Fairmont High (2002), and The Cookie Monster (2004). In Vinge's 1993 essay "The Coming Technological Singularity" Vinge wrote, "Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence, also referred to as the singularity. Shortly after, the human era will be ended." The singularity, in essence, is the end of days.

The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge

Superhuman Intelligence

Vernor Vinge believes the singularity means the creation of superhuman intelligence. Whether humans will be part of the intelligence or not is unknown to him. But, he says that for the first time in history humans will create something which exceeds their intellignece. The significance of the singularity is monumental. We cannot begin to understand what the singularity will mean for people. Trying to explain the technology developed in the posthuman future of artificial intelligence will be like explaining Plato's Republic to a mouse.

Vernor Vinge for OMNI

I’m Vernor Vinge and I’m a science fiction writer. I really sort of felt an internal intellectual revolution when I read David Freeman’s Machinery of Freedom. The sort of pure form that David Freeman wrote about Machinery of Freedom and wrote about it very attractively and brilliantly made a big difference to me. Science fiction has always been the great reading influence on me starting with writers like Paul Anderson, Robert Hindling, Darci Clark and many more but those are the important ones.

Science fiction, more than any other genre I know about, allows you to write stories that experiment with things and fiction in general more than any other art form is one that uses the consumer’s mind and imagination as the display device and so this means that in theory an writer, if they can engage the reader, can impress readers that are a lot smarter than the writer is. Rainbows End grew out of a story with a similar technology called Fast Times at Fairmount High and I try to make the world quite recognizable from our present world but it just takes the trends that I think everybody watching this online is very much aware of and just pushes those with a couple of elements that are just beginning to become widely popular.

One is the notion of embedded processors in almost everything and the other is those that are networked and the third thing is that these devices know where they are and they can talk to one another. That is sort of the internet beneath the internet – a digital plankton layer and that can support some very strange things especially once you get proper display devices.

The way I use the term singularity is to when I’m taking about technology is the feeling that in the relative historical future that we humans using technology will create or become creatives of superhuman intelligence and the reason why this is special compared to other forms of technological progress is that if it happens then the fundamental thing that has put us at the top of what we regard as the top of the pyramid in the world has now been trumped and now there is something in that direction, something even better that is going along.

So in the 1800’s and the 1900’s and the 20th century you could talk about and predict a technology. Some people were right, some people were wrong and in the end what’s happened is probably unexpected.

But if you could magically talk to somebody from the 1800’s like Mark Twain who’d be all ears since he was a technophile. You could explain what’s going on in our era probably in as much time as this interview is taking and he might not believe you but he would understand what you’re saying. That’s what it’s like to talk about technological progress before singularity. To talk about technological progress after the singularity and explain that. For that the explanation exercise would be like trying to imagine how we would explain our presence to a goldfish or a flatworm. It’s intrinsically inaccessible.

Are you optimistic about the future?

Illustration by Alexander Weygers

In a very simplified way we have makers and breaker in the world and the smart people in the world have made so many wonderful things and it’s so easy for the breakers to use them and breakers have all sorts of motives including just the motive of breaking it and people are so happy with it.

I think actually in the last few decades there’s been two things that have made me tilt more think that the makers can keep the breakers from bringing everything down and the first of those is the penetration of cell phones worldwide between 2000 and 2010 and that is something that if you had put that in a science fiction story you would have gotten flack for that’s typical 1940ish over the top impossible. Don’t you know how social things don’t change like that especially constructive things and that one thing is just so awesome and the impact is so awesome that that’s a very big plus it makes me sort of tend towards the makers and the other is something whose story is not finished and we can still be made to look very foolish but I think small things like Wikipedia, which is not a small thing but is a small thing I mean compared to the end of the world or the salvation of the world. 

There are people who like to just defile and as easy as it is with the web to defile things there are breakers out there. They would never let this work and the fact that it has worked so magnificently in a way it really gives me some sort of hope for the really serious violent breakage that technology will eventually make possible. 

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