Vernor Vinge

Science Fiction: it has been a muse of geeks, techies and scientists for decades. Many of the technologies we explore on Singularity Hub were first imagined and explored in SF (star trek tricorders, the WWW, robot cars, etc), driving technologists to make them real, which in turn inspires a new round of SF. In thinking about predicting and solving global grand challenges, the storytelling and worldbuilding of SF has much to contribute. Singularity University’s (SU) 1st ever Science Fiction panel took place on July 17th. As a prelude, here’s an interview with Vernor Vinge below, as well as the full footage of his talk about groupminds at SU on June 25, 2012.

Hugo Award-winning science fiction writer Vernor Vinge maintains science fiction is merely a form of scenario based planning about the future of mankind. Vinge, a retired San Diego State University Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science, coined the term “the Singularity” roughly 30 years ago in reference to a time of vastly accelerating technological change. I had a chance to sit down with Vinge and ask him about the Singularity, accelerating technology, and more. Check out the video below:

In outlining various paths to a technological Singularity, Vinge believes scenario based planning is incredibly important when outcomes are uncertain. It gives you a system of symptoms to watch for, so you can plan responses for different sets of symptoms. If you are doing scenario based planning, having a science fiction writer as a loose canon in your next meeting may shake up the committee in a positive way.

Vinge’s scenarios for how humanity could get to a tech singularity are as follows:

1. Pure Artificial Intelligence: The advent of an intelligent superhuman computer.

2. Intelligence Amplification: Take a natural mind, interface it with a computer and make it smarter (popular science fiction author David Brin calls the computer a neo-neo cortex; the machine part allows us to be smart, and the human part provides us with the component we’re good at: wanting things).

3. Computer Networks + Humanity: A phenomenon he calls “groupmind” or social networking, where we achieve superhuman intelligence (at least a functional sort – proceeding at a more robust rate than the others) through coordinated group efforts. An example of this would be Wikipedia.

4. Digital Gaia: A world with ubiquitous microprocessors able to communicate with their neighbors: if every physical object knew what it was, where it was, and could communicate with any other device, the result could be one where the world itself wakes up and becomes its own database.

5. Biomedical improvements in human intelligence lead to better memory and other changes.

Vinge spends the majority of his lecture at Singularity University detailing the taxonomy of groupminds – their qualities in size, origin, focus, hardware/software, longevity, interaction, sociology, design, and implications for his other paths to the singularity. He also talks about outliers – societal makers vs. breakers.

Vinge advises large institutions to understand that when they look at participants in groupminds they are looking at an intellectual resource that dwarfs anything we’d seen in the 20th century. There’s a real chance groupminds will prove worthy competitors, adversaries, and counterparts to social organizations and corporations in many situations . The downsides are that a groupmind may suppress slow thoughtful thinking about problems and may outsource morality. Vinge’s lecture also veers into the philosophical with his thoughts on identity and an individual’s desire for global self-awareness.

Vinge ends his talk on an optimistic note by saying “a post-scarcity economy is not a post-singularity idea: the reach of the mind will always exceed its grasp.” He predicts that even if we continue to experience technological unemployment, “bright sparks of human level intuition, creativity, and insight” will remain. “We’ll always be able to think of projects that are beyond what we can presently do.” Vinge believes with technology it’s possible to become or create creatures that surpass humans in every aspect of intelligence – and perhaps only an extreme physical catastrophe can stop this change.

If science fiction is essentially a scenario, its enormous advantage over other types of scenario based planning is that it can inspire action in its readers, especially when those readers are specialists. If the story emotionally engages the reader, the credentials of the writer do not matter. The specialist (reader) is the one who does the heavy lifting, turning the author’s broad brushstrokes into something that exists in the real world. This is the underappreciated characteristic of science fiction – its ability to move the scientific community to reach across the parameters of possibility.

Still want more Vinge? Below you can see a video of Vernor Vinge’s entire lecture recently delivered at Singularity University’s Graduate Summer Program:

I enjoy all types of futurology. I especially enjoy staying up to date with the latest advancements in machine learning and artificial intelligence. You can usually find me roaming the depths of the internet.