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Thursday, March 22, 2012

Vernor Vinge Is Optimistic About the Collapse of Civilization

Noted author and futurist Vernor Vinge is surprisingly optimistic when it comes to the prospect of civilization collapsing.

“I think that [civilization] coming back would actually be a very big surprise,” he says in this week’s episode of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “The difference between us and us 10,000 years ago is … we know it can be done.”

Vinge has a proven track record of looking ahead. His 1981 novella True Names was one of the first science fiction stories to deal with virtual reality, and he also coined the phrase, “The Technological Singularity” to describe a future point at which technology creates intelligences beyond our comprehension. The term is now in wide use among futurists.

But could humanity really claw its way back after a complete collapse? Haven’t we plundered the planet’s resources in ways that would be impossible to repeat?

“I disagree with that,” says Vinge. “With one exception — fossil fuels. But the stuff that we mine otherwise? We have concentrated that. I imagine that ruins of cities are richer ore fields than most of the natural ore fields we have used historically.”

That’s not to say the collapse of civilization is no big deal. The human cost would be horrendous, and there would be no comeback at all if the crash leaves no survivors. A ravaged ecosphere could stymie any hope of rebuilding, as could a disaster that destroys even the ruins of cities.

“I am just as concerned about disasters as anyone,” says Vinge. “I have this region of the problem that I’m more optimistic about than some people, but overall, avoiding existential threats is at the top of my to-do list.”

Read our complete interview with Vernor Vinge below, in which he talks about living to be 100,000, how the space program could endanger Earth, and how the Technological Singularity might unfold. Or listen to the interview in Episode 56 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which also features a chat with Caribbean-born science fiction author Tobias S. Buckell.

Wired: You’re famous for coining the phrase, “The Technological Singularity.” How did you first come up with that?

Vernor Vinge: I used that term first, I think, at an artificial intelligence conference in 1982. Actually, it was a conference with Marvin Minsky, the famous A.I. researcher, and several science fiction writers were on the panel — Robert Sheckley and Jim Hogan. I made the observation that if we got human-level artificial intelligence, that would certainly be a world-shaking event, and if we got superhuman-level intelligence, then what happened afterward would be fundamentally unintelligible.

In the past, when some new invention came along, it generally made all sorts of unexpected consequences, but those consequences could be understood. The example I like to use is that if you had a magical time machine and you could bring Mark Twain forward into the 21st century, you could explain our world to him and he would understand it quite quickly. He’d come up to speed in a day or two, and he would probably have a very good time with it. On the other hand, if you tried to do that explanatory experiment with a goldfish, there’s no way you could explain our world to a goldfish in a way that would be meaningful, as it is to us humans.

That is a consequence of this particular type of progress — that is, in making creatures that are smarter than humans. And I think it was probably even as I was talking on this panel, it occurred to me that the term for that was a little bit like with a black hole. There are only a few types of information you can get out of a black hole — in general relativity — and this was sort of a social or a technological example of the same sort of thing. Now, the particular idea of super-intelligence — not just A.I. but superhuman intelligence A.I. — is intrinsic in stuff that had been going on back at least to the ‘50s, and the notion that it would be something that would not be understandable was probably lurking out there too. I think the only thing I said on that panel that made a special difference was the term, which I think highlighted the situation.

Wired: What are some of the scenarios for how the Singularity might unfold?

Vinge: I think there are all sorts of different paths to the Singularity, at least five pretty different paths. I think they’re going to be all mixed together, but it still helps to think about them separately because it makes them easier to track. For instance, there’s classical artificial intelligence. You just build a big machine and hope you can figure out some way to make it very, very smart. Or really one that is very much I think in a lot of people’s minds now is simply that the internet plus the people on the internet — so the internet, its computers, its support software, its server farms, and then billions of human beings — those together could come to constitute a superhuman entity that would qualify as giving us a Singularity.

Another path to the Singularity that in many ways is the most attractive — and actually was also the topic of the first science fiction story I ever wrote that sold — is the notion of “intelligence amplification,” which is that we get user interfaces with computers that are so transparent to us that it’s like the computer is what David Brin calls our “neo-neocortex.” What’s nice about that is that we actually get to be direct participants, and in that particular case, when I say that the post-Singularity world is unintelligible, well, yeah, it is unintelligible to the likes of you and me, but it would not be unintelligible to the participants that are using intelligence amplification. I have a friend in robotics that I brought this up with long, long ago, and he said, “Well, Vernor, I really don’t have any argument with the claims you’re making about what’s going to happen, except this business about it being unintelligible — it’s not unintelligible if you are riding the curve of increasing intelligence.” And then he smiled and said, “And I intend to ride that curve.”

There are at least two other possibilities. One is simply bio-science raising human intelligence by enhancing our memory and enhancing our ability to think clearly, and then I think there’s one that is becoming more evident but is sort of off-stage, and that is the notion of a “Digital Gaia,” a sort of internet under the internet that consists of all the networked embedded microprocessors in the world, and the Digital Gaia is certainly the most alien of the different possibilities. In fact, I sort of like to trot it out to give an example of something that’s pretty obviously very strange and hard to understand. If you could imagine something like where the world becomes its own database, where reality itself wakes up. Actually more than anything else it looks like some sort of implementation of animism. So that particular possibility, Digital Gaia, to me is certainly the most alien and in some ways the most nervous-making, because if the world woke up then a lot of our common sense about the world is not valid anymore. Karl Schroeder had a great book that discussed this sort of possibility, and that was his novel Ventus.

Wired: Which works of science fiction do you think have featured the best treatment of the Singularity?

Vinge: Probably the most courageous walkthrough into the Singularity was Accelerando by Charles Stross. He actually follows the development from, I think, from the 2010s through the 2070s. He also said that by the time they got to the 2070s, he’s no longer seriously claiming that what he’s describing would be like the post-Singular world. I suspect that comment was related to the notion that after several decades of this, things would be seriously beyond what a writer could understand in our era, and what the readers of our era would understand.

Wired: As a retired math professor, how useful do you think mathematical models are for predicting the future?

Vinge: There are a lot of different things that go under the name “mathematical models.” Moore’s Law is an observation about the past that’s turned around as an extrapolation about the future. There are a lot of different things that are mathematical models, and my attitude toward them is very cautious. I think one of the most important nonfiction books so far this century is Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan. But I fear that what’s happening with that book is a lot of people give it lip service. “Oh, yeah, Taleb really has good point in The Black Swan about not trusting certain sorts of models.” The thing is, there are mathematical models that are so seductively attractive that even though people recognize that they are not workable, they still go and use them because they’re so easy to use and they give such definite answers. So that’s a book I recommend for everybody to read, and it illustrates fundamental problems with dealing with models when you’re also dealing with people.

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