Technology That Outthinks Us: A Partner or a Master?
In Vernor Vinge’s version of Southern California in 2025, there is a school named Fairmont High with the motto, “Trying hard not to become obsolete.” It may not sound inspiring, but to the many fans of Dr. Vinge, this is a most ambitious — and perhaps unattainable — goal for any member of our species.
Dr. Vinge is a mathematician and computer scientist in San Diego whose science fiction has won five Hugo Awards and earned good reviews even from engineers analyzing its technical plausibility. He can write space operas with the best of them, but he also suspects that intergalactic sagas could become as obsolete as their human heroes.
The problem is a concept described in Dr. Vinge’s seminal essay in 1993, “The Coming Technological Singularity,” which predicted that computers would be so powerful by 2030 that a new form of superintellligence would emerge. Dr. Vinge compared that point in history to the singularity at the edge of a black hole: a boundary beyond which the old rules no longer applied, because post-human intelligence and technology would be as unknowable to us as our civilization is to a goldfish.
The Singularity is often called “the rapture of the nerds,” but Dr. Vinge doesn’t anticipate immortal bliss. The computer scientist in him may revel in the technological marvels, but the novelist envisions catastrophes and worries about the fate of not-so-marvelous humans like Robert Gu, the protagonist of Dr. Vinge’s latest novel, “Rainbows End.”
Robert is an English professor and famous poet who succumbs to Alzheimer’s, languishing in a nursing home until 2025, when the Singularity seems near and technology is working wonders. He recovers most of his mental faculties; his 75-year-old body is rejuvenated; even his wrinkles vanish.
But he’s so lost in this new world that he has to go back to high school to learn basic survival skills. Wikipedia, Facebook, Second Life, World of Warcraft, iPhones, instant messaging — all these are quaint ancestral technologies now that everyone is connected to everyone and everything.
Thanks to special contact lenses, computers in your clothes and locational sensors scattered everywhere you go, you see a constant stream of text and virtual sights overlaying the real world. As you chat with a distant friend’s quite lifelike image strolling at your side, you can adjust the scenery to your mutual taste — adding, say, medieval turrets to buildings — at the same time you’re each privately communicating with vast networks of humans and computers.
To Robert, a misanthrope who’d barely mastered e-mail in his earlier life, this networked world is a multitasking hell. He retreats to one of his old haunts, the Geisel Library, once the intellectual hub of the University of California, San Diego, but now so rarely visited that its paper books are about to be shredded to make room for a highbrow version of a virtual-reality theme park.
At the library he finds a few other “medical retreads” still reading books and using ancient machines like laptops. Calling themselves the Elder Cabal, they conspire to save the paper library while they’re trying to figure out what, if anything, their skills are good for anymore.
Dr. Vinge, who is 63, can feel the elders’ pain, if only because his books are in that building. He took me up to the Elder Cabal’s meeting room in the library and talked about his own concerns about 2025 — like whether anyone will still be reading books, and whether networked knowledge will do to intellectuals what the Industrial Revolution did to the Luddite textile artisans.
“These people in ‘Rainbows End’ have the attention span of a butterfly,” he said. “They’ll alight on a topic, use it in a particular way and then they’re on to something else. Right now people worry that we don’t have lifetime employment anymore. How extreme could that get? I could imagine a world where everything is piecework and the piece duration is less than a minute.”
It’s an unsettling vision, but Dr. Vinge classifies it as one of the least unpleasant scenarios for the future: intelligence amplification, or I.A., in which humans get steadily smarter by pooling their knowledge with one another and with computers, possibly even wiring the machines directly into their brains.
The alternative to I.A., he figures, could be the triumph of A.I. as artificial intelligence far surpasses the human variety. If that happens, Dr. Vinge says, the superintelligent machines will not content themselves with working for their human masters, nor will they remain securely confined in laboratories. As he wrote in his 1993 essay: “Imagine yourself confined to your house with only limited data access to the outside, to your masters. If those masters thought at a rate — say — one million times slower than you, there is little doubt that over a period of years (your time) you could come up with ‘helpful advice’ that would incidentally set you free.”
To avoid that scenario, Dr. Vinge has been urging his fellow humans to get smarter by collaborating with computers. (See nytimes.com/tierneylab for some of his proposals.) At the conclusion of “Rainbows End,” even the technophobic protagonist is in sync with his machines, and there are signs that the Singularity has arrived in the form of a superintelligent human-computer network.
Or maybe not. Perhaps this new godlike intelligence mysteriously directing events is pure machine. Dr. Vinge told me he left it purposely ambiguous.
“I think there’s a good possibility that humanity will itself participate in the Singularity,” he said. “But on the other hand, we could just be left behind.”
And what would happen to us if the machines rule? Well, Dr. Vinge said, it’s possible that artificial post-humans would use us the way we’ve used oxen and donkeys. But he preferred to hope they would be more like environmentalists who wanted to protect weaker species, even if it was only out of self-interest. Dr. Vinge imagined the post-humans sitting around and using their exalted powers of reasoning:
“Maybe we need the humans around, because they’re natural critters who could survive in situations where some catastrophe would cause technology to disappear. That way they’d be around to bring back the important things — namely, us.”