It was an otaku-ramma at the Vernor Vinge interview at ALA Midwinter 2011, hosted by LITA. The subject: the technological singularity, that moment in the near-future when our understanding of the human mind converges with excelerated computer power. The twist being, that the otaku in this audience were librarians, so the conversation oriented itself appropriately.
Here’s the BIG idea: In 20-odd years, cognitive science will have largely described the way the human brain works and be able to replicate it and even improve it. Add to the mix, the geometric rise in computing power in terms of speed, capacity, networking and scale. That’s right, hybridize the two knowledge streams into a single point in technological progress and you get the technological singularity: that point at which brains and bytes become interchangable.
Vinge has lots of paths he can take you down, but mostly, he stuck to those related to librarianship…or, if you will, the preservation and indexing of knowledge.
So here’s an image of your life in 2030: You wake up to a terribly warm day and have a knowledge question: at what point did the world lose control of its climate. Gone are the days where you’d have to consult a book. Gone are the days where you’d have to go to a library website, or any website (now an anachronistic paradigm itself). Gone are the days where you have to think over the matter for more than a few minutes.
As Vinge envisions it, you simply consult the human knowledge base that is at your neural-tips. Making the same effort that you might to remember what you did for your birthday last year, you quickly access the answer, but not one that anyone in 2010 would be able to comprehend. It’s a kind of hyper-nuanced answer that only a super-brain could grapple with.
So, suddenly you can see the problem for the world that the singularity poses, especially for anyone who authors books, works in a library or builds websites. You’re all fired!
Of course the silver lining here is that as Homo sapiens-super-smarty-pants, we have likely fixed joblessness along with all our other problems, including climate change. Indeed, as soon as we move past the singularity, say, singularity plus 1 nano second, we will have likely figured out a much more comfortable and interesting plane of existence upon which to live.
That’s the optimists’ view, of which Vinge seems slightly oriented.
The other view is that one depicted in the Matrix or Terminator, where we’re all doomed by super-machines that couldn’t give a hexicode for the bio-pests that invented them and either remove us from the equation, or ditch us for some other gig. A NASA guy once said to me, that his bet was that the aliens haven’t contacted us because they’re all machines and are still waiting for Earth to get interesting.
At a lecture by MIT’s Marvin Minsky at Adobe Systems a few years ago on A.I., Minsky added, with a rather dismissive chuckle, that the first few versions of this super brain will likely be psychotic. So how exactly, then, are relatively dim-witted scientists expected to control such a thing once it’s turned on? So you can see the potential for a rather bad day for organic life on Planet Earth. Vinge’s own point of view is that the nightmare scenario is unlikely, since all life that has evolved on Earth always relies on the critters that came before it (think bacteria in your gut). As he put it: humans are the ultimate backup system and any super brain will understand that.
The other possibility, which Vinge brought up, was that the singularity will happen, but nobody will notice (say because the super mind just winks out of the universe as noted above, but doesn’t say hello or goodbye). Vinge added, our only indication that something did happen, would be unusual activity that appears to be outside the human sphere.
This reminds me of my favorite UFO explanation (I generally have a hard time disbelieving something isn’t happening in the sky, but have a problem assuming it has to be aliens). My preferred UFO story is that it’s just us…from the future! But perhaps, it’s the singularity looking backward at us. And perhaps the rise in those sighting is really just an indication that were getting closer to something interesting.
And what if the singularity effort fails? Vinge sees in this scenario a steady build-up to the singularity where we learn more and more about the brain and how to replicate it, but then we hit a wall that cannot be overcome. Vinge especially enjoys this particular scenario, because it means that we will finally understand that last kernel of humanity that makes us so special.
No matter what the case, it should be a wild ride to The Big Moment. Watch the skies!