When Vernor Vinge takes on the topic “What if the Singularity Does NOT Happen,” interesting things are bound to follow. Thus his talk for the Long Now Foundation-sponsored Seminars About Long-Term Thinking yesterday. Vinge, a computer scientist and science fiction author, is not giving up his belief that the Singularity will happen. That event, which he believes will take place in the next few decades, should happen suddenly and be transformative in its effect. Here’s how Vinge himself describes the Singularity in an online precis of the material he used in his presentation:
It seems plausible that with technology we can, in the fairly near future, create (or become) creatures who surpass humans in every intellectual and creative dimension. Events beyond this event — call it the Technological Singularity — are as unimaginable to us as opera is to a flatworm.
Vinge’s ideas on the Singularity date back to the 1980s; he refined his thoughts on it in a 1993 essay called “The Coming Technological Singularity.” But what if the Singularity doesn’t occur? Pressed to come up with alternatives, Vinge is able to construct scenarios where the Singularity fails, three of them in fact, ranging from a return to nuclear confrontation to a ‘golden age’ where a kind of enlightenment spreads tolerance and technology-enriched education throughout the globe.
A major concern: we are in need of self-sufficient settlements outside this planet, and need to direct our energies to developing cheaper ways of getting into space. To the objection that the stars are too far away to make reasonable targets, Vinge has this to say:
* Asteroid belt civilizations might have more wealth potential than terrestrial ones.
* In the Long Now, the stars are NOT too far, even at relatively low speeds. Furthermore, interstellar radio networks would be trivial to maintain (1980s level technology). Over time, there could be dozens, hundreds, thousands of distinct human histories exchanging their experience across the centuries….
Perhaps the most plausible scenario in the event of a non-Singularity future is the one Vinge calls ‘The Wheel of Time,’ in which mega-disasters occur and civilization moves through a cycle of destruction and recovery. That makes the archaeologists and dumpster divers of his novel A Deepness in the Sky hugely significant for the survival of civilization.
All fascinating notions — and any aspiring science fiction writer should pay attention — but Vinge’s conclusion is strong: “I still regard the Singularity as the most likely non-catastrophic outcome for our near future.”