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Dr. Jasmin Cowin special article: Vernor Vinge Remembered

Vinge - Visionary of the Singularity, Remembered Through "A Fire Upon the Deep"
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“Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.” (Vernor Vinge, 1993)

The science fiction community mourns Vernor Vinge, who passed away on March 20th, 2024. His writings will continue to inspire reflection on technology and the potential of artificial intelligence. His space opera “A Fire Upon the Deep,” serves as a pivotal exploration of the complexities surrounding the advancement of intelligence and technology. 

“[The Universe] does not care, and even with all our science, there are some disasters that we can not avert. All evil and good is petty before nature. Personally, we take comfort from this, that there is a universe to admire that can not be twisted to villainy or good, but which simply is.”

(Vernor Vinge, A Fire Upon the Deep)

Vinge’s quote echoes a sentiment that transcends the individual and touches on the universal, a theme similarly explored in Greg Bear’s “Blood Music.” Bear’s narrative explores the unforeseen consequences of self-replicating biological technology, underscoring the notion that our control over nature and technological processes might ultimately be limited. Bear paints a picture of the major changes happening in a matter of hours: From the human point of view, this change will be a throwing away of all the previous rules, perhaps in the blink of an eye, an exponential runaway beyond any hope of control. Both authors echo Anton Chekhov’s sentiments: ‘The sea has neither meaning nor pity,’ a quote challenging anthropomorphic views by highlighting the limitations of human perspectives and the objective reality of nature.

Vinge is credited with popularizing the idea of the term “Singularity,” and bringing it to the forefront of science fiction and technological discussions. The origin of the ‘Singularity’ concept can be traced back to John von Neumann, a Hungarian-American mathematician, physicist, computer scientist, and polymath. Von Neumann, in the mid-20th century, spoke of a “singularity” occurring in human history once technological progress reached a certain tipping point. Vinge, however, expanded on the idea significantly. In his 1993 essay, “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era,” Vinge argued that this point would be reached when artificial intelligence or enhancements to human intelligence would lead to exponential growth in technological advancement, making the future beyond this point unpredictable and incomprehensible to humans. 

The Singularity and Beyond

George Stent’s “The Coming of the Golden Age: A View of the End of Progress” provides a historical perspective on the cycles of human advancement and the prospects of reaching an apex of development. When juxtaposed with Vinge’s singularity concept, Stent’s analysis offers a broader context for debating the nature of progress and the potential for a paradigm shift in human intellect and society. The dialogue between these perspectives enriches our understanding of what the future might hold, challenging us to envision a world where the linear progression of technology gives way to exponential, transformative growth. 

Vinge’s interview with Jim Euchner in 2017 highlights the prescient nature of his science fiction writing, particularly about current issues surrounding the Internet of Things (IoT), privacy, and surveillance. His early exploration of “the Other Plane” in his cyberpunk novella “True Names” foreshadowed the development of cyberspace and the challenges we face today regarding identity, privacy, and security in our digital realities. As the IoT continues to expand, with more devices and systems becoming interconnected, Vinge’s concerns about cybersecurity and infrastructure security are more relevant than ever. The increasing number of connected devices, from smart homes to industrial control systems, has created a vast attack surface for malicious actors. Vinge’s warning about the potential for state actors or other entities to exploit these systems for harm or military gain is particularly pertinent in light of recent cyberattacks targeting critical infrastructure, such as the Colonial Pipeline hack in 2021.

Vinge’s concept of “You Gotta Believe Me” (YGBM) technology in “Rainbows End,” a form of mind control, shares thematic similarities with the satirical novel “The Space Merchants” by Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth. “The Space Merchants,” published in 1952, presents a dystopian future where advertising agencies hold immense power and influence over society, manipulating consumers through sophisticated marketing techniques and psychological manipulation.”Rainbows End” extends the concept of manipulation to the domain of digital technology and its potential impact on human cognition and perception. The connection between these two works highlights the enduring relevance of science fiction in exploring the social, political, and ethical dimensions of technological advancement, encouraging readers to critically examine the world around them and consider the consequences of unchecked technological power.

In the vast expanse of Vinge’s universes, the possible negatives of a singularity – loss of control, ethical quandaries, the blurring line between human and machine – are not merely speculative fiction. They are vibrant, lived experiences of his characters, compelling us to ponder on our path forward. Will we heed the cautionary tales spun from Vinge’s imagination, acknowledging our vulnerabilities and the peril of our pride? Or will we forge ahead, blinded by the allure of the unknown, driven by the same pride that has led empires to fall and civilizations to crumble?

References:

Bear, G. (1983). Blood Music. Analog Science Fiction-Science Fact, June. Expanded into the novel Blood Music, Morrow, 1985.

Vinge, V. (1993). The coming technological singularity: How to survive in the post-human era. Whole Earth Review, Winter 1993. San Diego State University, Department of Mathematical Sciences. (Original work presented at the VISION-21 Symposium sponsored by NASA Lewis Research Center and the Ohio Aerospace Institute, March 30-31, 1993).

Stent, G. S. (1969). The Coming of the Golden Age: A View of the End of Progress. The Natural History Press.

Vinge, V., & Euchner, J. (2017.). Science Fiction as Foresight: An Interview with Vernor Vinge. Research-Technology Management. https://doi.org/10.1080/08956308.2017.1255048

This article has been produced by Dr. Jasmin (Bey) Cowin, Associate Professor and U.S. Department of State English Language Specialist (2024) As a Columnist for Stankevicius she writes on Nicomachean Ethics – Insights at the Intersection of AI and Education.

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Dr. Jasmin Cowin
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