The World (and Jason Griffey) Interviews Vernor Vinge

Jason Griffey kicked off the session by introducing Dr. Vernor Vinge and talking about his many accolades as a science fiction writer and futurist.

Dr. Vinge then talked about how humans are the best tool-creating animal and the only animal that has figured out how to outsource their cognition — how to spread their cognitive abilities into the outside world.  As an example, he talked about how  writing and speaking are an outsourcing of our thinking and money represents an outsourcing of our perceived value for things.

As humans continue to outsource cognition more effectively by harnessing powerful machines and complex networks, we move closer to a point of technological singularity.  At this point, where a superhuman intelligence can be achieved by machines or some combination of humans and machines, it will become too difficult for humans to fully grasp the present or to predict the future.  As an example, he talked about how someone might be able to explain the present time and the fundamental changes that had led up to today to Mark Twain in an afternoon.  But what if that same person was trying to explain all of this to a goldfish or a chimpanzee?

Next Dr. Vinge discussed the forces of change that he sees driving society toward this envisioned state of  “technological singularity”.

He began by highlighting the power of humans together with computer networks.  He said that development and expansion of cell phone networks and computer networks and the billions of people on these networks has impacted the way we see the world. In the past, there was a “life boat earth” world view where population growth, lack of resources and environmental problems  would make competition among the populations of the world a negative sum game.  He compared that perspective on the world to the optimism that now stems from the use of networks for communication and crowdsourcing.   People can pursue their life interests with passion and enthusiasm and increasingly intelligent networks continue to get better at harnessing the power of intense creative energy for the benefit of  all.

Then he talked about the concept of intelligence amplification He indicated that users who start to develop an intimate enough interface with computers could potentially become superhuman.  The computer becomes sort of a “neo neo cortex”.   He offered some current examples of how computers are already creating an augmented reality such as Heads-Up Displays that enhance what is being viewed to offer the benefit of additional data and context.

He then explored the potential for fine grained distributed systems or Digital Gaia.  He underscored that while the computing power and potential of vast server farms is highly publicized as it relates to Google, Amazon, Microsoft, this is not the only way or the best way to capitalize on available technologies. For some tasks, he said that it is much more favorable to use embedded systems of microprocessors. As an example, there is potential that scientists might want to monitor the metabolism of the individual cells within the human body by placing a microprocessor in every cell and this type of approach would scale well with low power nodes.  The outcome of such a project would be quite strange– “where reality becomes its own database.”

Jason Griffey asked Dr. Vinge about his early experiences with libraries and he talked about how he used to visit relatives and take advantage of their library cards so that he could read books from other library’s science fiction collections.  He talked about the special role of librarians as enablers of the future and guardians of the past.

When asked about ereaders, he indicated that he did not have an ereader currently and that he typically relies on a laptop or desktop for most of his reading and research since he is consumed by finishing a book.  He also expressed concern about the need to better understand DRM and the “pyramid of standards and legalities” associated with ebook devices.

Dr. Vinge then addressed whether it was possible that technological singularity would not happen.  He said that some have made the argument that a single neuron is more powerful than most powerful super computer and if true that could delay technological singularity.  Over the next 10 to 30 years, he said, “we will be getting answers that only great philosophers and college sophomores have talked about.”  He said that for a long time it had just been assumed that a machine could never play chess and then there was IBM’s Big Blue and things like this just keep gettting chipped away.