Here are the notes for my talk at ALA Midwinter Meeting, 8 January 2011.
At the moment, this file is also available at: www.rohan.sdsu.edu/faculty/vinge/misc/enablers.htm
The Technological Singularity
More than any other animal, we humans invent ways to outsource
cognitive function. We've been doing this for a long time. For
instance, writing is an outsourcing of memory; money is a scalar that
allows the comparison of vastly different objects.
During the last century, the outsourcing process has become
more diverse and intense.
It seems plausible that with technology we can, in the fairly near future,
create (or become) creatures who surpass humans in every intellectual and
Paths to the Singularity
each with its special flavor and danger and promise (though developments are
concurrent and interacting):
- Humanity plus Computer Networks
- Intelligence Amplification (IA)
- Artificial Intelligence (AI)
- Digital Gaia: Fine-grained distributed systems
Note that all together this list engages the efforts of hundreds of
thousands of serious researchers, many of whom are not knowing
participants in the enterprise.
Even though the post-Singularity world will probably be
incomprehensible to us, the runup to the transition is something we
can track -- and more importantly -- even effect.
During that time, almost every occupation will be disrupted and
transformed, even and especially those that are most important to
progress. Librarians for instance ...
Humanity plus Computer Networks
The Internet is already evidence of radical intellectual change in
Human culture. As much as illustrating the power of computers, the
Internet shows the power of large numbers of educated, creative,
communicating, human beings. Nowadays, for almost any topic, the
world's most focused hobbyists (and often professional specialists)
are "just down the hall" from your office.
Making library facilities accessible via the tools of the Web is
probably the most natural and least stressful of the transformations
one can imagine for the library enterprise.
At the same time, this path to the Singularity provides hope that
humanity will be able to guide progress along the other paths toward
How intimate can the user interface (with computers and networks) become?
Paraphrasing David Brin's take on the close coupling of computers with the
human intellect: ~"The computer portions might make up a kind of neo-neocortex,
providing scalable processing power, while the organic part provides what we
natural humans have always been good at: desire, setting goals and aims.~"
In 2011, the most spectacular manifestation of progress along this
path is the popularity of smartphones (such as Android, iPhone, ...).
Augmented reality applications have appeared and should become much
more important if we can get widespread use of head-up displays and
high accuracy positioning technology.
Smartphones provide local processing and sensing. In principle, they
allow the power of the Internet to be focused upon individual
concerns, in almost any location and situation. If the goal of this
progress is to provide the "neo-neocortex" that David Brin talks
about, what does that imply about access to libraries?
Nowadays, most people are familiar with the style of google
searches. Those searches could improved with more information about
the user (for example, information about where the user is looking and
what s/he is saying). This level of interface was apparent in Rainbows End.
The goal beyond Rainbows End would be information access
as swift as natural human memory -- and often solutions produced as fast
problems can be imagined.
Many years ago I saw a librarian pictured as the people's safari guide
through the jungles of accumulated knowledge. I still love that
metaphor, but it is unsettling to realize that, in fact, librarianship
may soon become a seamless aspect of cognition.
Below the user interface
- Classical Greek literature: circa 250MB
- LoC text in the year 1950: circa 20TB?
Once digitized, these are not large bodies (by 2011 standards).
Once digitized, there are at least two big problems. The first is
the need impose structure on the data.
If an a priori scope limit can be established, a corpus can be
crafted into a wondrous jewel of knowledge.
- Thesaurus Linguae Graecae
(If TLG imposes a strict cutoff date.)
- Googling the Victorians
- We (you) could probably transform the entire Human heritage
up to (now-70years) into such a gem -- if it weren't for the
Fear/Uncertainty/Doubt associated with copyright expiration.
Much of classical AI hopes depend on corpuses no bigger than
this. (Consider what Google translator has done with just the
corpus of UN parallel texts.)
- The future of discrete units of writing (books) in such an environment
Of course, the second big problem with large data stores is that there
is no scope limitation. Even worse ...
The Collyer Brothers discover cyberspace
At the other extreme from the gems of organized knowledge are the data
piles created by those users who are never satisfied, whose
data always fills whatever storage space current tech and budgets can
supply, stressing even the gentlest data structuring tools.
In fact, hardcore cyberspace packrats revel in using the new
technologies to generate more data. They didn't blink at
Petabytes; they may not blink at Exabytes.
In fact, it takes only moderate imagination to conceive of uses for
such volumes of data (though humans might shrink from calling it
information, much less knowledge).
We are already in a situation where most data will never ever by seen
by even a single human being. Miracles might lurk within it, but
that is the domain of the machines. The machines will need librarians....
Beyond the server farms: Digital Gaia
Nowadays, when people talk about large quantities of stored data, they
usually think of huge server farms. There is another model for
large scale storage and computation:
- Networked systems of embedded processors
- Data storage and logic
- Multi-hop networking allows high rate communications at low power
per node. (Tim Shepard thesis: Decentralized Channel Management in Scalable Multihop Spread-Spectrum Packet Radio Networks, ftp://ftp-pubs.lcs.mit.edu/pub/lcs-pubs/tr.outbox/MIT-LCS-TR-670.ps.gz
- Most objects will know what they are, where they are, and they can
talk to near neighbors -- and therefore to anywhere in the
connected world. Information is more easily kept up to date
than with the server farms. Potential storage capacity is
larger than the server farms.
- Reality as its own database
- Digital Gaia
See also Ventus, Tor Books, 2001, and Pirate
Sun, Tor Books 2010, both by Karl Schroeder.
- A. Johansen and D. Sornette, "Finite-time singularity in the dynamics of the
world population and economic indices", Physica A 294 (3-4), 465-502 (15 May
(Foreseeing strangeness in the near future but from a different
direction than the Technological Singularity.)
- Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Viking, 2005
- Patrick Leary, "Googling the Victorians", Journal of Victorian Culture, Spring 2005,
- Hans Moravec, Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind,
Oxford University Press, 1999
- Martin Rees, Our Final Hour, Basic Books, 2003. Many plausible,
terrible things that can happen, without the Technological Singularity.
- Karl Schroeder, Pirate Sun, Tor Books, 2010. Part of a
series of novels, wherein the nodes of a distributed computer system
are so powerful that technology can be reinvented on the spot,
- Karl Schroeder, Ventus, Tor Books, 2001. Science fiction
focusing on the nature of extremely distributed computing.
- Tim Shepard, Decentralized Channel Management in Scalable
Multihop Spread-Spectrum Packet Radio Networks,
Shows how extraordinary network bit rates can be achieved with
low-power transmitters and store-and-forward networking.
- Bruce Sterling, "Maneki Neko", The Magazine of Fantasy Science Fiction, May 1998, reprinted in A Good Old-Fashioned Future, Spectra, 1999. Early, insightful, and funny illustration of the power of networks plus people.
- Gregory Stock, Metaman, Transworld Publishers Ltd, 1993.
- Charles Stross, Accelerando, Ace, 2005.
- Charles Stross, "Antibodies", Toast, Cosmos Publishers, 2005.
- Bob Thompson, "Explosive Words: At BookExpo America, Publishing's
Digital Wave Crashes against a Literary Pillar." The Washington
Post, 22 May 2006, C1.
In which the debate between Kevin Kelly and John Updike about the
future of books is described.
- S. Ulam, "Tribute to John von Neumann", Bulletin of the American
Mathematical Society, vol. 64. no. 3, May 1958, pp. 1-49.
(John von Neumann using the term "singularity" with regard to the
general progress of techololgy.)
- Vernor Vinge, "Bookworm, Run!", Analog, March 1966, 8-40. Reprinted
in The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge, Tor Books, 2001. An early intelligence amplification story. The hero is the first experimental subject -- a chimpanzee raised to human intelligence.
- Vernor Vinge, "The Technological Singularity",
presented at VISION-21 Symposium sponsored by NASA Lewis Research
Center and the Ohio Aerospace Institute, March 30-31, 1993. It is
also retrievable from the NASA technical reports server as part of
- Vernor Vinge, "Nature, Bloody in Tooth and Claw?",
The original version of this article was prepared for the 1996
British National Science Fiction Convention (Evolution).
- Vernor Vinge, "True Names", 1981, reprinted in True Names and the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier, J. Frenkel, editor, Tor Books, 2001.
- Vernor Vinge, "The Cookie Monster", Analog, October 2003.
- Vernor Vinge, "Win a Nobel Prize!", Nature, October 2000,
reprinted in The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge, Tor Books,
- Vernor Vinge, Rainbows End, Tor Books, 2006.
- Vernor Vinge, "Technology and New Populisms",
A discussion and classification of belief circles and life-style cults.
- Vernor Vinge "What If the Singularity Does NOT Happen",
Talk at Seminars about Long-Term Thinking, 15 February 2007,