book review | Rainbows End

August 26, 2008

Source: The New York Times — | John Tierney

rainbows_endIn Vernor Vinge’s version of Southern California in 2025, there is a school named Fairmont High with the motto, “Trying hard not to become obsolete.” It may not sound inspiring, but to the many fans of Dr. Vinge, this is a most ambitious — and perhaps unattainable — goal for any member of our species.

Dr. Vinge is a mathematician and computer scientist in San Diego whose science fiction has won five Hugo Awards and earned good reviews even from engineers analyzing its technical plausibility… The problem is a concept described in Dr. Vinge’s seminal essay in 1993, “The Coming Technological Singularity,” which predicted that computers would be so powerful by 2030 that a new form of superintellligence would emerge. Dr. Vinge compared that point in history to the singularity at the edge of a black hole: a boundary beyond which the old rules no longer applied, because post-human intelligence and technology would be as unknowable to us as our civilization is to a goldfish.

The Singularity is often called “the rapture of the nerds,” but Dr. Vinge doesn’t anticipate immortal bliss. The computer scientist in him may revel in the technological marvels, but the novelist envisions catastrophes and worries about the fate of not-so-marvelous humans like Robert Gu, the protagonist of Dr. Vinge’s latest novel, Rainbows End.

It’s an unsettling vision, but Dr. Vinge classifies it as one of the least unpleasant scenarios for the future: intelligence amplification, or I.A., in which humans get steadily smarter by pooling their knowledge with one another and with computers, possibly even wiring the machines directly into their brains.

The alternative to I.A., he figures, could be the triumph of A.I. as artificial intelligence far surpasses the human variety. If that happens, Dr. Vinge says, the superintelligent machines will not content themselves with working for their human masters, nor will they remain securely confined in laboratories. As he wrote in his 1993 essay: “Imagine yourself confined to your house with only limited data access to the outside, to your masters. If those masters thought at a rate — say — one million times slower than you, there is little doubt that over a period of years (your time) you could come up with ‘helpful advice’ that would incidentally set you free.”

To avoid that scenario, Dr. Vinge has been urging his fellow humans to get smarter by collaborating with computers. (See nytimes.com/tierneylab for some of his proposals.) At the conclusion of “Rainbows End,” even the technophobic protagonist is in sync with his machines, and there are signs that the Singularity has arrived in the form of a superintelligent human-computer network. [...]

Also see:
How to Get Smarter,” a post by John Tierney on The New York Times: TierneyLab Blog.