Vernor Vinge and The Coming Technological Singularity

Sometimes I make dark allusions to an Internet index being the germ of a sentient artificial being which will grow to enslave us all. I’m an admittedly pessimistic person, but I think it’s almost inevitable. As a proponent of an open index, I’m a shill for our future overlords, but if I’m going to get to select who becomes my master, I’d prefer a benign one dedicated to public service. The problem with a distributed index, is that it has no obvious ‘off’ switch.

In 1993, science fiction author and mathematician Vernor Vinge wrote The Coming Technological Singularity.

‘Technological singularity’ refers to that point in time – perhaps in the next 20 years, when the technology we have invented becomes smart enough to surpass us in creation. At that point, we become obsolete.

I really do see a comprehensive index as being a significant component of a superhuman intelligence. After all, it is the point of access to human knowledge and experience; a magnificent database. Usually, I feel a little shiver of dread – I believe that an evolved intelligence owes us no more allegiance than we owe our evolutionary ancestors and companions.

Vinge wrote:

Within thirty years, we will have the technological
means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after,
the human era will be ended.


But if the technological Singularity can happen, it will. Even
if all the governments of the world were to understand the “threat”
and be in deadly fear of it, progress toward the goal would continue.
In fiction, there have been stories of laws passed forbidding the
construction of “a machine in the likeness of the human mind” [13].
In fact, the competitive advantage — economic, military, even
artistic — of every advance in automation is so compelling that
passing laws, or having customs, that forbid such things merely
assures that someone else will get them first.


When people speak of creating superhumanly intelligent beings,
they are usually imagining an AI project. But as I noted at the
beginning of this paper, there are other paths to superhumanity.
Computer networks and human-computer interfaces seem more mundane than
AI, and yet they could lead to the Singularity. I call this
contrasting approach Intelligence Amplification (IA). IA is something
that is proceeding very naturally, in most cases not even recognized
by its developers for what it is. But every time our ability to access
information and to communicate it to others is improved, in some sense
we have achieved an increase over natural intelligence.

Vinge’s essay was somewhat updated in 2003. See The Coming Technological Singularity (2003). Also see Wikipedia: Technological Singularity.

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