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March 21, 2012

Vernor Vinge is interviewed about the Singularity, rebooting civilization and living to 100,000

Wired - futurist Vernor Vinge is surprisingly optimistic when it comes to the prospect of civilization collapsing.

Rebooting Civilization from the rich carcass

Could humanity really claw its way back after a complete collapse? Haven’t we plundered the planet’s resources in ways that would be impossible to repeat?

“I disagree with that,” says Vinge. “With one exception — fossil fuels. But the stuff that we mine otherwise? We have concentrated that. I imagine that ruins of cities are richer ore fields than most of the natural ore fields we have used historically.”

That’s not to say the collapse of civilization is no big deal. The human cost would be horrendous, and there would be no comeback at all if the crash leaves no survivors. A ravaged ecosphere could stymie any hope of rebuilding, as could a disaster that destroys even the ruins of cities.




Mr. Singularity on Five Different Paths to the Singularity

I think there are all sorts of different paths to the Singularity, at least five pretty different paths. I think they’re going to be all mixed together, but it still helps to think about them separately because it makes them easier to track. For instance, there’s classical artificial intelligence. You just build a big machine and hope you can figure out some way to make it very, very smart. Or really one that is very much I think in a lot of people’s minds now is simply that the internet plus the people on the internet — so the internet, its computers, its support software, its server farms, and then billions of human beings — those together could come to constitute a superhuman entity that would qualify as giving us a Singularity.

Another path to the Singularity that in many ways is the most attractive — and actually was also the topic of the first science fiction story I ever wrote that sold — is the notion of “intelligence amplification,” which is that we get user interfaces with computers that are so transparent to us that it’s like the computer is what David Brin calls our “neo-neocortex.” What’s nice about that is that we actually get to be direct participants, and in that particular case, when I say that the post-Singularity world is unintelligible, well, yeah, it is unintelligible to the likes of you and me, but it would not be unintelligible to the participants that are using intelligence amplification. I have a friend in robotics that I brought this up with long, long ago, and he said, “Well, Vernor, I really don’t have any argument with the claims you’re making about what’s going to happen, except this business about it being unintelligible — it’s not unintelligible if you are riding the curve of increasing intelligence.” And then he smiled and said, “And I intend to ride that curve.”

There are at least two other possibilities. One is simply bio-science raising human intelligence by enhancing our memory and enhancing our ability to think clearly, and then I think there’s one that is becoming more evident but is sort of off-stage, and that is the notion of a “Digital Gaia,” a sort of internet under the internet that consists of all the networked embedded microprocessors in the world, and the Digital Gaia is certainly the most alien of the different possibilities. In fact, I sort of like to trot it out to give an example of something that’s pretty obviously very strange and hard to understand.

Living to 100,000 or 200,000

First of all, I’m all for human life extension. In The Singularity is Near, I think, he has a nice discussion of the situation that a lot of essayists have where they say, “Oh, we really don’t want that. A wise and philosophical person realizes that life needs be limited, and that’s a good thing,” these essayists say. He does a good job of criticizing that point of view, and I certainly agree with that. Furthermore, I think that a human lifespan of a thousand years with post-Singularity technology is easily doable. I think a lifespan of a thousand years would actually — Singularity aside — would do human society and human nature a great deal of good, and don’t think it is that difficult, it probably can even be achieved without having a Technological Singularity.

Life spans of 10,000 to 100,000 years, then you begin to look at what’s involved, the humans that are involved, and how capable a human mind is of absorbing variety. Larry Niven had a story many years ago called “The Ethics of Madness,” in which — it’s not the main point of the story, I don’t think, the main point of the action — but the story includes the notion of a person who lives to be 100,000 or 200,000 years old. It is really scary what they are like in the last 100,000 years or so. It raises some questions about what it means to be alive.

The complaint or the criticism here is that the human mind has a certain level of ability to handle different sorts of complexity, and if you believe that you could go 100,000 years and not be turned into a repeating tape loop, well, then let’s talk about longer period of time. How about a billion years, or a hundred billion years? At a hundred billion years, you’re out there re-engineering the universe. The age of the universe becomes your chief longevity problem. But there’s still the issue of, what would it be like to be you after that? This raises the point, which actually I’m sure is also on Ray’s mind, that if you’re going to last that long you have to become something greater, and the Singularity is ideally set up to supply that.

Compare yourself to the zygote that became you. It’s a little bit more of an empathetic stretch necessary there. I’m sure that I understand my zygote as well as it ever understood itself, but I bet you that it doesn’t understand me very well. In fact, the amount of it that’s still in me is at a very low level, even in terms of the genes. There’s what’s happened in terms of epigenetic things since that zygote began to grow. Push that further, and the little part of this story that actually is you becomes more and more diluted. So if you really are serious about talking about living forever, not just living for a thousand years or a hundred thousand years, if you’re really serious about that, you come face to face with the same general issues that the Singularity raises, and that is issues of identity and mind.
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