Revisiting Vernor Vinge’s “predictions” for 2025

Vernor Vinge is a retired mathematics professor who became famous through his science-fiction novels. He is also famous as being one of the first to contemplate the idea of a “technological singularity“.

There is debate as to what the technological singularity, but the general idea goes as follows. At some point in the near future (maybe between 2025 and 2050), we shall get to a point technologically where most human beings cannot make sense of the world anymore. We get a form of technological “hyperinflation“: even if you can make sense of the technology we had last year, you are hopelessly lost when looking at this year’s technology. Historically, we have almost always experienced accelerating technological progress… there are more new inventions and innovations in 2015 than any other year in our history… At some point, the rate of change might get too fast for most of us. Vinge chose the term “singularity” to describe such an event, not because we become infinitely wealthy, or machines become infinitely intelligent, but because, as in a black hole, it is an event that you cannot “see” even as you get closer… Your models of reality break down at that point.

In his 2006 novel, Rainbows End, he paints a world going through such singularity. It is in our near future too (2025). In this world, information technology has made such progress that anyone who hasn’t kept up-to-date for the last ten years is hopelessly obsolete… as if, say, you tried to live in 2015 through the lens of someone from 1970. Any intellectual asleep from 1970 to today would need to go back to basic training… learn how to use a computer, maybe starting from a PC. This may require high-school-level retraining. Now imagine that the next ten years (hypothetically) bring about as much change as we underwent in the last 35 years. Most people under 20 today would adapt though an increasing numbers would fall to the side. However, most people over 50 today might end up being pushed aside, as the rate of change becomes faster than they can cope with.

Writing near-future science-fiction is very difficult as it becomes almost instantly obsolete. And you will find very little near-future science-fiction for this very reason. But Vinge was no doubt well aware of this challenge and he is a smart fellow, so maybe his “predictions” for the year 2025 are going to hold out better than, say, mine would.

Let me review some of his predictions:

  • In his novel, many people earn a small income through informal part-time work with affiliate networks, doing random work. Today you can earn a small income through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and there are many Uber-like services whereas individuals can earn small sums by doing various services. So this prediction is almost certainly coming true.
  • In his novel, we have ubiquitous high-bandwidth networking and zero privacy in 2025. That is, everyone is connected all the time, and hackers can track individuals easily. Given that your smart phone is tracking your every move already, this does not sound improbable.
  • In Rainbows end, we have ubiquitous augmented reality. You can “almost” appear to be at a meeting by projecting your image at a remote location so that people who are equipped with the proper gear can see you and get the impression that you are present. You can virtually repaint your house every day, and people with the right gear can see it as such. This is shown to have applications in gaming, education and medicine. Sadly, we have nothing close to that right now, and it is probably the most disrupting technology in the novel. We had Google Glass but the whole field of virtual/augmented reality has not been making much progress. Can we expect a breakthrough in the next ten years? Maybe. My understanding is that augmented reality is much harder to achieve that it appears. On a related note, hardly anyone has a PC in 2025. I have been (wrongly) predicting the death of the PC for many years now… with no luck… but if we get ubiquitous augmented reality, then a PC would really look old-school.

    In any case, why would ubiquitous augmented reality be so disrupting? Because it draws a sharp line between those who are in it and those who are not. If businesses were to begin relying on augmented reality, employees would have to pick it up quickly or be left behind.

  • In Vinge’s 2025, people can send silent messages without talking or (openly) typing. It does feel like the kind of application that could take off.
  • Ving predicts self-driving cars that can take you somewhere, drop you off and go on to serve other needs. I think Google has shown that it is possible, soon.
  • There is no newspaper, not even the online equivalent. People get news somehow though.
  • It looks like neurodegenerative diseases have mostly been cured. The main character suffered from Alzheimer’s and came back. It is, of course, impossible to tell whether such a medical feat could happen in the next ten years… there are certainly many smart scientists trying to make it happen. However, obesity is still a problem and you can still die from a stroke.

    Many things are related in this respect. Better technology can help us better understand our body and our brain, but a better understanding of our brain could also help us build better technology (better AI). But we have to remain humble: we have known about Alzheimer’s disease for a century and we still have nothing that even looks like a cure from a distance. Naturally, these problems tend to be binary, one day you have no effective treatment, the next you do.

  • The book alludes to a massive book digitalization effort under way. When the book was written, Google had initiated its book digitalization effort. It is impossible to know exactly how far Google is along in its project, but they reported having digitalized about a quarter of all books ever published in 2013. Google plans to have digitalized most books ever published by 2020. This makes Vernor Vinge into a pessimist: it seems absolutely certain that by 2025, most books will be available electronically. Sadly, most books won’t be available for free, but that has more to do with copyright law than technology.

    What is interesting to me is that this massive digitalization effort has not had a big impact. Even if we had free access to all of the world’s literature, I doubt most people would notice. Mostly, people do not care very much about old books. Wikipedia is a much bigger deal.

    And this makes sense in a fast evolving civilization… It is not that we do not care about, say, history… it is just that most of us do not have time to dig in old history books… what we are looking for are a few experts who have this time and can report back to us with relevant information.

    Will artificial intelligence eventually be able to dig into all these old books and report back to us in a coherent manner? Maybe. For now, much hope has been invested in digital humanities… and I do not think it taught us much about Shakespeare.

  • Rainbows end depict delivery drones, and Amazon’s plan for delivery drone is right on target to give us this technology by 2025.

There are more surprises in the novel, but I do not want to include spoilers.

It is maybe interesting to note that while 2006 is not that far in the past, it is also before the first iPhone ever made it to the market. The first iPad came in 2010. Android did not exist in 2006. I think that Vinge had to make a real effort to imagine 2025 and it looks like he did well.

Vinge has predicted in public the singularity for 2030. The problem, of course, is that with such an ill-defined concept, we could say, if we wanted to, that we are going through the singularity right now. I am far more interested to know when augmented reality will be ubiquitous.

25 thoughts on “Revisiting Vernor Vinge’s “predictions” for 2025”

  1. @Bill

    That’s a very good point.

    I am mostly just interested in following specific facts about technology, and I am not sure that concepts such a “singularity” are helpful… precisely because it is a bit fuzzy.

    For example, when will machines reach human-level intelligence? Well, in many ways, they have already exceeded human-level intelligence… so what does that mean exactly?

  2. Funny thing: a few years ago I did a piece looking at the futuristic predictions from Rainbows End, but it doesn’t seem like the things I looked at overlap with yours.

    Things I noticed:

    * The way they do fast destructive scanning of books by essentially putting them through a shredder and scanning the fragments as they blow past. We don’t have anything like that now, but shortly after the book was written (or shortly before?) Google touched off a firestorm of protest by its plan to digitize the contents of entire libraries in a rather slower process. It’s amusing to consider how by the time of the book, nobody seems to have much of a problem with China coming in and doing exactly the same thing to one of the biggest libraries in the world. They have a problem with the books being destroyed to do it, but apart from that? “Hey, China, make yourself at home!”

    * Micropayments are big in RE. We’re only just starting to see some of that sort of thing come in in the real world, in the form of Patreons for supporting creators and in-app purchases for mobile games (which are really the closest analogue we have to the way that belief circle members can use settings still under copyright).

    * Also, did you notice that in RE, the copyright term of movies is just five years? I suppose when you’re writing your own fantasy world, you can simply declare copyright to have been reformed by fiat and not have to worry about how you actually got there. 😛

    * I’m really surprised you didn’t mention the FedEx delivery drones (which were also a central factor in the short story that inspired RE, “Fast Times at Fairmont High”). That’s a prediction that looks like it has a pretty good chance of coming true, what with Amazon’s plan for delivery drones.

    * And finally, to use a TVTropes term, there’s the book’s “funny aneurysm moment” in that the central character was a recovered Alzheimer’s patient and part of the story involved a fictitious future Discworld novel. In a sad bit of irony, we just lost Terry Pratchett himself to Alzheimer’s a little while ago.

  3. I think we’re seeing something like this in JavaScript frontend development. It seems each year it evolves a little faster. Spend a year out of the loop and you are obsolete. Even a month is pushing it if you want to remain bleeding edge.

    Perhaps the pace of development will slow down at some point as standardization picks up but I wouldn’t bet on it. There’s always some new thing around the corner.

    We’re also seeing something similar in web design. There are services on sight that can design a site based on given content. This would leave the designer out of the equation.

    A nice benefit of these approaches is that they can allow sites that can optimize their behavior based on usage and metrics (think SEO).

  4. Here’s another one that only just occurred to me recently. I’ve been playing a lot of the mobile geolocation game Ingress, in which people have to go to specific places in the real world and do things to affect the outcome of the game.

    I’ve said before that it seems like something out of science-fiction. I only just twigged to the fact that the science fiction it seems like something out of is Rainbows End. It’s like one of Vinge’s “belief circles,” sans the augmented reality stuff.

    As with in the book, Ingress players go to specific locations in the real world and cooperate to achieve in-game goals. Sometimes they make really complicated plans that play out across vast geographical areas. (Occasionally so many of them show up in particular places, especially cemeteries, and behave so badly that they get kicked out.)

    They can also get really into these operations, planning them with a level of organization that suggests real-life intelligence organizations in the real world—becoming familiar with the play areas and habits of players on opposing sides and watching to see if they show up in strange places to try to figure out if an enemy operation is going on.

    And very little of this is visible to anyone who isn’t in the game. It all plays out in their virtual map overlaid on the real world.

  5. @Chris

    I cringed when I re-read the part about Terry Pratchett recently.

    I have taken the liberty to update my blog post with two of the points you rose, that is, Google Books and Amazon drones.

  6. @Juho

    Programming is progressing quite fast, I agree. I can build, today, in one hour an application that would have taken me a full week-end or more years ago.

    Sadly, other parts of programming have not followed and are still quite painful. C programming is still slow, error-prone and difficult… yet, there is no good alternative in many cases.

  7. @Juho

    I was hoping that Go was a “better C”, but it is nothing of the sort.

    I am having a hard time getting excited about Rust, it looks like a difficult language to pick up and master (kind of like C++).

    In this sense, I am more excited about Go… at least, it is easy and frees my mind to think about the problem rather than about the syntax.

  8. @Chris

    Ingress is indeed a form of “augmented reality”. However, Ingress is not very different from geocaching which started back in 2000, well before Rainbows end was written.

    (I am sure geocachers have been kicked out of cemeteries before.)

    What we would want, of course, is actual “visual” augmented reality where you can *see* the Ingress portals (with glasses or lens).

    It would be sad if it did not come in the next 10 years, but I understand that it is quite difficult. To project an overlay picture, you have to know where the user is looking at… and be very precise otherwise you induce motion sickness. Sadly, I don’t think we know how to do that yet.

  9. I think augmented reality as envisioned by Vernor Vinge is not that far away although it will look a bit different The first wave of this devices are coming next year. The motions sickness has been already solved by Valve also if the hype is real MagicLeap also solve it using light-field technology. The only question remaining : are those technology get any traction or will they fail like Google Glasses did ? If it does then I think we will see Vinge vision in the next 5 years.

  10. Just on the neurodegenerative treatment front: we’re recently had the first drug released that can actually retard the process of Alzheimers. Admittedly, it doesn’t stop or reverse it – only slow it down – but together with new ways to image and detect Alzheimers at early stages (which has arguably been the fundamental problem in Alzheimers research), it’s a real game changer. A cure by 2025? Maybe.

  11. @Agapow

    It does look like high resolution imaging techniques could help researchers.

    I am not aware of any therapy that is known to reliably delay the onset of Alzheimer’s. There are approved drugs, but, as far as I know, their utility is dubious at best. It seems more of a case that when nothing at all works, you might as well do something, anything.

    Of course, there are many ongoing clinical trials…

  12. @Daniel

    As far as I know gaming companies work mostly on virtual reality. Augmented reality is a different problem, isn’t it?

    To be fair, even in Vinge’s novel, augmented reality appears to be a work in progress.

  13. @ Daniel

    You right however Magic Leap is not virtual reality is truly augmented reality and then you have Microsoft Hololens they called it mixed reality but I don’t see the difference. Valve, they solved the motion sickens problem I think once it is proven technology it will be not that difficult to apply it to the augmented reality.

  14. I was reminded of this post by an article I read today that paints Google Books in a far less optimistic light: This might be another one for your list of “dystopias you should fear” ( services provide increasing value but the churn in their providers grows apace with the value, with services often languishing after they’re created.

  15. @Kartik

    Though the New Yorker piece was written days ago, it seems to mostly refer to the pre-2013 era. I am not sure how much weight we should give it. I’d like to hear Google’s side of the story to see what is actually happening.

  16. Silly article. I need to defenestrate it for TeleRead. Whatever happened to Google Books? Both it and its HathiTrust offshoot—scanning the books for search-engine fodder—were found to be transformative fair use.

    Tim Wu seems to feel like it’s a failure if the books aren’t made available to the public, but realistically speaking, I don’t think that was ever really in the cards. There simply isn’t a good solution for the orphan works problem yet. Hopefully the TPP treaty doesn’t foreclose on a solution before they can even begin to implement it.

    In the meanwhile, at least those books are searchable in a way they never were before, and now people have a much better way than fumbling through the card catalog to find out exactly what books they want, and then they can order them from Amazon or request them from their library.

  17. Daniel Lemire: Why, did something important happen in 2013?

    Chris Meadows: nice article. I was mostly concerned about Google shutting down the service like Google Reader and so on, but I wasn’t aware of hathitrust which protects us from that possibility.

    (You can’t claim any defenestration, though, until you get Tim Wu to stop writing for the New Yorker or something. I always found it too ugly a word to user lightly.)

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