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.
- Vinge 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.