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.
It is easy to anticipate social outcry at some advances. Vinge imagined that the digitalization of books would be fiercely resisted… but nothing of the sort happened. Google faced lawsuits… but no mob in the streets. That’s not to say that advances are not sometimes met with angry mobs. Genetic engineering is resisted fiercely, especially in Europe. Again, though, what gets people down in the streets is hard to predict.
What is interesting to me is that this massive book 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 depicts delivery drones. Autonomous flying drones able to make deliveries must have sounded really far-fetched in 2006. The main difficulty today is regulatory: we have the technology to build autonomous drones that take a package and deliver it hundreds of meters away to a drop zone. Battery power is an issue, but drones can play relay games. Amazon’s plan for delivery drones is right on target to give us this technology by 2025. Short of short-sighted governments, it seems entirely certain that some areas of the USA will have routine drone deliveries by 2025.
Though Vernor Vinge is often depicted as an extremely optimistic technologist, many of his fantastic visions from the turn of the century are coming on right on schedule. We are also reminded of how long ten years can be in technology… Autonomous drones went from science-fiction and advanced research projects, to being available for sale online in ten years. Not everything follows this path… some “easy problems” turn out to be much harder than we anticipated. But surprisingly often, hard problems are solved faster than expected.