When the University of Rhode Island kicked off its invigorating "Are You Ready For the Future?" speakers series a few weeks back, there was only one man for the job: inventor and provocateur Ray Kurzweil.
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Brilliant, media-savvy, and heavily credentialed — President Clinton awarded him the National Medal of Technology in 1999 — he is the closest thing we have to a spokesman for the future.
Or, more precisely, a spokesman for the singularity.
The singularity, for the uninitiated, is the moment computers create a superhuman intelligence — on their own or embedded in the human body — that utterly transforms reality.
And as Kurzweil suggests with the title of his bestselling book, The Singularity Is Near, its arrival could come sooner than you think: 2045, by his reckoning.
The breakthroughs we achieve along the way will be of enormous value, he argues. In a decade, we'll gorge ourselves without gaining weight. In 25 years, we'll run Olympic sprints for 15 minutes without taking a breath.
And, oh yeah, we'll be immortal. Biology, he says, is just a kind of software; the nanobots coursing through our blood will take care of the upgrades.
This is the singularity, for most who have come across it — on The Daily Show or in Time magazine. But among the small clutch of scientists and philosophers who have devoted their lives to the notion, it is but one view.
For many, the singularity is not nearly as predictable as Kurzweil would have it. And it is, in some tellings, quite a bit darker.
Just ask the father of the singularity, Vernor Vinge, a modest computer scientist and science fiction writer who took his own, quieter turn at the URI podium this week.
THE 'ULTRAINTELLIGENT MACHINE'
Vinge (pronounced VIN-jee), a bright-eyed 66, grew up on the Michigan State University campus, where his father taught geography.
It took him longer than most to learn how to read. But by the second grade, he was plowing through his first full book: Between Planets, a science fiction novel by Robert A. Heinlein.
Intergalactic space travel and other flights of fancy were mere curiosities for his peers. "But for me," Vinge says, "science fiction was the water the fish was swimming in."
That full immersion, he says, made the ideas he later summoned while teaching math and computer science at San Diego State University something less than surprising. But that's too modest.
His science fiction novella True Names (1981) foresaw the emergence of cyberspace, three years before William Gibson's Neuromancer popularized the term. And he was speaking publicly about the singularity a year or two later.
In a 1993 essay widely credited with coining the term, he set out the implications in language as concise as it is frightening: "Within 30 years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence," he wrote. "Shortly after, the human era will be ended."
Vinge, as he acknowledged in the piece, had his intellectual forebears. In 1965, British mathematician and cryptologist I.J. Good speculated that the first "ultraintelligent machine" would design "even better machines":