Dark side of the future

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  September 28, 2011

The recent "flash crash" of the stock market — created, in part, by automated trading spun out of control — speaks to that volatility. And as our world becomes ever more automated, he says, it will be harder and harder to predict not just the esoteric — the stock market — but physical reality itself.

Think systems crashes: power grids gone down.

Vinge says he is troubled by our failure to pursue fallbacks to our increasingly automized world. A vehicle can't run, now, if its computer crashes. Vinge's San Diego imports food and water; what happens if the trucks stop working?


If you think this all sounds a bit ridiculous, you're not alone.

Ken MacLeod, a science fiction writer, has dubbed the singularity "the Rapture of the nerds." And there is something apocalyptic, no doubt, about the warnings of a Great Change coming — in our lifetimes, no less.

There are plenty of other reasons for skepticism, too. Artificial intelligence has made halting progress, at best, since Stanford University computer scientist John McCarthy coined the term in 1956.

And more than a few neuroscientists have suggested that the Holy Grail of artificial intelligence — reverse-engineering the human brain to see how it works — is a task of hopeless complexity.

As Eric Kandle of Columbia University Medical Center told IEEE Spectrum magazine in an issue devoted to the singularity, "no one has the foggiest notion" of how brain tissue creates the sort of conscious mind that can fall in love or appreciate sarcasm.

Kurzweil, the most prominent of the Singularitarians, is held out for particular ridicule. And it is east to see why. His claims, in all their ambitious specificity, can seem absurd.

But within the fantastic frame of the singularity, Kurzweil's take is — in an odd way — the most digestible. We're already growing organs in the lab. Recent advances in nanotechnology are impressive. Do nanobots repairing our hearts really seem a bridge too far?

In truth, though, that's just a partial explanation for Kurzweil's appeal.

His vision is compelling, in no small part, because it is comforting; it offers the promise of control. The singularity is "not going to be an alien invasion of machines to displace us," he assured the crowd at URI a few weeks ago. "We use them to make ourselves smarter."

The alternative vision — of something unknowable and, in the worst case, extinctive — is hard to bear when it doesn't come wrapped in the cartoon carnage of The Terminator.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at dscharfenberg@phx.com.


The singularity was a central part of Vernor Vinge's talk at URI September 27. But he also spent considerable time exploring what science fiction can teach us about the future.

The genre, he said, "is to humanity much the same thing that dreaming is [to] the individual human."  

>> READ:"URI’s ''Are You Ready For the Future?'' colloquium in brief" <<

Both can be nonsense, he said. But occasionally, they are prophetic — a warning of what might come.

"Sometimes you wake up from a dream with a sudden, very unpleasant realization that you've been overlooking some serious threat," Vinge said.

Here he smiled and paraphrased science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, who once said of his work: "I don't try to describe the future. I try to prevent it."

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