by Vernor Vinge
San Diego State University
This article may be reproduced for noncommercial
purposes if it is copied in its entirety, including this
The original version of this article was presented at
the VISION-21 Symposium sponsored by NASA Lewis Research
Center and the Ohio Aerospace Institute, March 30-31,
1993. A slightly changed version appeared in the Winter
1993 issue of Whole Earth Review.
Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create
superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.
Is such progress avoidable? If not to be avoided, can events be
guided so that we may survive? These questions are investigated.
Some possible answers (and some further dangers) are presented.
What is The
The acceleration of technological progress has been the central
feature of this century.
I argue in this paper that we are on the
edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth. The
precise cause of this change is the imminent creation by technology
of entities with greater than human intelligence.
There are several means by which science
may achieve this breakthrough (and this is another reason for having
confidence that the event will occur):
There may be developed computers
that are "awake" and superhumanly intelligent. (To date,
there has been much controversy as to whether we can create
human equivalence in a machine. But if the answer is "yes,
we can", then there is little doubt that beings more
intelligent can be constructed shortly thereafter.)
Large computer networks (and
their associated users) may "wake up" as a superhumanly
Computer/human interfaces may
become so intimate that users may reasonably be considered
Biological science may provide
means to improve natural human intellect.
The first three possibilities depend in
large part on improvements in computer hardware. Progress in
computer hardware has followed an amazingly steady curve in the last
few decades .
Based largely on this trend, I believe
that the creation of greater than human intelligence will occur
during the next thirty years.
(Charles Platt  has
pointed out that AI enthusiasts have been making claims like this
for the last thirty years. Just so I'm not guilty of a relative-time
ambiguity, let me more specific: I'll be surprised if this event
occurs before 2005 or after 2030.)
What are the consequences of this event? When greater-than-human
intelligence drives progress, that progress will be much more rapid.
In fact, there seems no reason why progress itself would not involve
the creation of still more intelligent entities - on a still-shorter
The best analogy that I see is with the evolutionary
Animals can adapt to problems and make inventions, but often
no faster than natural selection can do its work - the world acts as
its own simulator in the case of natural selection.
We humans have the ability to
internalize the world and conduct "what if's" in our heads; we can
solve many problems thousands of times faster than natural
Now, by creating the means to execute those simulations
at much higher speeds, we are entering a regime as radically
different from our human past as we humans are from the lower
From the human point of view this change will be a throwing away of
all the previous rules, perhaps in the blink of an eye, an
exponential runaway beyond any hope of control. Developments that
before were thought might only happen in "a million years" (if ever)
will likely happen in the next century. (In , Greg
Bear paints a picture of the major changes happening in a matter of
I think it's fair to call this event a singularity ("the
Singularity" for the purposes of this paper). It is a point where
our old models must be discarded and a new reality rules. As we move
closer to this point, it will loom vaster and vaster over human
affairs till the notion becomes a commonplace. Yet when it finally
happens it may still be a great surprise and a greater unknown. In
the 1950s there were very few who saw it: Stan Ulam 
paraphrased John von Neumann as saying:
One conversation centered on the ever accelerating progress of
technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the
appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history
of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not
Von Neumann even uses the term singularity, though it appears he is
thinking of normal progress, not the creation of superhuman
intellect. (For me, the superhumanity is the essence of the
Singularity. Without that we would get a glut of technical riches,
never properly absorbed - see .)
In the 1960s there was recognition of some of the implications of
superhuman intelligence. I. J. Good wrote :
Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far
surpass all the intellectual activities of any any man however
clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual
activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better
machines; there would then unquestionably be an "intelligence
explosion," and the intelligence of man would be left far behind.
Thus the first ultraintelligent machine
is the "last" invention that man need ever make, provided that the
machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control...
It is more probable than not that, within the twentieth century, an
ultraintelligent machine will be built and that it will be the last
invention that man need make.
Good has captured the essence of the runaway, but does not pursue
its most disturbing consequences. Any intelligent machine of the
sort he describes would not be humankind's "tool" - any more than
humans are the tools of rabbits or robins or chimpanzees.
Through the '60s and '70s and '80s, recognition of the cataclysm
spread    . Perhaps it was the
science-fiction writers who felt the first concrete impact. After
all, the "hard" science-fiction writers are the ones who try to
write specific stories about all that technology may do for us. More
and more, these writers felt an opaque wall across the future. Once,
they could put such fantasies millions of years in the future
Now they saw that their most diligent
extrapolations resulted in the unknowable ... soon. Once, galactic
empires might have seemed a Post-Human domain. Now, sadly, even
interplanetary ones are.
What about the '90s and the '00s and the '10s, as we slide toward
the edge? How will the approach of the Singularity spread across the
human world view? For a while yet, the general critics of machine
sapience will have good press. After all, till we have hardware as
powerful as a human brain it is probably foolish to think we'll be
able to create human equivalent (or greater) intelligence.
(There is the far-fetched possibility
that we could make a human equivalent out of less powerful hardware,
if we were willing to give up speed, if we were willing to settle
for an artificial being who was literally slow . But
it's much more likely that devising the software will be a tricky
process, involving lots of false starts and experimentation. If so,
then the arrival of self-aware machines will not happen till after
the development of hardware that is substantially more powerful than
humans' natural equipment.)
But as time passes, we should see more symptoms. The dilemma felt by
science fiction writers will be perceived in other creative
endeavors. (I have heard thoughtful comic book writers worry about
how to have spectacular effects when everything visible can be
produced by the technologically commonplace.)
We will see automation replacing higher
and higher level jobs. We have tools right now (symbolic math
programs, cad/cam) that release us from most low-level drudgery. Or
put another way: The work that is truly productive is the domain of
a steadily smaller and more elite fraction of humanity. In the
coming of the Singularity, we are seeing the predictions of "true"
technological unemployment finally come true.
Another symptom of progress toward the Singularity:
should spread ever faster, and even the most radical will quickly
When I began writing science fiction in the
middle '60s, it seemed very easy to find ideas that took decades to
percolate into the cultural consciousness; now the lead time seems
more like eighteen months. (Of course, this could just be me losing
my imagination as I get old, but I see the effect in others too.)
Like the shock in a compressible flow,
the Singularity moves closer as we accelerate through the critical
And what of the arrival of
the Singularity itself? What can be said
of its actual appearance? Since it involves an intellectual runaway,
it will probably occur faster than any technical revolution seen so
far. The precipitating event will likely be unexpected - perhaps
even to the researchers involved. ("But all our previous models were
catatonic! We were just tweaking some parameters....") If networking
is widespread enough (into ubiquitous embedded systems), it may seem
as if our artifacts as a whole had suddenly wakened.
And what happens a month or two (or a day or two) after that? I have
only analogies to point to: The rise of humankind. We will be in the
And for all my rampant technological
optimism, sometimes I think I'd be more comfortable if I were
regarding these transcendental events from one thousand years
remove... instead of twenty.
Singularity be Avoided?
Well, maybe it won't happen at all: Sometimes I try to imagine the
symptoms that we should expect to see if the Singularity is not to
There are the widely respected arguments
of Penrose  and Searle  against the
practicality of machine sapience. In August of 1992, Thinking
Machines Corporation held a workshop to investigate the question
"How We Will Build a Machine that Thinks" .
As you might guess from the workshop's
title, the participants were not especially supportive of the
arguments against machine intelligence. In fact, there was general
agreement that minds can exist on nonbiological substrates and that
algorithms are of central importance to the existence of minds.
However, there was much debate about the raw hardware power that is
present in organic brains.
A minority felt that the largest 1992
computers were within three orders of magnitude of the power of the
The majority of the participants agreed with Moravec's
estimate  that we are ten to forty years away from
hardware parity. And yet there was another minority who pointed to
 , and conjectured that the computational competence of
single neurons may be far higher than generally believed. If so, our
present computer hardware might be as much as "ten" orders of
magnitude short of the equipment we carry around in our heads.
If this is true (or for that matter, if
the Penrose or Searle critique is valid), we might never see a
Singularity. Instead, in the early '00s we would find our hardware
performance curves beginning to level off - this because of our
inability to automate the design work needed to support further
hardware improvements. We'd end up with some "very" powerful
hardware, but without the ability to push it further.
Commercial digital signal processing
might be awesome, giving an analog appearance even to digital
operations, but nothing would ever "wake up" and there would never
be the intellectual runaway which is the essence of the Singularity.
It would likely be seen as a golden age... and it would also be an
end of progress.
This is very like the future predicted by
In fact, on page 137 of ,
Stent explicitly cites the development of transhuman intelligence as
a sufficient condition to break his projections.
But if the technological Singularity can happen, it will. Even if
all the governments of the world were to understand the "threat" and
be in deadly fear of it, progress toward the goal would continue. In
fiction, there have been stories of laws passed forbidding the
construction of "a machine in the likeness of the human mind".
In fact, the competitive advantage -
economic, military, even artistic - of every advance in automation
is so compelling that passing laws, or having customs, that forbid
such things merely assures that someone else will get them first.
Eric Drexler  has provided spectacular insights about
how far technical improvement may go. He agrees that superhuman
intelligences will be available in the near future - and that such
entities pose a threat to the human status quo.
But Drexler argues that we can confine
such transhuman devices so that their results can be examined and
used safely. This is I. J. Good's ultraintelligent machine, with a
dose of caution.
I argue that confinement is
intrinsically impractical. For the case of physical confinement:
Imagine yourself locked in your home with only limited data access
to the outside, to your masters. If those masters thought at a rate
- say - one million times slower than you, there is little doubt
that over a period of years (your time) you could come up with
"helpful advice" that would incidentally set you free. (I call this
"fast thinking" form of superintelligence "weak superhumanity".)
Such a "weakly superhuman" entity would
probably burn out in a few weeks of outside time.
"Strong superhumanity" would be more than cranking up the clock speed on a
human-equivalent mind. It's hard to say precisely what "strong
superhumanity" would be like, but the difference appears to be
profound. Imagine running a dog mind at very high speed. Would a
thousand years of doggy living add up to any human insight? (Now if
the dog mind were cleverly rewired and "then" run at high speed, we
might see something different...)
Many speculations about
superintelligence seem to be based on the weakly superhuman model. I
believe that our best guesses about the post-Singularity world can
be obtained by thinking on the nature of strong superhumanity. I
will return to this point later in the paper.)
Another approach to confinement is to build "rules" into the mind of
the created superhuman entity (for example, Asimov's Laws ).
I think that any rules strict enough to be effective would also
produce a device whose ability was clearly inferior to the
unfettered versions (and so human competition would favor the
development of the those more dangerous models).
Still, the Asimov dream is a wonderful
Imagine a willing slave, who has 1000 times your capabilities
in every way. Imagine a creature who could satisfy your every safe
wish (whatever that means) and still have 99.9% of its time free for
other activities. There would be a new universe we never really
understood, but filled with benevolent gods (though one of "my"
wishes might be to become one of them).
If the Singularity can not be prevented or confined, just how bad
could the Post-Human era be? Well... pretty bad.
The physical extinction of the human
race is one possibility. (Or as Eric Drexler put it of
nanotechnology: Given all that such technology can do, perhaps
governments would simply decide that they no longer need citizens!).
Yet physical extinction may not be the
scariest possibility. Again, analogies: Think of the different ways
we relate to animals. Some of the crude physical abuses are
In a Post-Human world there would still
be plenty of niches where human equivalent automation would be
desirable: embedded systems in autonomous devices, self-aware
daemons in the lower functioning of larger sentients. (A strongly
superhuman intelligence would likely be a Society of Mind 
with some very competent components.)
Some of these human equivalents might be
used for nothing more than digital signal processing. They would be
more like whales than humans. Others might be very human-like, yet
with a one-sidedness, a "dedication" that would put them in a mental
hospital in our era. Though none of these creatures might be
flesh-and-blood humans, they might be the closest things in the new
environment to what we call human now.
(I.J. Good had something to say about
this, though at this late date the advice may be moot: Good
 proposed a "Meta-Golden Rule", which might be paraphrased
as "Treat your inferiors as you would be treated by your superiors."
It's a wonderful, paradoxical idea - and most of my friends don't
believe it - since the game-theoretic payoff is so hard to
articulate. Yet if we were able to follow it, in some sense that
might say something about the plausibility of such kindness in this
I have argued above that we cannot prevent the Singularity, that its
coming is an inevitable consequence of the humans' natural
competitiveness and the possibilities inherent in technology.
And yet... we are the initiators. Even
the largest avalanche is triggered by small things. We have the
freedom to establish initial conditions, make things happen in ways
that are less inimical than others.
Of course (as with starting avalanches),
it may not be clear what the right guiding nudge really is:
Other Paths to
the Singularity - Intelligence Amplification
When people speak of creating superhumanly intelligent beings, they
are usually imagining an AI project.
But as I noted at the beginning of this
paper, there are other paths to superhumanity. Computer networks and
human-computer interfaces seem more mundane than AI, and yet they
could lead to the Singularity. I call this contrasting approach
Intelligence Amplification (IA).
IA is something that is proceeding
very naturally, in most cases not even recognized by its developers
for what it is.
But every time our ability to access
information and to communicate it to others is improved, in some
sense we have achieved an increase over natural intelligence. Even
now, the team of a PhD human and good computer workstation (even an
off-net workstation!) could probably max any written intelligence
test in existence.
And it's very likely that IA is a much easier road to the
achievement of superhumanity than pure AI.
In humans, the hardest development
problems have already been solved. Building up from within ourselves
ought to be easier than figuring out first what we really are and
then building machines that are all of that.
And there is at least conjectural
precedent for this approach. Cairns-Smith  has
speculated that biological life may have begun as an adjunct to
still more primitive life based on crystalline growth.
(in  and elsewhere) has made strong arguments that
mutualism is a great driving force in evolution.
Note that I am not proposing that AI research be ignored or less
funded. What goes on with AI will often have applications in IA, and
vice versa. I am suggesting that we recognize that in network and
interface research there is something as profound (and potential
wild) as Artificial Intelligence.
With that insight, we may see projects
that are not as directly applicable as conventional interface and
network design work, but which serve to advance us toward the
Singularity along the IA path.
Here are some possible projects that take on special significance,
given the IA point of view:
Human/computer team automation:
Take problems that are normally considered for purely
machine solution (like hill-climbing problems), and design
programs and interfaces that take a advantage of humans'
intuition and available computer hardware. Considering all
the bizarreness of higher dimensional hill-climbing problems
(and the neat algorithms that have been devised for their
solution), there could be some very interesting displays and
control tools provided to the human team member.
Develop human/computer symbiosis
in art: Combine the graphic generation capability of modern
machines and the esthetic sensibility of humans. Of course,
there has been an enormous amount of research in designing
computer aids for artists, as labor saving tools. I'm
suggesting that we explicitly aim for a greater merging of
competence, that we explicitly recognize the cooperative
approach that is possible.
Karl Sims  has
done wonderful work in this direction.
Allow human/computer teams at
chess tournaments. We already have programs that can play
better than almost all humans. But how much work has been
done on how this power could be used by a human, to get
something even better? If such teams were allowed in at
least some chess tournaments, it could have the positive
effect on IA research that allowing computers in tournaments
had for the corresponding niche in AI.
Develop interfaces that allow
computer and network access without requiring the human to
be tied to one spot, sitting in front of a computer. (This
is an aspect of IA that fits so well with known economic
advantages that lots of effort is already being spent on
Develop more symmetrical
decision support systems. A popular research/product area in
recent years has been decision support systems. This is a
form of IA, but may be too focused on systems that are
oracular. As much as the program giving the user
information, there must be the idea of the user giving the
Use local area nets to make
human teams that really work (i.e., are more effective than
their component members). This is generally the area of
"groupware", already a very popular commercial pursuit. The
change in viewpoint here would be to regard the group
activity as a combination organism. In one sense, this
suggestion might be regarded as the goal of inventing a
"Rules of Order" for such combination operations.
For instance, group focus might
be more easily maintained than in classical meetings.
Expertise of individual human
members could be isolated from ego issues such that the
contribution of different members is focused on the team
project. And of course shared data bases could be used much
more conveniently than in conventional committee operations.
(Note that this suggestion is
aimed at team operations rather than political meetings. In
a political setting, the automation described above would
simply enforce the power of the persons making the rules!)
Exploit the worldwide Internet
as a combination human/machine tool. Of all the items on the
list, progress in this is proceeding the fastest and may run
us into the Singularity before anything else.
The power and influence of even
the present-day Internet is vastly underestimated. For
instance, I think our contemporary computer systems would
break under the weight of their own complexity if it weren't
for the edge that the USENET "group mind" gives the system
administration and support people!
The very anarchy of the
worldwide net development is evidence of its potential.
As connectivity and bandwidth
and archive size and computer speed all increase, we are
seeing something like Lynn Margulis'  vision
of the biosphere as data processor recapitulated, but at a
million times greater speed and with millions of humanly
intelligent agents (ourselves).
The above examples illustrate research
that can be done within the context of contemporary computer science
There are other paradigms. For example,
much of the work in Artificial Intelligence and neural nets would
benefit from a closer connection with biological life. Instead of
simply trying to model and understand biological life with
computers, research could be directed toward the creation of
composite systems that rely on biological life for guidance or for
the providing features we don't understand well enough yet to
implement in hardware.
A long-time dream of science-fiction has
been direct brain to computer interfaces  .
fact, there is concrete work that can be done (and is being done) in
Limb prosthetics is a topic of
direct commercial applicability. Nerve to silicon
transducers can be made . This is an
exciting, near-term step toward direct communication.
Direct links into brains seem
feasible, if the bit rate is low: given human learning
flexibility, the actual brain neuron targets might not have
to be precisely selected. Even 100 bits per second would be
of great use to stroke victims who would otherwise be
confined to menu-driven interfaces.
Plugging in to the optic trunk
has the potential for bandwidths of 1 Mbit/second or so. But
for this, we need to know the fine-scale architecture of
vision, and we need to place an enormous web of electrodes
with exquisite precision. If we want our high bandwidth
connection to be "in addition" to what paths are already
present in the brain, the problem becomes vastly more
Just sticking a grid of
high-bandwidth receivers into a brain certainly won't do it.
But suppose that the high-bandwidth grid were present while
the brain structure was actually setting up, as the embryo
develops. That suggests:
Animal embryo experiments. I
wouldn't expect any IA success in the first years of such
research, but giving developing brains access to complex
simulated neural structures might be very interesting to the
people who study how the embryonic brain develops. In the
long run, such experiments might produce animals with
additional sense paths and interesting intellectual
Originally, I had hoped that this
discussion of IA would yield some clearly safer approaches to the
Singularity. (After all, IA allows our participation in a kind of
Alas, looking back over these IA
proposals, about all I am sure of is that they should be considered,
that they may give us more options.
But as for safety... well, some of the
suggestions are a little scary on their face. One of my informal
reviewers pointed out that IA for individual humans creates a rather
sinister elite. We humans have millions of years of evolutionary
baggage that makes us regard competition in a deadly light. Much of
that deadliness may not be necessary in today's world, one where
losers take on the winners' tricks and are coopted into the winners'
A creature that was built "de novo"
might possibly be a much more benign entity than one with a kernel
based on fang and talon. And even the egalitarian view of an
Internet that wakes up along with all mankind can be viewed as a
The problem is not simply that the Singularity represents the
passing of humankind from center stage, but that it contradicts our
most deeply held notions of being.
I think a closer look at the notion of
strong superhumanity can show why that is.
Superhumanity and the Best We Can Ask for
Suppose we could tailor the Singularity. Suppose we could attain our
most extravagant hopes.
What then would we ask for: That humans
themselves would become their own successors, that whatever
injustice occurs would be tempered by our knowledge of our roots.
For those who remained unaltered, the goal would be benign treatment
(perhaps even giving the stay-behinds the appearance of being
masters of godlike slaves).
It could be a golden age that also
involved progress (overleaping Stent's barrier). Immortality (or at
least a lifetime as long as we can make the universe survive
 ) would be achievable.
But in this brightest and kindest world, the philosophical problems
themselves become intimidating. A mind that stays at the same
capacity cannot live forever; after a few thousand years it would
look more like a repeating tape loop than a person. (The most
chilling picture I have seen of this is in .)
To live indefinitely long, the mind
itself must grow... and when it becomes great enough, and looks
back... what fellow-feeling can it have with the soul that it was
originally? Certainly the later being would be everything the
original was, but so much vastly more. And so even for the
individual, the Cairns-Smith or Lynn Margulis notion of new life
growing incrementally out of the old must still be valid.
This "problem" about immortality comes up in much more direct ways.
The notion of ego and self-awareness has been the bedrock of the
hardheaded rationalism of the last few centuries. Yet now the notion
of self-awareness is under attack from the Artificial Intelligence
people ("self-awareness and other delusions").
Intelligence Amplification undercuts our
concept of ego from another direction.
The post-Singularity world will involve
extremely high-bandwidth networking. A central feature of strongly
superhuman entities will likely be their ability to communicate at
variable bandwidths, including ones far higher than speech or
written messages. What happens when pieces of ego can be copied and
merged, when the size of a self-awareness can grow or shrink to fit
the nature of the problems under consideration?
These are essential features of strong
superhumanity and the Singularity. Thinking about them, one begins
to feel how essentially strange and different the Post-Human era
will be - "no matter how cleverly and benignly it is brought to be".
From one angle, the vision fits many of our happiest dreams: a time
unending, where we can truly know one another and understand the
deepest mysteries. From another angle, it's a lot like the worst-
case scenario I imagined earlier in this paper.
Which is the valid viewpoint? In fact, I think the new era is simply
too different to fit into the classical frame of good and evil. That
frame is based on the idea of isolated, immutable minds connected by
tenuous, low-bandwidth links.
But the post-Singularity world "does"
fit with the larger tradition of change and cooperation that started
long ago (perhaps even before the rise of biological life). I think
there "are" notions of ethics that would apply in such an era.
Research into IA and high-bandwidth communications should improve
I see just the glimmerings of this now
There is Good's Meta-Golden Rule;
perhaps there are rules for distinguishing self from others on the
basis of bandwidth of connection. And while mind and self will be
vastly more labile than in the past, much of what we value
(knowledge, memory, thought) need never be lost.
I think Freeman Dyson has it right when
he says :
"God is what mind becomes when it
has passed beyond the scale of our comprehension."
Note: I wish to thank
John Carroll of San Diego State University and Howard Davidson of
Sun Microsystems for discussing the draft version of this paper with
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Press, 1980. The essay is reprinted in "The Mind's I", edited by
Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett, Basic Books, 1981
(my source for this reference). This reprinting contains an
excellent critique of the Searle essay.
 Sims, Karl, "Interactive Evolution of Dynamical Systems",
Thinking Machines Corporation, Technical Report Series
(published in "Toward a Practice of Autonomous Systems:
Proceedings of the First European Conference on Artificial
Life", Paris, MIT Press, December 1991.
 Stapledon, Olaf, "The Starmaker", Berkley Books, 1961 (but
from the date on forward, probably written before 1937).
 Stent, Gunther S., "The Coming of the Golden Age: A View of
the End of Progress", The Natural History Press, 1969.
 Swanwick Michael, "Vacuum Flowers", serialized in "Isaac
Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine", December(?) 1986 - February
1987. Republished by Ace Books, 1988.
 Thearling, Kurt, "How We Will Build a Machine that Thinks",
a workshop at Thinking Machines Corporation, August 24-26, 1992.
 Ulam, S., Tribute to John von Neumann, "Bulletin of the
American Mathematical Society", vol 64, nr 3, part 2, May 1958,
 Vinge, Vernor, "Bookworm, Run!", "Analog", March 1966,
pp8-40. Reprinted in "True Names and Other Dangers", Vernor
Vinge, Baen Books, 1987.
 Vinge, Vernor, "True Names", "Binary Star Number 5", Dell,
1981. Reprinted in "True Names and Other Dangers", Vernor Vinge,
Baen Books, 1987.
 Vinge, Vernor, First Word, "Omni", January 1983, p10.
 Vinge, Vernor, To Appear...