by Vernor Vinge


from Kurzweilai Website



It's 2045 and nerds in old-folks homes are wandering around, scratching their heads, and asking plaintively, "But ... but, where's the Singularity?"

Science fiction writer Vernor Vinge - who originated the concept of the technological Singularity - doesn't think that will happen, but he explores three alternate scenarios, along with our "best hope for long-term survival" - self-sufficient, off-Earth settlements.

Originally presented at Long Now Foundation Seminars About Long Term Thinking, February 15, 2007. Published with permission on March 14, 2007.


Just for the record

Given the title of my talk, I should define and briefly discuss what I mean by the Technological Singularity:

It seems plausible that with technology we can, in the fairly near future, create (or become) creatures who surpass humans in every intellectual and creative dimension. Events beyond this event - call it the Technological Singularity - are as unimaginable to us as opera is to a flatworm.

The preceding sentence, almost by definition, makes long-term thinking an impractical thing in a Singularity future.

However, maybe the Singularity won't happen, in which case planning beyond the next fifty years could have great practical importance. In any case, a good science-fiction writer (or a good scenario planner) should always be considering alternative outcomes.

I should add that the alternatives I discuss tonight also assume that faster-than-light space travel is never invented! Important note for those surfing this talk out of context. I still regard the Singularity as the most likely non-catastrophic outcome for our near future.

There are many plausible catastrophic scenarios (see Martin Rees's Our Final Hour), but tonight I'll try to look at non-singular futures that might still be survivable.



The Age of Failed Dreams

A plausible explanation for "Singularity failure" is that we never figure out how to "do the software" (or "find the soul in the hardware", if you're more mystically inclined).


Here are some possible symptoms:

  • Software creation continues as the province of software engineering.

  • Software projects that endeavor to exploit increasing hardware power fail in more and more spectacular ways.

    • Project failures so deep that no amount of money can disguise the failure; walking away from the project is the only option.

    • Spectacular failures in large, total automation projects. (Human flight controllers occasionally run aircraft into each other; a bug in a fully automatic system could bring a dozen aircraft to the same point in space and time.)

  • Such failures lead to reduced demand for more advanced hardware, which no one can properly exploit - causing manufacturers to back off in their improvement schedules. In effect, Moore's Law fails  - even though physical barriers to further improvement may not be evident.

  • Eventually, basic research in related materials science issues stagnates, in part for lack of new generations of computing systems to support that research.

  • Hardware improvements in simple and highly regular structures (such as data storage) are the last to fall victim to stagnation. In the long term, we have some extraordinarily good audio-visual entertainment products (but nothing transcendental) and some very large data bases (but without software to properly exploit them).

  • So most people are not surprised when the promise of strong AI is not fulfilled, and other advances that would depend on something like AI for their greatest success - things like nanotech general assemblers -  also elude development.

All together, the early years of this time come to be called the "Age of Failed Dreams."



Broader characteristics of the early years

  • It's 2040 and nerds in old-folks homes are wandering around, scratching their heads, and asking plaintively, "But ... but, where's the Singularity?"

  • Some consequences might seem comforting:

    • Edelson's Law says: "The number of important insights that are not being made is increasing exponentially with time."

      I see this caused by the breakneck acceleration of technological progress - and the failure of merely human minds to keep up. If progress slowed, there might be time for us to begin to catch up (though I suspect that our bioscience databases would continue to be filled faster than we could ever analyze).

    • Maybe now there would finally be time to go back over the last century of really crummy software and redo things, but this time in a clean and rational way. (Yeah, right.)

  • On the other hand, humanity's chances for surviving the century might become more dubious:

    • Environmental and resource threats would still exist.

    • Warfare threats would still exist. In the early years of the 21st century, we have become distracted and (properly!) terrified by nuclear terrorism. We tend to ignore the narrow passage of 1970-1990, when tens of thousands of nukes might have been used in a span of days, perhaps without any conscious political trigger. A return to MAD is very plausible, and when stoked by environmental stress, it's a very plausible civilization killer.


Envisioning the resulting Long Now possibilities

Suppose humankind survives the 21st century. Coming out of the Age of Failed Dreams, what would be the prospects for a long human era?


I'd like to illustrate some possibilities with diagrams that show all of the Long Now - from tens of thousands of years before our time to tens of thousands of years after - all at once and without explicit reference to the passage of time (which seems appropriate for thinking of the Human Era as a single long now!).

Instead of graphing a variable such as population as a function of time, I'll graph the relationship of an aspect of technology against population size.


By way of example, see below image for our situation so far.

It doesn't look very exciting.


In fact, the most impressive thing is that in the big picture, we humans seem a steady sort. Even the Black Death makes barely a nick in our tech/pop progress. Maybe this reflects how things really are - or maybe we haven't seen the whole story. (Note that extreme excursions to the right (population) or upwards (related to destructive potential) would probably be disastrous for civilization on Earth.)

Without the Singularity, here are three possibilities (scenarios in their own right):


Scenario 1 - A Return to MADness

  • I said I'd try to avoid existential catastrophes, but I want to emphasize that they're still out there. Avoiding such should be at the top of ongoing thinking about the long-term.

  • The "bad afternoon" going back across the top of the diagram should be very familiar to those who lived through the era of:

    • Fate of the Earth by Jonathan Schell

    • TTAPS (a report dubbed "TTAPS" study, from the initials of the last names of its authors, R.P. Turco, O.B. Toon, T.P. Ackerman, J.B. Pollack, and C. Sagan.) Nuclear Winter claims

    • Like many people, I'm skeptical about the two preceding references. On the other hand, there's much uncertainty about the effects of a maximum nuclear exchange. The subtle logic of MAD planning constantly raises the threshold of "acceptable damage", and engages very smart people and enormous resources in assuring that ever greater levels of destruction can be attained. I can't think of any other threat where our genius is so explicitly aimed at our own destruction.


Scenario 2 - The Golden Age

(A scenario to balance the pessimism of A Return to MADness - above Scenario 1 image)

  • There are trends in our era that tend to support this optimistic scenario:

    • The plasticity of the human psyche (on time scales at least as short as one human generation). When people have hope, information, and communication, it's amazing how fast they start behaving with wisdom exceeding the elites.

    • The Internet empowers such trends, even if we don't accelerate on into the Singularity. (My most recent book, Rainbows End, might be considered an illustration of this (depending on how one interprets the evidence of incipiently transhuman players.)

  • This scenario is similar to Gunther Stent's vision in The Coming of the Golden Age, a View of the End of Progress (except that in my version there would still be thousands of years to clean up after Edelson's law).

  • The decline in population (the leftward wiggle in the trajectory) is a peaceful, benign thing, ultimately resulting in a universal high standard of living.

  • On longest time horizon, there is some increase in both power and population.

    • This civilization apparently reaches the long-term conclusion that a large and happy population is better than a smaller happy population. The reverse could be argued. Perhaps in the fullness of time, both possibilities were tried.

    • So what happens at the far end of this Long Now (20000 years from now, 50000)? Even without the Singularity, it seems reasonable that at some point the species would become something greater.

  • A policy suggestion (applicable to most of these scenarios): [Young] Old People are good for the future of Humanity! Thus prolongevity research may be one of the most important undertakings for the long-term safety of the human race.

    • This suggestion explicitly rejects the notion that lots of old people would deaden society. I'm not talking about the moribund old people that we humans have always known (and been). We have no idea what young very old people are like, but their existence might give us something like the advantage the earliest humans got from the existence of very old tribe members (age 35 to 65).

    • The Long Now perspective comes very naturally to someone who expects that not only his/her g*grandchildren will be around in 500 years - so may be the individual him/herself.

    • And once we get well into the future, then besides having a long prospective view, there would be people who have experienced the distant past.


Scenario 3 - The Wheel of Time

I fear this scenario is much more plausible than The Golden Age (above Scenario 2 image).


The Wheel of Time is based on fact that Earth and Nature are dynamic and our own technology can cause terrible destruction. Sooner or later, even with the best planning, mega-disasters happen, and civilization falls (or staggers).


Hence, in this diagram we see cycles of disasters and recovery.

  • What would be the amplitude of such cycles (in loss of population and fall of technology)?

  • What would be the duration of such cycles?

There has been a range of speculation about such questions (mostly about the first recovery):

In fact, we know almost nothing about such cycles -  except that the worst could probably kill everyone on Earth.



How to deal with the deadliest uncertainties

A frequent catchphrase in this talk has been "Who knows?".


Often this mantra is applied to the most serious issues we face:

  • How dangerous is MAD, really? (After all, "it got us through the 20th century alive".)

  • How much of an existential threat is environmental change?

  • How fast could humanity recover from major catastrophes?

  • Is full recovery even possible?

  • Which disasters are the most difficult to recover from?

  • How close is technology to running beyond nation-state MAD and giving irritable individuals the power to kill us all?

  • What would be the long-term effect of having lots of young old people?

  • What is the impact of [your-favorite-scheme-or-peril] on long-term human survival?

We do our best with scenario planning.


But there is another tool, and it is wonderful if you have it: broad experience.

  • An individual doesn't have to try out every recreational drug to know what's deadly.

  • An individual has in him/herself no good way of estimating the risks of different styles of diet and exercise. Even the individual's parents may not be much help - but a Framingham study can provide guidance.

Alas, our range of experience is perilously narrow, since we have essentially one experiment to observe.


In the Long Now, can we do better? The Golden Age scenario would allow serial experimentation with some of the less deadly imponderables: over a long period of time, there could be gentle experiments with population size and prolongevity. (In fact, some of that may be visible in the "wiggle" in my Golden Age diagram.)

But there's no way we can guarantee we're in The Golden Age scenario, or have any confidence that our experiments won't destroy civilization. (Personally, I find The Wheel of Time scenarios much more plausible than The Golden Age.)

Of course, there is a way to gain experience and at the same time improve the chances for humanity's survival:
Self-sufficient, off-Earth settlements as humanity's best hope for long-term survival

This message has been brought back to the attention of futurists, and by some very impressive people: Hawking, Dyson, and Rees in particular.

Some or all of these folks have been making this point for many decades. And of course, such settlements were at the heart of much of 20th century science-fiction. It is heartwarming to see the possibility that, in this century, the idea could move back to center stage.

(Important note for those surfing this talk out of context: I'm not suggesting space settlement as an alternative to, or evasion of, the Singularity. Space settlement would probably be important in Singularity scenarios, too, but embedded in inconceivabilities.)

Some objections and responses:

  • "Chasing after safety in space would just distract from the life-and-death priority of cleaning up the mess we have made of Earth." I suspect that this point of view is beyond logical debate.

  • "Chasing after safety in space assumes the real estate there is not already in use." True. The possibility of the Singularity and the question "Are we alone in the universe?" are two of the most important practical mysteries that we face.

  • "A real space program would be too dangerous in the short term." There may be some virtue in this objection. A real space program means cheap access to space, which is very close to having a WMD capability. In the long run, the human race should be much safer, but at the expense of this hopefully small short-term risk.

  • "There's no other place in the Solar System to support a human civilization - and the stars are too far."

    • Asteroid belt civilizations might have more wealth potential than terrestrial ones.

    • In the Long Now, the stars are NOT too far, even at relatively low speeds. Furthermore, interstellar radio networks would be trivial to maintain (1980s level technology). Over time, there could be dozens, hundreds, thousands of distinct human histories exchanging their experience across the centuries. There really could be Framingham studies of the deadly uncertainties!

What's a real space program... and what's not

  • From 1957 to circa 1980 we humans did some proper pioneering in space. We (I mean brilliant engineers and scientists and brave explorers) established a number of near-Earth applications that are so useful that they can be commercially successful even at launch costs to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) of $5000 to $10000/kg. We also undertook a number of human and robotic missions that resolved our greatest uncertainties about the Solar System and travel in space.

  • From 1980 till now? Well, launch to LEO still runs $5000 to $10000/kg. As far as I can tell, the new Vision for Space Exploration will maintain these costs. This approach made some sense in 1970, when we were just beginning and when initial surveys of the problems and applications were worth almost any expense.

    Now, in the early 21st century, these launch costs make talk of humans-in-space a doubly gold-plated sham:

    • First, because of the pitiful limitations on delivered payloads, except at prices that are politically impossible (or are deniable promises about future plans).

    • Second, because with these launch costs, the payloads must be enormously more reliable and compact than commercial off-the-shelf hardware - and therefore enormously expensive in their own right.

I believe most people have great sympathy and enthusiasm for humans-in-space. They really "get" the big picture. Unfortunately, their sympathy and enthusiasm has been abused.

Humankind's presence in space is essential to long-term human survival.

That is why I urge that we reject any major humans-in-space initiative that does not have the prerequisite goal of much cheaper (at least by a factor of ten) access to space.



Institutional paths to achieve cheaper access to space

  • There are several space propulsion methods that look feasible - once the spacecraft is away from Earth. Such methods could reduce the inner solar system to the something like the economic distances that 18th century Europeans experienced in exploring Earth.

  • The real bottleneck is hoisting payloads from the surface of the Earth to orbit. There are a number of suggested approaches. Which, if any, of them will pay off? Who knows? On the other hand, this is an imponderable that that can probably be resolved by:

    • Prizes like the X-prize.

    • Real economic prizes in the form of promises (from governments and/or the largest corporations) of the form: "Give us a price to orbit of $X/kg, and we'll give you Y tonnes of business per year for Z years.

    • Retargeting NASA to basic enabling research, more in the spirit of its predecessor, NACA.

  • A military arms race. (Alas, this may be the most likely eventuality, and it might be part of a return to MADness. Highly deprecated!)