Singularitarian

“[When] there are wireless chips in my clothes, when I get up in the morning it’s going to simplify my life enormously. There’s all this stuff I won’t have to consciously think about anymore. If I don’t know where my cowboy boots are, they will tell me.”
– Bruce Sterling

I quite like Bruce Sterling’s novels, Schismatrix and Holy Fire in particular, but the reason why I bring up this quote is because it’s in an interview with Vernor Vinge, one of my favorite authors. Vernor Vinge is best known for two things – slowly but surely writing epic space operas that awards tend to gravitate to, and for popularising the idea of the Singularity (the continuation of the exponential development in technology to the point where it’s changing so fast, we can’t predict where it’s going).

His latest book, Rainbows End, is not a space opera, and takes place in California a mere few decades from now. In it, he looks at a few trends in computing and communication, and simply extrapolates them. However, the novel doesn’t focus on the technology as much as the way the technology profoundly changes the way people live and work, in quite an intimidating manner. We forget that our present day technology of mobile phones and the internet has completely reshaped millions of people’s lives (if only the seven million people who play World of Warcraft). Imagine what it’s going to be like in another 20 or 30 years.

One idea of his that I’m quite fond of is silent messaging, where you simply subvocalise words and they’re transmitted to another person’s earpiece or contact lenses instantly. The technology behind this is not particularly hard. You need unmetered ubiquitous network access (check – we’re almost there), a sensor that can pick up and translate subvocalizations (check – although it needs to get a little smaller) and a transceiver (check – it’s called a mobile phone). The hardest part are the contact lenses, which is tricky but there are a lot of bright people working on that. Alternatively you could just wear a miniaturised earpiece (check).

So what, you might ask, I can already do that with texting. True, but with silent messaging, you could effectively conduct two conversations at once, or simply talk to someone without anyone else knowing. The social implications are enormous. Not only are we talking about cheating on a massive scale, but at a more basic level, backup on a global scale. Want to get rid of an awkward date? Silent message your friend to rescue you. Need to figure out a complex sum while carrying a load of shopping bags? Silent message your calculator. Need to remember or look up something – anything – before you forget it? Silent message your notebook or Google. This is a few years off.

Ultimately, it’s what the technology enables that’s interesting. Vinge illustrates this rather well in the last third of the book, which takes place over about two hours:

“In the climax, there are only about 25 Marines that are actually involved in an operation that is looking after the entire southwest United States. But they are backed up by thousands of analysts and by a lot of equipment on the ground. So, in a way, the normal people in the story are already strange by our standards.”

If your technology is so powerful, then you don’t need people to wield the weapons, you just need people to out-think and outguess the enemy. The more people and the more diverse their knowledge and specialties, the better. The theme running through Rainbows End is that it’s not so much what you know, or even who you know, it’s the ability to identify and connect people with the skills and knowledge you need in the best way possible. To do that, you need to be able to use the new tools effectively, and inevitably, the young will be able to learn those tools better than the old.

It’s a scary place, the future.

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