I am shipping the whole article to allieviate everyone from having to enroll
in the NY Times's website.
August 2, 2001
A Scientist's Art: Computer Fiction
By KATIE HAFNER
Robert Burroughs for The New York Times
THE NOVELIST AS SEERVernor Vinge, a fiction writer and professor emeritus of
computer science, in the library at San Diego State University.
AN DIEGO -- VERNOR VINGE, a computer scientist at San Diego State University,
was one of the first not only to understand the power of computer networks
but also to paint elaborate scenarios about their effects on society. He has
long argued that machine intelligence will someday soon outstrip human
But Dr. Vinge does not publish technical papers on those topics. He writes
And in turning computer fact into published fiction, Dr. Vinge (pronounced
VIN-jee) has developed a readership so convinced of his prescience that
businesses seek his help in envisioning and navigating the decades to come.
"Vernor can live, as few can, in the future," said Lawrence Wilkinson,
co-founder of Global Business Network, which specializes in corporate
planning. "He can imagine extensions and elaborations on reality that aren't
provable, of course, but that are consistent with what we know."
Dr. Vinge's 1992 novel, "A Fire Upon the Deep" (Tor Books), which won the
prestigious Hugo Award for science fiction, is a grand "space opera" set
40,000 years in a future filled with unfathomable distances, the destruction
of entire planetary systems and doglike aliens. A reviewer in The Washington
Post (news/quote) called it "a wide-screen science fiction epic of the type
few writers attempt any more, probably because nobody until Vinge has ever
done it well."
But computers, not aliens, were at the center of the work that put Dr. Vinge
on the science fiction map — "True Names," a 30,000-word novella that offered
a vision of a networked world. It was published in 1981, long before most
people had heard of the Internet and a year before William Gibson's story
"Burning Chrome" coined the term that has come to describe such a world:
For years, even as its renown has grown, "True Names" has been out of print
and hard to find. Now it is being reissued by Tor Books in "True Names and
the Opening of the Cyberspace Frontier," a collection of stories and essays
by computer scientists that is due out in December.
"True Names" is the tale of Mr. Slippery, a computer vandal who is caught by
the government and pressed into service to stop a threat greater than
himself. The story portrays a world rife with pseudonymous characters and
other elements of online life that now seem almost ho-hum. In retrospect, it
"The import of `True Names,' " wrote Marvin Minsky, a pioneer in artificial
intelligence, in an afterword to an early edition of the work, "is that it is
about how we cope with things we don't understand."
And computers are at the center of Dr. Vinge's vision of the challenges that
the coming decades will bring. A linchpin of his thinking is what he calls
the "technological singularity," a point at which the intelligence of
machines takes a huge leap, and they come to possess capabilities that exceed
those of humans. As a result, ultra- intelligent machines become capable of
upgrading themselves, humans cease to be the primary players, and the future
Dr. Vinge sees the singularity as probable if not inevitable, most likely
arriving between 2020 and 2040.
Indeed, any conversation with Dr. Vinge, 56, inevitably turns to the
singularity. It is a preoccupation he recognizes with self-effacing humor as
"my usual shtick."
Although he has written extensively about the singularity as a scientific
concept, he is humble about laying intellectual claim to it. In fact, with
titles like "Approximation by Faber Polynomials for a Class of Jordan
Domains" and "Teaching FORTH on a VAX," Dr. Vinge's academic papers bear
little resemblance to the topics he chooses for his fiction.
"The ideas about the singularity and the future of computation are things
that basically occurred to me on the basis of my experience of what I know
about computers," he said.
"And although that is at a professional level, it's not because of some great
research insight I had or even a not-so-great research insight I had. It's
because I've been watching these things and I like to think about where
things could go."
Dr. Vinge readily concedes that his worldview has been shaped by science
fiction, which he has been reading and writing since childhood. His dream, he
said, was to be a scientist, and "the science fiction was just part of the
Trained as a mathematician, Dr. Vinge said he did not begin "playing with
real computers" until the early 1970's, after he had started teaching at San
Diego State. His teaching gradually shifted to computer science, focusing on
computer networks and distributed systems. He received tenure in 1977.
"Teaching networks and operating systems was a constant source of story
inspiration," Dr. Vinge said. The idea for "True Names" came from an exchange
he had one day in the late 1970's while using an early form of instant
messaging called Talk.
"Suddenly I was accosted by another user via the Talk program," he recalled.
"We chatted briefly, each trying to figure out the other's true name. Finally
I gave up and told the other person I had to go — that I was actually a
personality simulator, and if I kept talking, my artificial nature would
become obvious. Afterwards I realized that I had just lived a science fiction
Computers and artificial intelligence are, of course, at the center of much
science fiction, including the current Steven Spielberg film, "A.I." In the
Spielberg vision, a robotic boy achieves a different sort of singularity:
parity with humans not just in intelligence but in emotion, too. "To me, the
big leap of faith is to make that little boy," Dr. Vinge said. "We don't have
evidence of progress toward that. If it ever happens, there will be a runaway
effect, and getting to something a whole lot better than human will happen
How fast? "Maybe 36 hours," Dr. Vinge replied.
Dr. Vinge's own work has yet to make it to the screen, although "True Names"
has been under option for five years. "It's been a long story of my trying to
convince studio executives to really consider the work seriously because it
seemed so far out," said David Baxter, a Hollywood writer and producer who is
writing the screenplay with Mark Pesce, co-creator of Virtual Reality
Modeling Language, or VRML. "But as time has passed, the world has started to
match what was in the book."
In the meantime Dr. Vinge has been providing scenarios in the corporate world
as well. He is one of several science fiction writers who have worked with
Global Business Network in anticipating future situations and plotting
strategies for several major companies.
Mr. Wilkinson, the co-founder of Global Business Network, said that Dr.
Vinge's work with the group provided "an unbelievably fertile perspective
from which to look back at and reunderstand the present."
"It's that ability to conceptualize whole new ways of framing issues, whole
new contexts that could emerge," Mr. Wilkinson said. "In the process he has
contributed to the turnarounds of at least two well-known technology
Dr. Vinge, shy and reserved, is hardly a self-promoter. He scrupulously
assigns credit to others whenever he can. And although he insists that much
of his work is highly derivative, his fans do not necessarily share that
"The thing that distinguishes Vernor is he's a scientist and all of his stuff
makes sense," Mr. Baxter said. "It's all grounded in the here and now."
Dr. Vinge is now a professor emeritus at San Diego State, having retired to
devote his time to his writing and consulting. Over lunch at a restaurant not
far from the university, he described a story he was working on.
"Well, there's a recovering Alzheimer's patient," Dr. Vinge began, before
being interrupted and asked how one could be a recovering Alzheimer's
His eyes brightened. "You can't," he said, and a sly smile crossed his face.
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