NYTimes on Vinge

From: Eugene Leitl (Eugene.Leitl@lrz.uni-muenchen.de)
Date: Thu Aug 02 2001 - 06:44:38 MDT

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AUG 02, 2001

A Scientist's Art: Computer Fiction


    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 science fiction.

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: cyberspace.

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 was prophetic.

"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 becomes

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 dreaming."

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 story."

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 really fast."

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

"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 companies."

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 view.

"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 patient.

His eyes brightened. "You can't," he said, and a sly smile crossed his
face. "Yet."

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