Vernor Vinge, influential sci-fi author who warned of AI ‘Singularity,’ has died

Vernor Vinge, prolific science-fiction writer, professor, and one of the first prominent thinkers to conceptualize the concepts of a “Technological Singularity” and cyberspace, has died at the age of 79. News of his passing on March 20 was confirmed through a Facebook post from author and friend David Brin, citing complications from Parkinson’s Disease.

“Vernor enthralled millions with tales of plausible tomorrows, made all the more vivid by his polymath masteries of language, drama, characters, and the implications of science,” Brin writes.

The Hugo Award-winning author of sci-classics like A Fire Upon the Deep and Rainbow’s End, Vinge also taught mathematics and computer science at San Diego State University before retiring in 2000 to focus on his writing. In his famous 1983 op-ed, Vinge adapted the physics concept of a “singularity” to describe the moment in humanity’s technological progress marking “an intellectual transition as impenetrable as the knotted space-time at the center of a black hole” when “the world will pass far beyond our understanding.” The Singularity, Vinge hypothesized, would likely stem from the creation of artificial intelligence systems that surpassed humanity’s evolutionary capabilities. How life on Earth progressed from there was anyone’s guess—something plenty of Vinge-inspired writers have since attempted.

[Related: What happens if AI grows smarter than humans? The answer worries scientists.]

John Scalzi, bestselling sci-fi author of the Old Man’s War series, wrote in a blog post on Thursday that Vinge’s singularity theory in now so ubiquitous within science fiction and the tech industry that “it doesn’t feel like it has a progenitor, and that it just existed ambiently.”

“That’s a hell of a thing to have contributed to the world,” he continued.

In many ways, Vinge’s visions have arguably borne out almost to the exact year, as evidenced by the recent, rapid advances within an AI industry whose leaders are openly indebted to his work. In a 1993 essay further expounding on the Singularity concept, Vinge predicted that, “Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence,” likening the moment to the “rise of human life on Earth.”

“Shortly after, the human era will be ended,” Vinge dramatically hypothesized at the time.
Many critics have since (often convincingly) argued that creating a true artificial general intelligence still remains out-of-reach, if not completely impossible. Even then, however, Vinge appeared perfectly capable of envisioning a dizzying, non-Singularity future—humanity may never square off against sentient AI, but it’s certainly already contending with “a glut of technical riches never properly absorbed.”

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