Department of Mathematical Sciences
San Diego State University(c) 1993 by Vernor Vinge
(This article may be reproduced for noncommercial purposes
if it is copied in its entirety, including this notice.)
The original version of this article
was presented at the VISION-21 Symposium
sponsored by NASA Lewis Research Center and
the Ohio Aerospace Institute, March 30-31, 1993.
A slightly changed version appeared in the
Winter 1993 issue of Whole Earth Review.
Withinthin thirty years, we will have the technological
means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after,
the human era will be ended.
events be guided so that we may survive? These questions
are investigated. Some possible answers (and some further
dangers) are presented.
What is The Singularity?
The acceleration of technological progress has been the central
feature of this century. I argue in this paper that we are on the edge
of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth. The precise
cause of this change is the imminent creation by technology of
entities with greater than human intelligence. There are several means
by which science may achieve this breakthrough (and this is another
reason for having confidence that the event will occur):
- There may be developed computers that are “awake” and
superhumanly intelligent. (To date, there has been much
controversy as to whether we can create human equivalence in a
machine. But if the answer is “yes, we can”, then there is little
doubt that beings more intelligent can be constructed shortly
- Large computer networks (and their associated users) may “wake
up” as a superhumanly intelligent entity.
- Computer/human interfaces may become so intimate that users
may reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent.
- Biological science may provide means to improve natural
three possibilities depend in large part on
improvements in computer hardware. Progress in computer hardware has
followed an amazingly steady curve in the last few decades . Based
largely on this trend, I believe that the creation of greater than
human intelligence will occur during the next thirty years. (Charles
Platt  has pointed out that AI enthusiasts have been making claims
like this for the last thirty years. Just so I’m not guilty of a
relative-time ambiguity, let me more specific: I’ll be surprised if
this event occurs before 2005 or after 2030.)
What are the consequences of this event? When greater-than-human
intelligence drives progress, that progress will be much more rapid.
In fact, there seems no reason why progress itself would not involve
the creation of still more intelligent entities — on a still-shorter
time scale. The best analogy that I see is with the evolutionary past:
Animals can adapt to problems and make inventions, but often no faster
than natural selection can do its work — the world acts as its own
simulator in the case of natural selection. We humans have the ability
to internalize the world and conduct “what if’s” in our heads; we can
solve many problems thousands of times faster than natural selection.
Now, by creating the means to execute those simulations at much higher
speeds, we are entering a regime as radically different from our human
past as we humans are from the lower animals.
From the human point of view this change will be a throwing away
of all the previous rules, perhaps in the blink of an eye, an
exponential runaway beyond any hope of control. Developments that
before were thought might only happen in “a million years” (if ever)
will likely happen in the next century. (In , Greg Bear paints a
picture of the major changes happening in a matter of hours.)
I think it’s fair to call this event a singularity (“the
Singularity” for the purposes of this paper). It is a point where our
old models must be discarded and a new reality rules. As we move
closer to this point, it will loom vaster and vaster over human
affairs till the notion becomes a commonplace. Yet when it finally
happens it may still be a great surprise and a greater unknown. In
the 1950s there were very few who saw it: Stan Ulam  paraphrased
John von Neumann as saying:
One conversation centered on the ever accelerating progress of
technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the
appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the
history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them,
could not continue.
Von Neumann even uses the term singularity, though it appears he
is thinking of normal progress, not the creation of superhuman
intellect. (For me, the superhumanity is the essence of the
Singularity. Without that we would get a glut of technical riches,
never properly absorbed (see ).)
In the 1960s there was recognition of some of the implications of
superhuman intelligence. I. J. Good wrote :
Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine
that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any
any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of
these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could
design even better machines; there would then unquestionably
be an “intelligence explosion,” and the intelligence of man
would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent
machine is the _last_ invention that man need ever make,
provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to
keep it under control.
It is more probable than not that, within the twentieth century,
an ultraintelligent machine will be built and that it will be
the last invention that man need make.
Good has captured the essence of the runaway, but does not pursue
its most disturbing consequences. Any intelligent machine of the sort
he describes would not be humankind’s “tool” — any more than humans
are the tools of rabbits or robins or chimpanzees.
Through the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s, recognition of the cataclysm
spread    . Perhaps it was the science-fiction writers
who felt the first concrete impact. After all, the “hard”
science-fiction writers are the ones who try to write specific stories
about all that technology may do for us. More and more, these writers
felt an opaque wall across the future. Once, they could put such
fantasies millions of years in the future . Now they saw that
their most diligent extrapolations resulted in the unknowable …
soon. Once, galactic empires might have seemed a Post-Human domain.
Now, sadly, even interplanetary ones are.
What about the ’90s and the ’00s and the ’10s, as we slide toward
the edge? How will the approach of the Singularity spread across the
human world view? For a while yet, the general critics of machine
sapience will have good press. After all, till we have hardware as
powerful as a human brain it is probably foolish to think we’ll be
able to create human equivalent (or greater) intelligence. (There is
the far-fetched possibility that we could make a human equivalent out
of less powerful hardware, if we were willing to give up speed, if we
were willing to settle for an artificial being who was literally slow
. But it’s much more likely that devising the software will be a
tricky process, involving lots of false starts and experimentation. If
so, then the arrival of self-aware machines will not happen till after
the development of hardware that is substantially more powerful than
humans’ natural equipment.)
But as time passes, we should see more symptoms. The dilemma felt
by science fiction writers will be perceived in other creative
endeavors. (I have heard thoughtful comic book writers worry about
how to have spectacular effects when everything visible can be
produced by the technologically commonplace.) We will see automation
replacing higher and higher level jobs. We have tools right now
(symbolic math programs, cad/cam) that release us from most low-level
drudgery. Or put another way: The work that is truly productive is the
domain of a steadily smaller and more elite fraction of humanity. In
the coming of the Singularity, we are seeing the predictions of _true_
technological unemployment finally come true.
Another symptom of progress toward the Singularity: ideas
themselves should spread ever faster, and even the most radical will
quickly become commonplace. When I began writing science fiction in
the middle ’60s, it seemed very easy to find ideas that took decades
to percolate into the cultural consciousness; now the lead time seems
more like eighteen months. (Of course, this could just be me losing my
imagination as I get old, but I see the effect in others too.) Like
the shock in a compressible flow, the Singularity moves closer as we
accelerate through the critical speed.
And what of the arrival of the Singularity itself? What can be
said of its actual appearance? Since it involves an intellectual
runaway, it will probably occur faster than any technical revolution
seen so far. The precipitating event will likely be unexpected —
perhaps even to the researchers involved. (“But all our previous
models were catatonic! We were just tweaking some parameters….”) If
networking is widespread enough (into ubiquitous embedded systems), it
may seem as if our artifacts as a whole had suddenly wakened.
And what happens a month or two (or a day or two) after that? I
have only analogies to point to: The rise of humankind. We will be in
the Post-Human era. And for all my rampant technological optimism,
sometimes I think I’d be more comfortable if I were regarding these
transcendental events from one thousand years remove … instead of
Can the Singularity be Avoided?
Well, maybe it won’t happen at all: Sometimes I try to imagine
the symptoms that we should expect to see if the Singularity is not to
develop. There are the widely respected arguments of Penrose  and
Searle  against the practicality of machine sapience. In August
of 1992, Thinking Machines Corporation held a workshop to investigate
the question “How We Will Build a Machine that Thinks” . As you
might guess from the workshop’s title, the participants were not
especially supportive of the arguments against machine intelligence.
In fact, there was general agreement that minds can exist on
nonbiological substrates and that algorithms are of central importance
to the existence of minds. However, there was much debate about the
raw hardware power that is present in organic brains. A minority felt
that the largest 1992 computers were within three orders of magnitude
of the power of the human brain. The majority of the participants
agreed with Moravec’s estimate  that we are ten to forty years
away from hardware parity. And yet there was another minority who
pointed to  , and conjectured that the computational competence
of single neurons may be far higher than generally believed. If so,
our present computer hardware might be as much as _ten_ orders of
magnitude short of the equipment we carry around in our heads. If this
is true (or for that matter, if the Penrose or Searle critique is
valid), we might never see a Singularity. Instead, in the early ’00s
we would find our hardware performance curves beginning to level off
— this because of our inability to automate the design work needed to
support further hardware improvements. We’d end up with some _very_
powerful hardware, but without the ability to push it further.
Commercial digital signal processing might be awesome, giving an
analog appearance even to digital operations, but nothing would ever
“wake up” and there would never be the intellectual runaway which is
the essence of the Singularity. It would likely be seen as a golden
age … and it would also be an end of progress. This is very like the
future predicted by Gunther Stent. In fact, on page 137 of ,
Stent explicitly cites the development of transhuman intelligence as a
sufficient condition to break his projections.
But if the technological Singularity can happen, it will. Even
if all the governments of the world were to understand the “threat”
and be in deadly fear of it, progress toward the goal would continue.
In fiction, there have been stories of laws passed forbidding the
construction of “a machine in the likeness of the human mind” .
In fact, the competitive advantage — economic, military, even
artistic — of every advance in automation is so compelling that
passing laws, or having customs, that forbid such things merely
assures that someone else will get them first.
Eric Drexler  has provided spectacular insights about how far
technical improvement may go. He agrees that superhuman intelligences
will be available in the near future — and that such entities pose a
threat to the human status quo. But Drexler argues that we can confine
such transhuman devices so that their results can be examined and
used safely. This is I. J. Good’s ultraintelligent machine, with a
dose of caution. I argue that confinement is intrinsically
impractical. For the case of physical confinement: Imagine yourself
locked in your home with only limited data access to the outside,
to your masters. If those masters thought at a rate — say — one
million times slower than you, there is little doubt that over a
period of years (your time) you could come up with “helpful advice”
that would incidentally set you free. (I call this “fast thinking”
form of superintelligence “weak superhumanity”. Such a “weakly
superhuman” entity would probably burn out in a few weeks of outside
time. “Strong superhumanity” would be more than cranking up the clock
speed on a human-equivalent mind. It’s hard to say precisely what
“strong superhumanity” would be like, but the difference appears to be
profound. Imagine running a dog mind at very high speed. Would a
thousand years of doggy living add up to any human insight? (Now if
the dog mind were cleverly rewired and _then_ run at high speed, we
might see something different….) Many speculations about
superintelligence seem to be based on the weakly superhuman model. I
believe that our best guesses about the post-Singularity world can be
obtained by thinking on the nature of strong superhumanity. I will
return to this point later in the paper.)
Another approach to confinement is to build _rules_ into the
mind of the created superhuman entity (for example, Asimov’s Laws
). I think that any rules strict enough to be effective would also
produce a device whose ability was clearly inferior to the unfettered
versions (and so human competition would favor the development of the
those more dangerous models). Still, the Asimov dream is a wonderful
one: Imagine a willing slave, who has 1000 times your capabilities in
every way. Imagine a creature who could satisfy your every safe wish
(whatever that means) and still have 99.9% of its time free for other
activities. There would be a new universe we never really understood,
but filled with benevolent gods (though one of _my_ wishes might be to
become one of them).
If the Singularity can not be prevented or confined, just how bad
could the Post-Human era be? Well … pretty bad. The physical
extinction of the human race is one possibility. (Or as Eric Drexler
put it of nanotechnology: Given all that such technology can do,
perhaps governments would simply decide that they no longer need
citizens!). Yet physical extinction may not be the scariest
possibility. Again, analogies: Think of the different ways we relate
to animals. Some of the crude physical abuses are implausible, yet….
In a Post-Human world there would still be plenty of niches where
human equivalent automation would be desirable: embedded systems in
autonomous devices, self-aware daemons in the lower functioning of
larger sentients. (A strongly superhuman intelligence would likely be
a Society of Mind  with some very competent components.) Some
of these human equivalents might be used for nothing more than digital
signal processing. They would be more like whales than humans. Others
might be very human-like, yet with a one-sidedness, a _dedication_
that would put them in a mental hospital in our era. Though none of
these creatures might be flesh-and-blood humans, they might be the
closest things in the new enviroment to what we call human now. (I. J.
Good had something to say about this, though at this late date the
advice may be moot: Good  proposed a “Meta-Golden Rule”,
which might be paraphrased as “Treat your inferiors as you would be
treated by your superiors.” It’s a wonderful, paradoxical idea (and
most of my friends don’t believe it) since the game-theoretic payoff
is so hard to articulate. Yet if we were able to follow it, in some
sense that might say something about the plausibility of such kindness
in this universe.)
I have argued above that we cannot prevent the Singularity,
that its coming is an inevitable consequence of the humans’ natural
competitiveness and the possibilities inherent in technology. And yet
… we are the initiators. Even the largest avalanche is triggered by
small things. We have the freedom to establish initial conditions,
make things happen in ways that are less inimical than others. Of
course (as with starting avalanches), it may not be clear what the
right guiding nudge really is:
Other Paths to the Singularity: Intelligence Amplification_
When people speak of creating superhumanly intelligent beings,
they are usually imagining an AI project. But as I noted at the
beginning of this paper, there are other paths to superhumanity.
Computer networks and human-computer interfaces seem more mundane than
AI, and yet they could lead to the Singularity. I call this
contrasting approach Intelligence Amplification (IA). IA is something
that is proceeding very naturally, in most cases not even recognized
by its developers for what it is. But every time our ability to access
information and to communicate it to others is improved, in some sense
we have achieved an increase over natural intelligence. Even now, the
team of a PhD human and good computer workstation (even an off-net
workstation!) could probably max any written intelligence test in
And it’s very likely that IA is a much easier road to the
achievement of superhumanity than pure AI. In humans, the hardest
development problems have already been solved. Building up from within
ourselves ought to be easier than figuring out first what we really
are and then building machines that are all of that. And there is at
least conjectural precedent for this approach. Cairns-Smith  has
speculated that biological life may have begun as an adjunct to still
more primitive life based on crystalline growth. Lynn Margulis (in
 and elsewhere) has made strong arguments that mutualism is a
great driving force in evolution.
Note that I am not proposing that AI research be ignored or less
funded. What goes on with AI will often have applications in IA, and
vice versa. I am suggesting that we recognize that in network and
interface research there is something as profound (and potential wild)
as Artificial Intelligence. With that insight, we may see projects
that are not as directly applicable as conventional interface and
network design work, but which serve to advance us toward the
Singularity along the IA path.
Here are some possible projects that take on special
significance, given the IA point of view:
- Human/computer team automation: Take problems that are normally
considered for purely machine solution (like hill-climbing
problems), and design programs and interfaces that take a
advantage of humans’ intuition and available computer hardware.
Considering all the bizarreness of higher dimensional
hill-climbing problems (and the neat algorithms that have been
devised for their solution), there could be some very interesting
displays and control tools provided to the human team member.
- Develop human/computer symbiosis in art: Combine the graphic
generation capability of modern machines and the esthetic
sensibility of humans. Of course, there has been an enormous
amount of research in designing computer aids for artists, as
labor saving tools. I’m suggesting that we explicitly aim for a
greater merging of competence, that we explicitly recognize the
cooperative approach that is possible. Karl Sims  has done
wonderful work in this direction.
- Allow human/computer teams at chess tournaments. We already
have programs that can play better than almost all humans. But
how much work has been done on how this power could be used by a
human, to get something even better? If such teams were allowed
in at least some chess tournaments, it could have the positive
effect on IA research that allowing computers in tournaments had
for the corresponding niche in AI.
- Develop interfaces that allow computer and network access without
requiring the human to be tied to one spot, sitting in front of a
computer. (This is an aspect of IA that fits so well with known
economic advantages that lots of effort is already being spent on
- Develop more symmetrical decision support systems. A popular
research/product area in recent years has been decision support
systems. This is a form of IA, but may be too focussed on
systems that are oracular. As much as the program giving the user
information, there must be the idea of the user giving the
- Use local area nets to make human teams that really work (ie,
are more effective than their component members). This is
generally the area of “groupware”, already a very popular
commercial pursuit. The change in viewpoint here would be to
regard the group activity as a combination organism. In one
sense, this suggestion might be regarded as the goal of inventing
a “Rules of Order” for such combination operations. For instance,
group focus might be more easily maintained than in classical
meetings. Expertise of individual human members could be isolated
from ego issues such that the contribution of different members
is focussed on the team project. And of course shared data bases
could be used much more conveniently than in conventional
committee operations. (Note that this suggestion is aimed at team
operations rather than political meetings. In a political
setting, the automation described above would simply enforce the
power of the persons making the rules!)
- Exploit the worldwide Internet as a combination human/machine
tool. Of all the items on the list, progress in this is
proceeding the fastest and may run us into the Singularity before
anything else. The power and influence of even the present-day
Internet is vastly underestimated. For instance, I think our
contemporary computer systems would break under the weight of
their own complexity if it weren’t for the edge that the USENET
“group mind” gives the system administration and support people!
The very anarchy of the worldwide net development is evidence of
its potential. As connectivity and bandwidth and archive size and
computer speed all increase, we are seeing something like Lynn
Margulis’  vision of the biosphere as data processor
recapitulated, but at a million times greater speed and with
millions of humanly intelligent agents (ourselves).
The above examples illustrate research that can be done within
the context of contemporary computer science departments. There are
other paradigms. For example, much of the work in Artificial
Intelligence and neural nets would benefit from a closer connection
with biological life. Instead of simply trying to model and understand
biological life with computers, research could be directed toward the
creation of composite systems that rely on biological life for
guidance or for the providing features we don’t understand well enough
yet to implement in hardware. A long-time dream of science-fiction has
been direct brain to computer interfaces  . In fact, there is
concrete work that can be done (and is being done) in this area:
- topic of direct commercial applicability.
- Direct links into brains seem feasible, if the bit rate is
low: given human learning flexibility, the actual brain neuron
targets might not have to be precisely selected. Even 100 bits
per second would be of great use to stroke victims who would
otherwise be confined to menu-driven interfaces.
- Plugging in to the optic trunk has the potential for bandwidths
of 1 Mbit/second or so. But for this, we need to know the
fine-scale architecture of vision, and we need to place an
enormous web of electrodes with exquisite precision. If we want
our high bandwidth connection to be _in addition_ to what paths
are already present in the brain, the problem becomes vastly more
intractable. Just sticking a grid of high-bandwidth receivers
into a brain certainly won’t do it. But suppose that the
high-bandwidth grid were present while the brain structure was
actually setting up, as the embryo develops. That suggests:
- Animal embryo experiments. I wouldn’t expect any IA success
in the first years of such research, but giving developing brains
access to complex simulated neural structures might be very
interesting to the people who study how the embryonic brain
develops. In the long run, such experiments might produce
animals with additional sense paths and interesting intellectual
Nerve to silicon transducers can be made . This is an
exciting, near-term step toward direct communication.
Originally, I had hoped that this discussion of IA would yield
some clearly safer approaches to the Singularity. (After all, IA
allows our participation in a kind of transcendance.) Alas, looking
back over these IA proposals, about all I am sure of is that they
should be considered, that they may give us more options. But as for
safety … well, some of the suggestions are a little scarey on their
face. One of my informal reviewers pointed out that IA for individual
humans creates a rather sinister elite. We humans have millions of
years of evolutionary baggage that makes us regard competition in a
deadly light. Much of that deadliness may not be necessary in today’s
world, one where losers take on the winners’ tricks and are coopted
into the winners’ enterprises. A creature that was built _de novo_
might possibly be a much more benign entity than one with a kernel
based on fang and talon. And even the egalitarian view of an Internet
that wakes up along with all mankind can be viewed as a nightmare
problem is not simply that the Singularity represents the
passing of humankind from center stage, but that it contradicts
our most deeply held notions of being. I think a closer look at the
notion of strong superhumanity can show why that is.
Strong Superhumanity and the Best We Can Ask for
Suppose we could tailor the Singularity. Suppose we could attain
our most extravagant hopes. What then would we ask for:
That humans themselves would become their own successors, that
whatever injustice occurs would be tempered by our knowledge of our
roots. For those who remained unaltered, the goal would be benign
treatment (perhaps even giving the stay-behinds the appearance of
being masters of godlike slaves). It could be a golden age that also
involved progress (overleaping Stent’s barrier). Immortality (or at
least a lifetime as long as we can make the universe survive 
) would be achievable.
But in this brightest and kindest world, the philosophical
problems themselves become intimidating. A mind that stays at the same
capacity cannot live forever; after a few thousand years it would look
more like a repeating tape loop than a person. (The most chilling
picture I have seen of this is in .) To live indefinitely long,
the mind itself must grow … and when it becomes great enough, and
looks back … what fellow-feeling can it have with the soul that it
was originally? Certainly the later being would be everything the
original was, but so much vastly more. And so even for the individual,
the Cairns-Smith or Lynn Margulis notion of new life growing
incrementally out of the old must still be valid.
This “problem” about immortality comes up in much more direct
ways. The notion of ego and self-awareness has been the bedrock of
the hardheaded rationalism of the last few centuries. Yet now the
notion of self-awareness is under attack from the Artificial
Intelligence people (“self-awareness and other delusions”).
Intelligence Amplification undercuts our concept of ego from another
direction. The post-Singularity world will involve extremely
high-bandwidth networking. A central feature of strongly superhuman
entities will likely be their ability to communicate at variable
bandwidths, including ones far higher than speech or written messages.
What happens when pieces of ego can be copied and merged, when the
size of a selfawareness can grow or shrink to fit the nature of the
problems under consideration? These are essential features of strong
superhumanity and the Singularity. Thinking about them, one begins to
feel how essentially strange and different the Post-Human era will be
— _no matter how cleverly and benignly it is brought to be_.
From one angle, the vision fits many of our happiest dreams:
a time unending, where we can truly know one another and understand
the deepest mysteries. From another angle, it’s a lot like the worst-
case scenario I imagined earlier in this paper.
Which is the valid viewpoint? In fact, I think the new era is
simply too different to fit into the classical frame of good and
evil. That frame is based on the idea of isolated, immutable minds
connected by tenuous, low-bandwith links. But the post-Singularity
world _does_ fit with the larger tradition of change and cooperation
that started long ago (perhaps even before the rise of biological
life). I think there _are_ notions of ethics that would apply in such
an era. Research into IA and high-bandwidth communications should
improve this understanding. I see just the glimmerings of this now
. There is Good’s Meta-Golden Rule; perhaps there are rules for
distinguishing self from others on the basis of bandwidth of
connection. And while mind and self will be vastly more labile than in
the past, much of what we value (knowledge, memory, thought) need
never be lost. I think Freeman Dyson has it right when he says :
“God is what mind becomes when it has passed beyond the scale of our
[I wish to thank John Carroll of San Diego State University and Howard
Davidson of Sun Microsystems for discussing the draft version of this
paper with me.]
Annotated Sources [and an occasional plea for bibliographical help]
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Albert Bonniers Forlag AB with English translation copyright 1966
by Victor Gollanz, Ltd.
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sometime in the 1960s. Through the help of the net, I have found
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Extraterrestrials … or Your Neighbor”, _Analog Science Fact-
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of the Searle essay.
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Machines Corporation, Technical Report Series (published in _Toward
a Practice of Autonomous Systems: Proceedings of the First European
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 Thearling, Kurt, “How We Will Build a Machine that Thinks”, a workshop
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 Ulam, S., Tribute to John von Neumann, _Bulletin of the American
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 Vinge, Vernor, “Bookworm, Run!”, _Analog_, March 1966, pp8-40.
Reprinted in _True Names and Other Dangers_, Vernor Vinge, Baen
 Vinge, Vernor, “True Names”, _Binary Star Number 5_, Dell, 1981.
Reprinted in _True Names and Other Dangers_, Vernor Vinge, Baen
 Vinge, Vernor, First Word, _Omni_, January 1983, p10.
 Vinge, Vernor, To Appear [ 🙂 ].