Vernor Vinge Paints the Future at AGC

Award-winning science fiction Vernor Vinge, speaking at the Austin Game Conference, gave his vision of a future in which connectivity was literally in the air around us. Author of Rainbows End most recently, Vinge painted a picture of ubiquitous connectivity similar to the one narrated in that novel. So well connected will we be, according to Vinge, that “post-human” capabilities will arise from groups of people networked together. “It will be a very glorious thing to be an early post-human artist,” Vinge said. “Virtually every aspect of purpose, faith and fantasy could have a constituency in such a world.” His vision was compelling, though it remains to be seen how quickly it will be realized, or whether the discrete functions Vinge described won’t more likely take fuzzier forms as they come about. Below a transcript of his remarks:

It’s great to be able to talk to people who are actually doing things and making all of this stuff happen. What I want to talk about today is a scenario that largely seems very likely and has a certain planning utility in addition to making good stories. I want to talk about the hardware that [may bring about] ubiquitous computing. Now, ubiquitous computing is sort of a slippery term. As with treason, it’s mainly a matter of dates.

In thinking about this, I have several steps or types of technology that lead into it. First of all, starting with the 1980s, we have embedded systems, things like microcontrollers in our typewriters. It’s a great economic win, because it allows us to substitute software for moving parts engineering, and so embedded microprocessors at this point are pretty ubiquitous, to the point that it can be kind of scary. Now, we’re entering an era of networked embedded systems, of devices able to talk to each other and to us.

This is a path that we are accellerating down because again it has a great economic win. The stuff that’s coming up on the near horizon with this is RFIDs, but not just RFIDs, but smart RFIDs, which will not only have embedded microprocessors in large discrete devices, but in more or less throwaway devices, and also in standalone situations. That gets us into what I think most of us have heard about, like smart dust and MEMS [Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems].

You can imagine such ubiquity being then hooked up with sensors and effectors. An added feature to make this really turn into the sort of effectiveness it could be is the notion of localizers. In its simplest conceptual form, these are simply a feature that is on networked embedded processors, whereby the processor knows where it is in 3D space.

In principle, that actually is very easy. Youo don’t even need GPS, simply if you have lots of them, thousands in this room scattered around as an ad hoc network, they can figure out their relative position to the other nodes. And in fact they can know where things are outside of this room if the world as a whole is hooked up this way.

Think about what that would mean. It actually elimates whole industries. It eliminates hundreds of different locational technologies. Almost all the moving parts machinery we have and coordination of moving parts machinery involves either having humans know how to position the parts or a wide variety of technologies working togehter.

Hook that up with the issue of communciations, and we actually have very interesting solutions for getting results out to end points. If you know exactly where things are, not only can you make use of the ultra-wideband that we already are moving into, but you could even imagine using very good localizer technology to set up extremely high bit-rate lengths that were highly directional.

What this means is that considering that the overall backbone of communication is still there, we’re still making use of very, very large pipes to send information long distances. Localizers allow you on case by case basis to extend the capacity of those pipes down to the finest end point that you could want, and to do it in an ad hoc and real time way.

A problem that really hasn’t shown up very much in our era but ultimately could be really interesting, that is the problem of node guano. If you have lot of ad hoc nodes, in a situation where nodes don’t last forever, ultimately we could be hip deep in dead nodes.

In this environment, wearable computers are to the embedded networks what the PCs have been to our Internet. and this is something that you could imagine working out very smoothly, almost seamlessly, and that’s already accepted by consumers.

I am convinced that the day we really get high resolution heads up displays, most people who nowadays are carrying a bluetooth earphone and microphone would have no problem with wearing eyeglasses that gave them a heads up display of something like 4,000 by 4,000 if the infrastructure had moved along in concert. Then high resolution HUDs could be exploited. That’s an example of a highly disruptive technology. It essentially destroys all other display technology except as emergency backups.

If you were able to get localization that was really good, you could imagine setting this up so that if your wearbale knew where you were looking, what the orientation of your head was and where your eyeballs were tracking, then in addition to being able to produce the world’s best display, as good as the worlds’ best desktop display, you could actually overlay things in the environment.

The term for that in academic circles is augmented reality. In that situation, having the processing power that’s involved with the network infrastructure I just described becomes very very useful, because you could in an ad hoc way overlay those portions of reality that you wanted to.

In an auditorium like this you could make the walls look like whatever you wanted, you could make the speaker look like a clown, and since everything was networked, you and your friends could get together and agree on what things looked like. The notion of consensual imaging becomes very very important, and again this is actually a very disruptive technology, if it were finally to happen. It blows away all discussion of large three-dimensional display technologies.

I want to talk about something that ultimately for first time really does go a long way to kill off theaters as seperate architectural structures.

If you take together all of the things I have been pushing here, there really is a situation where cyberspace has leaked into the real world, in fact the title of the talk was Inside Out, which was intended to convey the notion of what was inside box in all eras up to ours, in this sort of era is outside. In other words, reality can be whatever the software people choose to make it, and the people operating in the outside real world choose it to be.

So both cinema and games become something that are totally immersive at all times and at all places where the user wishes them to be. It might be, even if the user does not wish it to be, if his wearable gets hijacked and he persists in using his wearable may be subjected to things that aren’t there.

Wearables are the interface to it, but the situation with the network as a whole is very interesting, it hasn’t gotten rid of big pipes or server farms, however we would be in a situation where reality has become its own database, in the sense that objects in the outside world, millions of them would know what they are, know where they are, know where their nearest neighbors are, and can talk to their nearest neighbors and by extenstion to anything in the world.

So in a sense the real world has awakened at that point, not in the sense of humanly intelligent, but in the sense we talk about smart phones and devices, sort of ubiquitous and ubiqitously networked.

This produces the possibility of a form of insight into dealing with the real world once cyberspace has leaked out, once you have this inside out thing. In the 20th century, people used all sorts of analogies from the real world to describe what they were doing inside operating systems. In this century, almost anything you can think of doing inside an operating system have serious implications in the real world.

Going on from that though, let’s look at some of the social and game consequences. First of all, I’ve been very impressed here the last few days, at AGC, both in panels and in product demos, in trying to ocmpare this with how science fiction writers have predicted these things.

One thing that really impacted me as an SF writer thinking about these things, I had this sort of linear view, and what I could just see wandering around the technology pavilion was the horizontal spread of all these different niches, an ecology of development, all the stuff about middleware and the different dimensions of the operation, and all the different sorts of online gaming plays that there are.

When a person takes all of that and tries to imagine what it would be in this sort of environment, you guys are the expert at that, that is a very rich group of things to think about. On the other hand, I went through four or five different sorts of things, some of them are already proceeding forward like gangbusters, some are much harder to do. If a person works out different scenarios for each of them, then you’re kind of in a position where as time goes forward and you look at what actually is going to materialize, you have a vision of what things are going to be like one or two steps out.

There’s a mad rush into embedded processors going forward very rapidly. The localization I’m talking about is much harder. Really good 4k by 4k HUDs, I’m actually somewhat surprised it hasn’t happend already. When those come along, there’s suddenly a whole other set of things you can do. Then, if and when we have the ability to actually hang the image that’s on the HUD, hang it in such a way that you can slew it as you move your head, that’s a whole other dimension of application.

At each of these levels, all the analysis of impact, there’s a seperate analysis that could be done there in terms of what might work and not work. What I want to do here though is just go on and suppose we’re at this extreme point where I got to a few minutes ago, and look at just in that siuation what would be the consequences for game type situations.

One question is how many alternate realities could simultaneously exist. If you work out the arithmetic and believe the hardware infrastructure scenario I painted, you’re getting 10 to 100 gigabits per second to each person. That means that basically the number of possible alternate realities would be at least as high as the number of people, and could be higher depending on what kind of multitasking people were doing. The amount of storage necessary to hold all those realities, it’s quite reasonable it would be large enough to handle that.

That means that virtually every aspect of purpose, faith and fantasy could have a constituency in such a world, and that really raises a lot of possiblities for products, and the products actually go beyond games.

It’s not so much a question of the place of games in the future world, but a question of whether there’s anything going on besides games. It depends what you mean by game. There are going to be very serious things going on in this world, but the technololgy behind them might not be distinguishable from games, or only in that with a game you can often turn a bug into not only a feature but a seeling point. On the other hand, if you are writing software to land aircraft, mother nature does not accept bugs that are selling points.

For instance, job-related alternate realities. I’m ignoring the fact that some jobs might just go away. But if you’re involved with catering or managing a hotel, the utility view would be the augmented realities that show you that part of what’s going on in the real world that is related to your job. If you’re doing repairs on the building it would be views of those parts of the building that have to do with the water system or electricity or whatever you’re dealing with.

Then there are microduration labor markets, a casual game that could be the end of occupations. To the extent that you have any spare time at all, if you’re in an environment like the one I’m describing here and you’re a flexible person with some expertise in something, that means you can actually make money on any job you can undertake and complete in 30 seconds. To the extent you’re ever held up in line, any loose spot in your schedule, you are there making money.

Another category are joint entities, two people who work together perhaps because one is handicapped and the other is mobile. One might know downtown Austin very well, while the other is from San Ddiego, so when they’re walking around out of doors, they’re operating as a joint entity.

At higher levels of organization, whether you consider this to be games or coordinative enterprises, one could imageine things a little like businesses, or affiliances where in a relatively ad hoc way, like a movie producer, but over 10 hours or 100 hours put together a pyramid of people with expertise in certain things.

Belief circles are something that fits very well with a lot of recreational-use computers now. It could be buyers of Terry Pratchett novels, and basically that’s the world they want to live in, they’ve worked out consensual realities, like the Society for Creative Anachronism. The whole world would be the Terry Pratchett sort of world.

Actually, a more extreme thing that many of us would be quite uneasy about, but it’s one thing I’m intrigued by is the notion of lifestyle cults. It’s something akin to a total informatiuon awareness system, the idea of somebody snooping on you all the time at a micro level is for most of us very offnesive. It certainly frightens me, but you can imagine a voluntary total information awareness consoritum as a commercial sort of thing.

It might amount to getting together several components, one would be a world class logistical supply chain manager, like Costco, managing enormous product streams and woroking very hard to get prices down as low as possible. Another component of a total information awareness consortium could be something like a social networking business in our time, which handles actually dealing with and talking to the individual customers through their wearables.

Put that together with the levels of surveillance I’m describing, which makes total information awareness as imagined by the US government look trivial, with this sort of thing we can watch things down to lowest possible level. But if you took those three things and also had several million subscribers, then you’re in a very interesting situation. For them, good things just tend to happen. Whatever you’re doing or thinking about doing, you get the best prices on the sorts of things you’re interested in, and if you decide you’re not getting the best prices, you get out of this lifestyle cult or go over to some different one.

You could extend this to the point where members of the cults actually are coordinating among themselves to bring good results to each other. I find this whole idea sort of unsettling and scary, but it is an example of the empowerment that can occur to groups below the national level, and really grows out of MMO stuff. The belief circles and the lifestyle cults are examples of something that has some similarities to what’s going on now in MMOs but blown up to a level and intensity that might be objectionable to some people.

One of biggest problem with this sort of situation is generating content. Nowadays one thing you hear a fair amount about is getting customers to generate content, which has attained almost faddish levels. In an auidience like this that’s probably not that popular of an idea. On the other hand, when you look at the amount of content that would be necessary to support this, which is essentially all of reality, and you look at the fact that already the largest generators of content are people with home cameras, there is probably something that’s going to be going on with that sort of stuff. It seems to me that we are entering an era various companies have figured out, in which there are ways of spending enormous amounts of money on certain hardware platforms, software, social interactions, and coaxing the creative beast to come out of hiding and do things for you.

One thing I’ve been peddling for a long time is the notion of the technological singularity. The idea is not a certainty but in my opinion is a plausibility in the working lifetimes of most people here, that there will be perhaps something superhuman come along. We will either create or become something superhuman, in various ways. The particular scenario I’ve been running through today here does look a little like one possiblity. That is, in talking about these large numbers of creative people working together, we see an emergent ensemble critter or critters that are seperately behaving in superhumanly creative ways.

It’s very cool to me to see that it really could be the way it happens, and if you are in the business of art and art forms, it’s especially interesting and exciting. To me the most recent analogy to the technological singularity is the rise of the human race within the animal kingdom.

Think back to that time, what would it be like to be the first human to ever tell a joke, or the first storyteller. Anything you did would be new — and the fact that it was crap wouldn’t matter.

What we see going on now could be very like that situaiton. It would be a very glorious thing to be an early post-human artist, which none of us are, but it may just be that we are setting things up for that.


  1. csven

    wrt “localization”, the RadTag concept I generated back before spimes and blogjects were coined, was actually pre-dated by another concept of which I only have sketches. That concept was more like what you’re describing. Back in ’99, prior to joining the company designing Black&Decker appliances, I documented a smoke alarm system concept that was a series of communicating nodes inside a structure. Each node was aware of it’s position in the structure. Thus when one node detected smoke/fire, the nodes would collectively determine the best exit and change their coloration as appropriate (red/green) to direct people to safety. Most important was that the nodes operated as a unit, had sensor awareness and a collective – if rudimentary – “intelligence”, and were aware of their position in real space and could tranlate that information into a “virtual” solution (now I think about it, that’s almost kirkyan).

    The augmented reality scenario you’re describing has, iirc, been tested at an aerospace company. I was doing concept work for a data acquisition hardware company and in the mid-90’s they purchased one of the vr headset manufacturers that popped up during the vr craze of the time. The combination of wireless technology that they helped pioneer together with their established warehouse data manament systems and those headsets was – I was told – folded into a system that was being tested which allowed workers to enter a hangar, put on their goggles, and call up different kinds of schematics. Those schematics were, as I understood it, overlaid directly onto the aircraft (the aircraft itself became a part of the network in the same way mo-cap is used in Hollywood).

    Your wearable computing discussion should also imo include Microsoft’s “skin-as-network” component patent. I made this comment on A VC’s entry discussing Facebook’s “Friends” problem:

    “RFID technology is making its way into real world systems as seemingly mundane as businesscards. Merely shaking hands could pass traceable, trackable data between casual, once-met individuals – especially if Microsoft’s patents on skin as part of a computing system bear fruit.

    Imagine if, instead of making impersonating phone calls, investigators for HP had merely bumped into one of the board members at a happy hour.”

    In our uber-connected world of the future, a name, email address, and a cell phone picture of the person are probably enough to gather sufficient information to steal their identity. That should alarm all of us.

    About six years ago I toyed with the idea of setting up a website called “sampleclans”. Sampleclans started out being about videogames; collecting texture samples, sound samples, aso. The more I thought about it, the more it sounded like something bigger. I imagined a clan targeting a celebrity and literally mobbing that person to get data: skin sample (texture but also DNA), hair sample, clothing sample, photographs, voice recordings, aso. Everything needed to create an artificial version. That of course leads to some other not-so-pleasant possibilities.

    So cut this short(er), while I agree there are many wonderful things that become possible, I find myself concerned about how this technology can be abused and misused. Kirkyan weapons, about which I recently posted, will in some form be with us in the near future; perhaps they’ll be swarms of UCAVs or they’ll be individual anti-missile emplacements. Or maybe they’ll be micro-weapons that take their design cues from wasps and whose function is to spread contagion. Certainly an unpleasant thought, but made more unpleasant when access to such technology is unrestricted and fabrication itself is simple and easy.

    These technologies most definitely cut both ways. And good or bad, they’re not going away. The only way we’re going to survive ourselves is to learn to respect each other. Unfortunately, I don’t see much of that in today’s world.

  2. Prokofy Neva

    Reading this, I’m made physically nauseous because I realize that it isn’t a science fiction novel but an accurate prediction of what we can expect in the real future: the ability of programmers to fracture reality, and, like, Pontius Pilate, ask: “What is truth?” It will be very hard to fight; it might take the planet centuries to fight it, and only forces that end up taking down grids themselvse and setting back civilization by dismantling electricity, etc. will succeed — and that’s not going to be progress.

    It’s curious to me that the minds that identify these horrors then find it interesting or even delightful to watch — I guess they don’t believe in God. They’re not unlike the complicated figure of Oppenheimer.

    “Actually, a more extreme thing that many of us would be quite uneasy about, but it’s one thing I’m intrigued by is the notion of lifestyle cults. It’s something akin to a total informatiuon awareness system, the idea of somebody snooping on you all the time at a micro level is for most of us very offnesive. It certainly frightens me, but you can imagine a voluntary total information awareness consoritum as a commercial sort of thing.”

    Yes, and they’ll accentuate the “voluntary” and always make it seem “consensual” but it won’t be, really. Not like free will was meant to be. TIA is what Second Life is — and the degree to which it is that is actually illustrated by this week’s database break-in — which shows us not how vulnerable SL and its patrons are to hacking (that’s not so new or interesting), but how much anyone playing SL is vulnerable to LL and to whomever it decides to let into its game, formally or informally, and whomever it wishes to cooperate with, formally or informally. These kinds of hacks often can’t be done without inside help or one kind or another.

    Yes, the lifestyle cults and the huge pass to which LL gives them now are definitely the things to watch.

    I’m sick.

  3. Chris L

    A fascinating look that includes the major themes in Vinge’s latest novel– Rainbows End [yes, there’s no apostrophe, like Finnegans Wake] where some of the social implications are more fleshed out for ones examination. I recommend it to everyone on those merits (it’s nowhere near as good a sci-fi novel as Vinge’s earlier work) alone… and particularly to you, Prokofy Neva…

  4. Erich Schneider

    A great short story explication of the “lifestyle cult” concept (a strange way of putting it, but I sort of see what Vinge is getting at) is Bruce Sterling’s short story “Maneki Neko”, which you can find in the collection A Good Old-Fashioned Future. Our protagonist is a member of a network of people that just Do Nice Things for each other, but occasionally the network asks him to go to random places and do inexplicable things…

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  6. Scott Somerville

    I’m not sure how much this scenario really depends on the high-tech toys. Facebook is already networking people in the really important ways… a heads-up display doesn’t add anything fundamental.

    If a significant portion of six billion people start thinking together, it’s going to leave every supercomputer in the dust…

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