Vernor Vinge, who coined the term “Technological Singularity”, dies at 79

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On Wednesday, author David Brin announced that Vernor Vinge, sci-fi author, former professor, and father of the technological singularity concept, died from Parkinson’s disease at age 79 on March 20, 2024, in La Jolla, California. The announcement came in a Facebook tribute where Brin wrote about Vinge’s deep love for science and writing. [...]

As a sci-fi author, Vinge won Hugo Awards for his novels A Fire Upon the Deep (1993), A Deepness in the Sky (2000), and Rainbows End (2007). He also won Hugos for novellas Fast Times at Fairmont High (2002) and The Cookie Monster (2004). As Mike Glyer’s File 770 blog notes, Vinge’s novella True Names (1981) is frequency cited as the first presentation of an in-depth look at the concept of “cyberspace.”

Vinge first coined the term “singularity” as related to technology in 1983, borrowed from the concept of a singularity in spacetime in physics. When discussing the creation of intelligences far greater than our own in an 1983 op-ed in OMNI magazine, Vinge wrote, “When this happens, human history will have reached a kind of singularity, an intellectual transition as impenetrable as the knotted space-time at the center of a black hole, and the world will pass far beyond our understanding.”

In 1993, he expanded on the idea in an essay titled The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era.

The singularity concept postulates that AI will soon become superintelligent, far surpassing humans in capability and bringing the human-dominated era to a close. While the concept of a tech singularity sometimes inspires negativity and fear, Vinge remained optimistic about humanity’s technological future, as Brin notes in his tribute: “Accused by some of a grievous sin—that of ‘optimism’—Vernor gave us peerless legends that often depicted human success at overcoming problems… those right in front of us… while posing new ones! New dilemmas that may lie just ahead of our myopic gaze. He would often ask: ‘What if we succeed? Do you think that will be the end of it?’”

Vinge’s concept heavily influenced futurist Ray Kurzweil, who has written about the singularity several times at length in books such as The Singularity Is Near in 2005. In a 2005 interview with the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology website, Kurzweil said, “Vernor Vinge has had some really key insights into the singularity very early on. There were others, such as John Von Neuman, who talked about a singular event occurring, because he had the idea of technological acceleration and singularity half a century ago. But it was simply a casual comment, and Vinge worked out some of the key ideas.”