Rainbows End, the Singularity, Accelerando, Findability, and Personal Fab
I’m reading Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge and its chock-full of ubicomp singularity style topics (as you might expect) that I’ve been reading about in other places including The Singularity is Near, Kurzweil; Accelerando, by Stross; FAB: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop, Neil Gershenfeld, Ambient Findability by Morville, etc.
I enjoyed p. 154 and the aside about the book’s title which is the name of a retirement community in the story, “…he’d never been able to decide if that spelling was the work of an everyday illiterate or someone who really understood the place.” I wondered where the apostrophe was, too.
On p.59 Vinge describes a Search and Analysis class: “Sometimes it’s best to coordinate with lots of other people who together can make the answers….This class is about search and analysis, the heart of the economy. We obviously need search and analysis as consumers. In almost all modern jobs, search and analysis are how we make our living. But, in the end we must also know something about something….Don’t let those skills die. Use them. Improve on them. You can do it with a special form of preanalysis that I call ‘study’…..Find out what makes you different and better…..And once you do, you’ll be able to contribute answers to others and others will be willing to contribute back to you. In short, synthetic serendipity doesn’t just happen. By golly, you must create it.”
This paper: “Diversity, attention and symmetry in a many-to-many information society” by Philippe Aigrain looks relevant.
“Synthetic Serendipity” was a short story by Vinge that was rolled into Rainbows End I guess, but it’s a term that came to mind as I later read an article in Chemistry and Engineering News (you need a subscription) “Piercing the Veil of Creativity.” “Conference shows that teachable tools, not just serendipity, can stimulate innovation….There is more of a science to creativity than I would have thought….described specific tools to generate ideas and arrive at a novel solution to a problem, including the concept of lateral thinking, in which a “provocation” jolts the mind out of its normal pattern of thought. The provocation is “an idea related to the problem you’re tackling, but it makes absolutely no sense….pulling a random word out of the dictionary and seeing what new ideas it prompts about the problem. [reminds me of using iteration to solve a math problem, like cubic roots: start somewhere, then refine]….use exaggeration, distortion, and wishful thinking to elicit new modes of thinking….list what they take for granted about the problem and then throw out those assumptions. Another technique employs metaphoric thinking, which generates new ideas and concepts by connecting the problem under consideration to something that occurs in an entirely unrelated system, such as nature….inputs from a variety of viewpoints is key for successful innovation…he likes to hire people with a very high PWF (Personal Weirdness Factor)….Should an organization establish skunk works for its most ambitious projects?….thinks this is a bad idea. Colleagues who aren’t in the special [project] may…feel innovation isn’t required of them. What you want is everybody…seeing…creativity as part of their job.”
But I digress.
In Vinge’s story, problems are solved by farming out to a ‘consultancy.’ The military operations involve a real-time network of analysts: p.315 “….Now his analyst pool was larger than Bob Gu had ever seen, perhaps fifteen percent of the analytical power of the entire U.S. intelligence community.” Problems are solved collaboratively, yet in a compartmentalized way. One node has no idea what other nodes contribute or what the end goal is.
There are many parallels here with Accelerando, by Stross, but Stross took that tale to a future hard to connect with today’s reality. Vinge tells us of technology that we can almost touch, and can easily imagine. In fact, much of the story seems to involve itself in defining the specs for this new technology insofar as Vinge describes it so thoroughly while explaining it to a back-from-Alzheimer’s ‘resurrected’ protagonist who is learning about it for himself.
In the story, interaction with the VR-type wearable computing technology is flexible and adaptive and must be learned by both machine and wearer in kind of a biofeedback method. Each person’s ‘devices’ are unique for their use. This is not so far-fetched: consider sitting at someone’s computer and trying to remember the website address you need to get to, something you’ve forgotten since on your own personal desktop you simply click the bookmark (things like del.icio.us, Zoho, YouOS, etc. are trying to help us out here by making the desktop web-accessible)
In the story the school’s shop class is straight out of FAB: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop by Neil Gershenfeld…complete with molecular cutters. The class works on projects where they fit together premade components. These are all labeled ‘no serviceable parts inside,’ and you’re supposed to just slap the black boxes together and they automagically know how to talk to each other and create the end product.
The plot of the story involves the destruction/digitization of library. The books are shredded, then the ‘shredda’ is photographed while being sucked up. The images will be put back together later in digital form in concert with images of the same books from other libraries to reduce the digitization error. The neobook is at center stage in this story. Digital copies of books can be made temporarily physical in disposible versions. Things to add to the wiki.
And throughout, the prospect of AI, singularity-style, is raised, and not dismissed so easily as the ‘real’ mastermind behind the intrigue.
Entry filed under: feed my pet brain.