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Special Report

A singularity sensation

Author Vernor Vinge talks sci-fi health care with paul costello

I missed the Star Trek era. 2001: A Space Odyssey didnít really appeal to me either. And Robert Heinlein novels? Sorry. So I approached an interview with celebrated science fiction writer Vernor Vinge with a bit of trepidation. Would we have a common language, or would I end up lost in space?

Vinge, an emeritus professor of mathematics at San Diego State University, is considered one of the greatest science fiction writers alive today. A five-time winner of the Hugo Award, science fiction’s most prestigious honor, his stories explore themes including deep space, the future, and the singularity, a term he famously coined for the future emergence of a greater-than-human intelligence brought about by the advance of technology.

But why interview Vinge for a medical magazine? Well his track record for prognostication is pretty good. In Rainbows End, his 2006 novel, he paints a world of augmented reality where computer and wireless technology converge with people’s eyewear so life becomes an interaction with data that never ends. Sounds a bit far-fetched but it’s not: Google’s Project Glasses hopes to launch just such a product in the near term. So we thought we’d take a leap and have Vinge consider health care, medicine and big data — all worlds that he’s touched on in his work. Will he be prescient here too?


Costello: In your novel Rainbows End, you create a world where vast stores of data are accessible at all times — literally in your face, seen through contact lenses. If this is a realistic picture of our future, what do you see as the consequences?

Vinge: What we have is data glut. What we really want is the ability to manipulate the information and to reach conclusions from it. I think we are at the point where that is slipping beyond unaided humans’ abilities. So the real thing to be looking for is processing schemes. One way is automatic processing: for instance, the sort of analysis that we saw with the IBM Watson on Jeopardy. Putting that in service to humankind in fields that are suffering from data glut at least gives people who are in charge the ability to keep some sort of track of what is going on.

The other great thing that we have going for us is that we have billions of very intelligent people out there in the world. With the networking that we have now, we’re beginning to see that those large populations, coordinating amongst themselves, are an intellectual resource that trumps all institutional intellectual resources and has a real possibility, if it’s supported by the proper automation, of creating solutions to problems, including the problem of the data glut.


Costello: Your Internet presence is pretty minimal. No Facebook presence to speak of, no Twitter. You seem to value your privacy. But you see social networks as the future?

Vinge: Yes, I value my privacy. I think that’s a matter of personality more than anything else. I think that we may be seeing something here that is close to being something new under the sun, or at least, it’s a quantitative change in sociality that is so large it actually could count as a qualitative change in human nature.

There was a big step in that direction with the rise of humanity. The evidence is that some of our biggest jumps occurred when you had stable societies where you could have apprentices. And so you could get a critical mass of innovation. I think we are going through another critical mass of innovation now with things that are sort of flippantly called “crowdsourcing.”

Now, at the same time, there may be people who do not do very well with that and do not participate very well in that. I think many of those are at a substantial disadvantage, and I don’t discount myself in that regard.


Costello: With all this information at the tip of our fingers, how does this change health care? In this world, would we even need physicians?!

Vinge: I think that we will need them. I think one thing that we’ll see is the ability to get your medical information, what is going on inside your body, in real time on a second-by-second basis. Talk about data glut! That would mean that a lot of acute causes of death that exist right now would be relatively easy to head off. There would be doctors and other medical professionals in charge of tracking these sorts of things and managing interventions that might occur well ahead of the sort of catastrophic failures that now come as such a big surprise to people, say when they have a stroke or a heart attack.


Costello: Medical technology gave the hero of Rainbows End a new lease on life, making him young again. Is that the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? Young again?

Vinge: Ah! Actually, I think one scenario to really think about is the one where we don’t exactly get immortality, but what we do get is resilience — that the resilience of youth can exist at any age. So you still have various diseases, but the resilience and the grow-back possibilities remain high indefinitely.

And I think there’s some possibility of that version of “prolongevity” happening, and if it did, all sorts of very, very interesting and surprising things would happen. It would probably have a social effect as great as any political revolution. Because right now, the old people have most of the money, but they don’t have any get up and go. So if your average 80-year-old had the get up and go and mental alertness of the average 50-year-old nowadays, they would kick ass. You could very quickly get into a situation where society would essentially turn upside down, and if you were under 50, you would probably be peeved, although there would be the prospect that you would, eventually, do better.

I think that, in time, being able to have the advice of people who were 200 or 300 years old and have seen a lot would have a very good effect on the overall stability and survivability of the human race.


Costello: What medical advance are you most looking forward to?

Vinge: Well, obviously that resilience of youth would probably be at the top of the list, but the advance that’s doable possibly in the very near future would be memory improvement, enhancement drugs. Having a sharp memory would benefit an enormous number of people, and, very selfishly, me included.



Paul Costello is the chief communications officer for the School of Medicine. This interview was condensed and edited by Rosanne Spector.


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