[technoliberation] Vernor Vinge on computers, freedom and privacy
Hughes, James J.
James.Hughes at trincoll.edu
Thu Jun 29 14:03:47 PDT 2006
Big Brother takes a controlling interest in chips
A chilling novel details how everyday technologies could gradually lead
to a far more invasive society than even Orwell dreamed of
Thursday June 29, 2006
Science fiction writers love to ask "What if?" What if a
super-intelligent alien race had planted a pair of devices to boost our
development at key moments? What if new technologies such as television
and electronics become pervasive? George Orwell's answer to the latter,
in 1948's 1984, was to show the apparently perfect, controlled society
they could enable.
But one thing usually missing is the "how?" At the Computers, Freedom,
and Privacy (CFP) conference, held in Washington, DC, last month, Vernor
Vinge, a retired computer scientist and the author of Rainbows End,
provided a compelling explanation of how developing technology and
powerful interests could create a society far more invasive and
controlled than anything Orwell dreamed of.
The scenario he describes is the background he researched for Rainbows
End. Set in 2025, the characters are surrounded by logical extensions of
today's developing technology. Wearable computing is commonplace.
Tagging and ubiquitous networked sensors mean you can look at the
landscape with your choice of overlay and detail. People send each other
silent messages and Google for information within conversations with
participants who may be physically present or might be remote
projections. One character's projection is hijacked and becomes the
front for three people. The owner of another remote intelligence is
unknown. Several continents' top intelligence operatives try to solve a
smart biological attack that infects a test population with the
willingness to obey orders.
Vinge makes two opening assumptions: no grand physical disaster occurs,
and today's computing and communications trends continue.
He added a third trend: "The great conspiracy against human freedom." As
novelist Doris Lessing has observed, barons on opposite sides of the
river don't need to be in cahoots if their interests coincide. In our
case, defence, homeland security, financial crime enforcement, police,
tax collectors and intellectual property rights holders offer reasons to
want to control the hardware we use. Then there are geeks, who can be
tempted to forget the consequences if the technology is cool enough.
Vinge quotes the most famous line from the comic strip Pogo: "We have
met the enemy, and he is us."
Vinge's technology to satisfy these groups' dreams is the Secure
Hardware Environment (She), which dedicates some bandwidth and a small
portion of every semiconductor for regulatory use. Deployment is
progressive, as standards are implemented. Built into new chips, She
will spread inevitably through its predecessors' obsolescence.
This part is terribly plausible. It sounds much like the Trusted
Computing Platform, implemented in Intel chips and built into machines
from Dell, Fujitsu-Siemens and others. Most people don't realise their
new computer contains a chip designed to block the operation of any
software not certified by the group. Now enhance that and build it into
RFID chips, networked embedded systems, shrink and distribute as "smart
dust". All are current trends or works in progress.
Geeks are willing to fight Trusted Computing on the grounds that it
could be used to block open-source software or to enforce draconian
digital rights management. But what if accepting it meant less visible
security, less bureaucracy, even slight profit? She automatically sends
taxes, enables much less noticeable surveillance and gets you through
security checkpoints with no waiting. There's less crime, because
legislative reality can be enforced on physical reality. Fewer false
convictions. Make regulation automatic, and it seems to go away. New
laws can be downloaded as a regulatory upgrade.
"She," Vinge concluded at the conference, "fits the trajectory that
economics and technical progress are following. The infrastructure for
such control will probably arrive in any case." He also calls his
This is, however, one of the paths to Technological Singularity, which
Vinge wrote up in a 1993 essay. It's the moment superhuman intelligence
is achieved, either through systems we build or human augmentation. The
Singularity changes everything; nothing after it is predictable. In the
world of Rainbows End, he thinks, they are either on the verge of
Singularity or it is happening. This caused its own singularity in
science fiction. Charlie Stross, whose novel Accelerando attempts to
depict living through the Singularity, has called it "the turd in the
punchbowl of near-future SF - you may politely pretend it isn't there,
but everyone has to deal with it."
Author Ken MacLeod places the Singularity in the context of post-2001
hopelessness. "When human beings feel they can't change the future, they
begin to imagine that maybe superhuman beings can: gods, angels, aliens
- and now artificial intelligences (AI). The idea of the Singularity is
just a sophisticated version of this ancient ... superstition, that
human history is or soon will be made by something other and better than
Way to believe
Vinge doesn't dispute the notion that humans look for a way to believe
things will be better. Year 2000 software remediation is an example:
"Prudent apprehension caused an awful lot of money to be spent ... and
was one reason there were no significant problems."
Most people assume the cause of the Singularity, if it happens, will be
the effect of Moore's Law (that the number of transistors that can fit
in a given space on a semiconductor doubles every 18 months). It's also
usually connected to AI. In his essay, however, Vinge suggested four or
five paths to the Singularity, only one of which was unitary AI.
But here is where Vinge's thinking gets optimistic (unlike the CFP
conference, which saw surveillant databases everywhere). The road to
technological Gaia is full of frictional costs that could stop it.
"It's not going to work very well," he says, "but it will be attempted,
both by the state and by civil special interest petitioners." The drug
laws provide a perfect illustration: "The ideal job to have in
government is something everybody is convinced is essential to be done
successfully that cannot be done successfully and the government is the
only entity that can do it. Every time you fail, you say, 'The problem
is much larger than we imagined, give us some more money.'"
"The leaders of most powerful countries are coming to realise that the
most important natural resources are not factories or the size of
armies. Economic power is in the size of the population that is
well-educated, creative and generally happy enough to be optimistic
enough to want to do something creative."
"The illusion of freedom becomes a strange thing when a government is
dealing with ... thousands of people who are as bright as the smartest
people running the government. Together, they outclass the people
running the show. The turning point is the notion that to provide this
illusion of freedom for such a group would wind up being more like real
freedom than anything in human history." Or, as he thinks Pogo might say
for the 21st century, "We have met what's going to save our ass and it
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