Technology That Outthinks Us: A Partner or a Master?

August 26, 2008

In Vernor Vinge’s version of Southern California in 2025, there is a school named Fairmont High with the motto, “Trying hard not to become obsolete.” It may not sound inspiring, but to the many fans of Dr. Vinge, this is a most ambitious — and perhaps unattainable — goal for any member of our species.

Dr. Vinge is a mathematician and computer scientist in San Diego whose science fiction has won five Hugo Awards and earned good reviews even from engineers analyzing its technical plausibility. He can write space operas with the best of them, but he also suspects that intergalactic sagas could become as obsolete as their human heroes.

The problem is a concept described in Dr. Vinge’s seminal essay in 1993, “The Coming Technological Singularity,” which predicted that computers would be so powerful by 2030 that a new form of superintellligence would emerge. Dr. Vinge compared that point in history to the singularity at the edge of a black hole: a boundary beyond which the old rules no longer applied, because post-human intelligence and technology would be as unknowable to us as our civilization is to a goldfish.

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NASA launches telescope in search of gamma rays

August 6, 2008

NASA launched a telescope Wednesday to scout out elusive, super high-energy gamma rays lurking in the universe. Glast — a NASA acronym standing for Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope — began its five- to 10-year Earth-orbiting mission with a midday blastoff aboard a Delta rocket. The $690 million telescope, supported by six countries, will pick up where NASA’s Compton Gamma Ray Observatory left off before its deliberate destruction in 2000, but in a bigger and better way. In addition to the United States, participating countries include Italy, France, Germany, Sweden and Japan. With superior new technology and insight gained from Compton and other telescopes, Glast will be able to do in three hours, or two orbits of Earth — survey the entire sky — what Compton took 15 months to do. What’s more, Glast and its particle detectors are much more sensitive and precise, and should provide an unprecedented view into the high-energy universe from a 345-mile(555-kilometer)-high orbit.

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