What I'm Reading #51 - Rainbows End by Vernor Vinge

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Although Rainbows End is a complete story in and of itself, at the end of it Vinge has left many questions dangling. I don't think this is accidental, nor is it a bad thing in my opinion: There can be a lot of power in leaving the answers to some questions vague -- a playground in which the reader can bring their own closure or an enigma which resists classification. (Nor is it a new trend in Vinge’s work. Look at the character of Pham Nuwen in A Fire Upon the Deep, for example.)

But perhaps the most intriguing of these enigmas is, “Who – or what – is Rabbit?”

My gut-feeling on Rabbit is that it’s Vinge taking a stab at a form of Singularity he hasn’t looked at before. Specifically, to quote from his original essay on the subject: “Large computer networks (and their associated users) may ‘wake up’ as a superhumanly intelligent entity.”

I believe that Rabbit is an emergent AI created spontaneously out of the structured system of diversified sub-contracting that we see in Rainbows End. That’s why canceling his certificates at the end of the novel has the effect on him that it does – it’s literally killing his brain.

If I’m right, then Rainbows End is an exploration of the last type of Singularity that Vinge had not previously employed. For ease of reference, let me suggest that the different types of post-human intelligence discussed in Vinge’s “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era” be labeled as such:

  • TYPE I: There may be developed computers that are "awake" and superhumanly intelligent. (To date, there has been much controversy as to whether we can create human equivalence in a machine. But if the answer is "yes, we can", then there is little doubt that beings more intelligent can be constructed shortly thereafter.)

  • TYPE II: Large computer networks (and their associated users) may "wake up" as a superhumanly intelligent entity.

  • TYPE III: Computer/human interfaces may become so intimate that users may reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent.

  • TYPE IV: Biological science may provide means to improve natural human intellect.

Type III post-human intelligence was the focus of Vinge’s original Singularity story (“Run, Bookworm, Run!”) and Across Realtime. True Names features Type I and Type III post-human intelligences in direct competition with each other. Tatja Grimm’s World and A Deepness in the Sky present radically inverted explorations of Type IVs. A Fire Upon the Deep actually features Type I, Type III, and Type IV post-human intelligences all co-existing simultaneously.

And, thus, viewing Rabbit as a Type II post-human intelligence is a fascinating lens through which to read Rainbows End. It was, however, a conclusion I came to late in the novel. Late enough that I must make a point of re-visiting this novel soon. It will be interesting to see how (or if) my opinion of it is changed as a result.

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Author: Vernor Vinge
Published: 2006
Publisher: Tor
Cover Price: $7.99


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