On Wednesday, author David Brin announced that Vernor Vinge, sci-fi author, former professor, and father of the technological singularity concept, died from Parkinson's disease at age 79 on March 20, 2024, in La Jolla, California. The announcement came in a Facebook tribute where Brin wrote about Vinge's deep love for science and writing. [...]

As a sci-fi author, Vinge won Hugo Awards for his novels A Fire Upon the Deep (1993), A Deepness in the Sky (2000), and Rainbows End (2007). He also won Hugos for novellas Fast Times at Fairmont High (2002) and The Cookie Monster (2004). As Mike Glyer's File 770 blog notes, Vinge's novella True Names (1981) is frequency cited as the first presentation of an in-depth look at the concept of "cyberspace."

Vinge first coined the term "singularity" as related to technology in 1983, borrowed from the concept of a singularity in spacetime in physics. When discussing the creation of intelligences far greater than our own in an 1983 op-ed in OMNI magazine, Vinge wrote, "When this happens, human history will have reached a kind of singularity, an intellectual transition as impenetrable as the knotted space-time at the center of a black hole, and the world will pass far beyond our understanding."

In 1993, he expanded on the idea in an essay titled The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era.

The singularity concept postulates that AI will soon become superintelligent, far surpassing humans in capability and bringing the human-dominated era to a close. While the concept of a tech singularity sometimes inspires negativity and fear, Vinge remained optimistic about humanity's technological future, as Brin notes in his tribute: "Accused by some of a grievous sin—that of 'optimism'—Vernor gave us peerless legends that often depicted human success at overcoming problems... those right in front of us... while posing new ones! New dilemmas that may lie just ahead of our myopic gaze. He would often ask: 'What if we succeed? Do you think that will be the end of it?'"

Vinge's concept heavily influenced futurist Ray Kurzweil, who has written about the singularity several times at length in books such as The Singularity Is Near in 2005. In a 2005 interview with the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology website, Kurzweil said, "Vernor Vinge has had some really key insights into the singularity very early on. There were others, such as John Von Neuman, who talked about a singular event occurring, because he had the idea of technological acceleration and singularity half a century ago. But it was simply a casual comment, and Vinge worked out some of the key ideas."

New Comment
24 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

If LW2 had a black bar functionality, this would surely be time to use it. RIP Vinge.

I wrote this earlier today. I post it here as a comment because there's already top level post on the same topic.

Vernor Vinge, math professor at San Diego State University, hero of the science fiction community (a fan who eventually retired from his extremely good day job to write novels), science consultant, and major influence over the entire culture of the LW community, died due to Parkinson's Disease on March 20th, 2024.

David Brin's memoriam for Vinge is much better than mine, and I encourage you to read it. Vernor and David were colleagues and friends and that is a good place to start.

In 1993, Vernor published the non-fiction essay that coined the word "Singularity".

In 1992, he published "A Fire Upon The Deep" which gave us such words as "godshatter" that was so taken-for-granted as "the limits of what a god can pack into a pile of atoms shaped like a human" that the linked essay doesn't even define it.

As late as 2005 (or as early, if you are someone who thinks the current AI hype cycle came out of nowhere) Vernor was giving speeches about the Singularity, although my memory is that the timelines had slipped a bit between 1993 and 2005 so that in mid aughties F2F interactions he would often stick a thing in his speech that echoed the older text and say:

I'll be surprised if this event occurs before 2005 2012 or after 2030 2035.

Here in March 2024, I'd say that I'd be surprised if the event is publicly and visibly known to have happened before June 2024 or after ~2029.

(Foerester was more specific. He put the day that the GDP of Earth would theoretically become infinite on Friday, November 13, 2026. Even to me, this seems a bit much.)

Vernor Vinge will be missed with clarity now, but he was already missed by many, including me, because his last major work was Rainbows End in 2006, and by 2014 he had mostly retreated from public engagements.

He sometimes joked that many readers missed the missing apostrophe in the title, which made "Rainbows End" a sad assertion rather than a noun phrase about the place you find treasure. Each rainbow and all rainbows: end. They don't go forever.

The last time I ever met him was at a Singularity Summit, back before SIAI changed its name to MIRI, and he didn't recognize me, which I attributed to me simply being way way less important in his life than he was in mine... but I worried back then that maybe the cause was something less comforting than my own unimportance.

In Rainbows End, the protagonist, Robert Gu, awakens from a specific semi-random form of a neuro-degenerative brain disease (a subtype of Alzheimer's not a subtype of Parkinson's) that, just before the singularity really takes off, has been cured.

(It turned out, in the novel, that the AI takeoff was quite slow and broad, so that advances in computing sprinkled "treasures" on people just before things really became unpredictable. Also, as might be the case in real life, in the story it was true that neither Alzheimer's, nor aging in general, was one disease with one cause and one cure, but a complex of things going wrong, where each thing could be fixed, one specialized fix at a time. So Robert Gu awoke to "a fully working brain" (from his unique type of Alzheimer's being fixed) and also woke up more than 50% of the way to having "aging itself" cured, and so he was in a weird patchwork state of being a sort of "elderly teenager".)

Then the protagonist headed to High School, and fell into a situation where he helped Save The World, because this was a trope-alicious way for a story to go.

But also, since Vernor was aiming to write hard science fiction, where no cheat codes exist, heading to High School after being partially reborn was almost a sociologically and medically plausible therapy for an imminent-singularity-world to try on someone half-resurrected by technology (after being partially erased by a brain disease).

It makes some sense! That way they can re-integrate with society after waking up into the new and better society that could (from their perspective) reach back in time and "retroactively save them"! :-)

It was an extremely optimistic vision, really.

In that world, medicine was progressing fast, and social systems were cohesive and caring, and most of the elderly patients in America who lucked into having something that was treatable, were treated.

I have no special insight into the artistic choices here, but it wouldn't surprise me if Vernor was writing about something close to home, already, back then.

I'm planning on re-reading that novel, but I expect it to be a bit heartbreaking in various ways.

I'll be able to see it from knowing that in 2024 Vernor passed. I'll be able to see it from learning in 2020 that the American Medical System is deeply broken (possibly irreparably so (where one is tempted to scrap it and every durable institutional causally upstream of it that still endorses what's broken, so we can start over)). I'll be able to see it in light of 2016, when History Started Going Off The Rails and in the direction of dystopia. And I'll be able to see Rainbows End in light of the 2024 US Presidential Election which be a pointless sideshow if it is not a referendum on the Singularity.

Vernor was an optimist, and I find such optimism more and more needed, lately.

I miss him, and I miss the optimism, and my missing of him blurs into missing optimism in general.

If we want literally everyone to get a happy ending, Parkinson's Disease is just one tiny part of all the things we must fix, as part of Sir Francis Bacon's Project aimed at "the effecting of all (good) things (physically) possible".

Francis, Vernor, David, you (the reader), I (the author of this memoriam), and all the children you know, and all the children of Earth who were born in the last year, and every elderly person who has begun to suspect they know exactly how the reaper will reap them... we are all headed for the same place unless something in general is done (but really unless many specific things are done, one fix at a time...) and so, in my opinion, we'd better get moving.

Since science itself is big, there are lots of ways to help!

Fixing the world is an Olympian project, in more ways than one.

First, there is the obvious: "Citius, Altius, Fortius" is the motto of the Olympics, and human improvement and its celebration is a shared communal goal, celebrated explicitly since 2021 when the motto changed to "Citius, Altius, Fortius – Communiter" or "Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together". Human excellence will hit a limit, but it is admirable to try to push our human boundaries.

Second, every Olympics starts and ends with a literal torch literally being carried. The torch's fire is symbolically the light of Prometheus, standing for spirit, knowledge, and life. In each Olympic event the light is carried, by hand, from place to place, across the surface of the Earth, and across the generations. From those in the past, to we in the present, and then to those in the future. Hopefully it never ends. Also, we remember how it started.

Thirdly, the Olympics is a panhuman practice that goes beyond individuals and beyond governments and aims, if it aims for any definite thing, for the top of the mountain itself, though the top of the mountain is hidden in clouds that humans can't see past, and dangerous to approach. Maybe some of us ascend, but even if not, we can imagine that the Olympians see our striving and admire it and offer us whatever help is truly helpful.

The last substantive talk I ever heard from Vernor was in a classroom on the SDSU campus in roughly 2009, with a bit over a dozen of us in the audience and he talked about trying to see to and through the Singularity, and he had lately become more interested in fantasy tropes that might be amenable to a "hard science fiction" treatment, like demonology (as a proxy for economics?) or some such. He thought that a key thing would be telling the good entities apart from the bad ones. Normally, in theology, this is treated as nearly impossible. Sometimes you get "by their fruits ye shall know them" but that doesn't help prospectively. Some programmers nowadays advocate building the code from scratch, to do what it says on the tin, and have the label on the tin say "this is good". In most religious contexts, you hear none of these proposals, but instead hear about leaps of faith and so on.

Vernor suggested a principle: The bad beings nearly always optimize for engagement, for pulling you ever deeper into their influence. They want to make themselves more firmly a part of your OODA loop. The good ones send you out, away from themselves in an open ended way, but better than before.

Vernor back then didn't cite the Olympics, but as I think about torches being passed, and remember his advice, I still see very little wrong with the idea that a key aspect of benevolence involves sending people who seek your aid away from you, such they they are stronger, higher, faster, and more able to learn and improve the world itself, according to their own vision, using power they now own.

Ceteris paribus, inculcating deepening dependence on oneself, in others, is bad. This isn't my "alignment" insight, but is something I got from Vernor.

I want the bulk of my words, here, to be about the bright light that was Vernor's natural life, and his art, and his early and helpful and hopeful vision of a future, and not about the tragedy that took him from this world.

However, I also think it would be good and right to talk about the bad thing that took Vernor from us, and how to fix it, and so I have moved the "effortful tribute part of this essay" (a lit review and update on possible future cures for Parkinson's Disease) to a separate follow-up post that will be longer and hopefully higher quality.


Vernor suggested a principle: The bad beings nearly always optimize for engagement, for pulling you ever deeper into their influence. They want to make themselves more firmly a part of your OODA loop. The good ones send you out, away from themselves in an open ended way, but better than before.

That is profound!

Sounds like an interesting talk. Did he ever publish any variant of it? I don't recall seeing anything like that, but 2009 was 15 years ago so plenty of time.


From a message I wrote to a friend once that seems a little relevant

[H]ow should you act when you’re inside someone’s OODA loop? I was thinking about how like Wikipedia/tab explosions are sort of inside my ooda loop. But sometimes I can be more of an active reader who is navigating the concepts being exposed to me as I choose, and the process becomes like a magic genie or butler who is doing interpretative labour and conjuring up new scenes following my fickle interest.

So it seems like one thing that the person with the smaller loop can do is interpretative labour, and spend the faster cycles on self-legibilising.


After a discussion with a friend, I'm not so sure anymore. Kids enmesh themselves in your OODA loop and I don't view them as evil. People want to be wanted in romance and in some sense that's trying to become a part of other's OODA loops and I don't view that as evil. Though in the former case, you want them to eventually leave your loop. And in the latter, I hope, lovers' want their partners' to become stronger. 

I think there's still something there, but it isn't as solid a principle as I initially thought.

Yeah, maybe it's less the OODA loop involvement and more that "bad things" lead to a kind of activated nervous system that predisposes us to reactive behavior ("react" as opposed to "reflect/respond"). 

To me, the bad loops are more "stimulus -> react without thinking"  than "observe, orient, decide, act". You end up hijacked by your reactive nervous system. 

I think I know what you mean. Like the state people fall into when scrolling through TikTok or gambling on slot machines or so forth. I think the term is called "dark flow" in psychology. I feel like that's just one facet of what you're pointing out though. Some memes or ideologies can mind-kill you, and I think they should kind-of count as "maximizing engagement". 

"Stimulus->react without thinking" has potential, but I'm not sure where to go from here with it.

[-]Wei Dai3713

Reading A Fire Upon the Deep was literally life-changing for me. How many Everett branches had someone like Vernor Vinge to draw people's attention to the possibility of a technological Singularity with such skillful writing, and to exhort us, at such an early date, to think about how to approach it strategically on a societal level or affect it positively on an individual level. Alas, the world has largely squandered the opportunity he gave us, and is rapidly approaching the Singularity with little forethought or preparation. I don't know which I feel sadder about, what this implies about our world and others, or the news of his passing.


And judging from Alcor and the Cryonics Institute logs he was not cryopreserved :-/


The alcor-page was not updated since 15th December 2022, where a person who died in August 2022 (as well as later data) was added, so if he was signed up there, we should not expect it too be mentioned yet. For CI latest update was for a patient dying 29th February 2024, but I can’t see any indication of when that post was made.


"To the best of my knowledge, Vernor did not get cryopreserved. He has no chance to see the future he envisioned so boldly and imaginatively. The near-future world of Rainbows End is very nearly here... Part of me is upset with myself for not pushing him to make cryonics arrangements. However, he knew about it and made his choice."


This doesn't really raise my confidence in Alcor, an organization that's supposed to keep bodies preserved for decades or centuries.

Check out this page, it goes up to 2024.

Noted, thank you. This does raise my confidence in Alcor.

That feels so sad to me. Unlike most people he had the possibility of cryopreservation. 

Here we are on the cusp of the singularity, and even if we make it through, he, who saw it coming earlier than almost anyone, who saw more clearly than most how radically everything would change, won't live to see it.

I hope he makes it.

Presumably he understood the value proposition of cryonics and declined it, right?

[-]O O30

Has he talked about it? I know Ray Kurzweil has.

Singularituri te salutant

I am so sad to hear about Vernor Vinge's death. He was one of the great influences on a younger me, on the path to rationality. I never got to meet him, and I truly regret not having made a greater effort, though I know I would have had little to offer him, and I like to think I have already gotten to know him quite well through his magnificent works.

I would give up a lot, even more than I would for most people, to go back and give him a better chance at making it to a post-singularity society.

"So High, So Low, So Many Things to Know"

A Fire Upon the Deep is one of my favorites.

This surprised me a bit:

There were others, such as John Von Neuman, who talked about a singular event occurring, because he had the idea of technological acceleration and singularity half a century ago.

Anybody have further pointers? I'm only a little surprised because also Norbert Wiener was writing about it, but I'd still know more about the history of the concept that slept for so long.


The wikipedia page on the technological singularity has some background on that. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technological_singularity 

The LessWrong Review runs every year to select the posts that have most stood the test of time. This post is not yet eligible for review, but will be at the end of 2025. The top fifty or so posts are featured prominently on the site throughout the year. Will this post make the top fifty?

I read A Fire Upon the Deep a few years ago, and even back then I found it highly prescient. Now I'll take this sad event as an opportunity to read his highly acclaimed prequel A Deepness in the Sky. RIP.