It's a one-page short-story, full text available online: http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v518/n7540/full/518568a.html (Their pdf link also works).

I like the plucky faithful phone, but what does the ending mean? The numbers are presumably dates in seconds, and the second interval is about 30 times longer than the first. Not nuclear war, because the drawer is opened. Maybe Tim changed his mind, or needed independent thought after all?

EDIT Title hints: first adventure suggests a series. I really hope so! Great character, great universe and the singularity onset is an interesting time, if VV has found a way to write about it (he's said post-singularity can't be written intelligibly, hence bobbles and zones). BFF suggests our hero and Tim will be friends (though it's treated ironically in this beginning installment). Clouded view suggests the cloud plays a key role, perhaps as antagonist.

EDIT did some math. Assuming the "dates" are seconds (Vinge also uses this in other stories, including the unix epoch in aDitS). It's suspiciously almost exactly 3,000,000 seconds difference between first and second dates, which is about 35 days - roughly one month. A month fits with Tim's reaction.

It's again an almost exact figure, this time of 95 million seconds between the second and third dates, or 1100 days - a bit over 3 years.

Even better, using the unix epoch, they are 18 Sept 2019, 23 Oct 2019 and 26 Oct 2022. That last one fits with Vinge's estimates of the singularity.

~$ date --date @1568771947
Wed Sep 18 11:59:07 AEST 2019
~$ date --date @1571772569
Wed Oct 23 06:29:29 AEDT 2019
~$ date --date @1666762857
Wed Oct 26 16:40:57 AEDT 2022
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    Thanks for asking about this. I'm a big fan of Vinge, but I don't keep up with SF as well as I should, and I had missed this story. – recognizer Jul 28 '16 at 16:29
  • When you speak of Vinge's estimates of the Singularity, do you mean from some other fiction, or in real life? If the latter, six years for artificial intelligence to genuinely surpass humanity seems exceedingly optimistic (or pessimistic, depending on one's point of view). – Adamant Jul 28 '16 at 20:55
  • @Adamant Not sure if Vinge made such a concrete prediction in his singularitarian writings, but keep in mind he's been writing about the singularity since the 80s, so he might make tongue-in-cheek references to out-of-date predictions when writing now. I can find some references online to various people predicting that 2022 is when computing devices were expected to commonly have 100 million MIPS of processing power, which is supposedly enough to model the human brain' activity. – recognizer Jul 28 '16 at 21:55
  • @Adament "I'll be surprised if this event occurs before 2005 or after 2030." wikipedia.org/wiki/Technological_singularity (Frankly, I find the phone-parachute transformation by 2019 more implausible.) We'll need much more than enough power, to be able to experiment, to discover how to create AI; and neurons may turn out far more complex than we thought, pushing back the singularity. OTOH, the human brain does far more than consciousness, and might not be optimized for it, bringing forward the singularity. – hyperpallium Jul 28 '16 at 23:34
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    @recognizer He's got another one, a kind of sequel to this nature.com/articles/548254a I wish there was a way to announce this here, but doesn't really fit with the QA format.... And another here nature.com/articles/35037684 (couldn't see a date). Again, pdf link works. – hyperpallium Feb 5 at 5:59
up vote 3 down vote accepted

I think the key to this story is in this passage:

I have lots of time to watch the Cloud; it's not really soft and fluffy. It's more like a deep ocean. There are cognitive patterns in it larger than the mind of any single human or digital assistant. The largest are leviathans, agencies who have become something their creators no longer comprehend. The Kiras and Miris never speak of these except in jest, but the leviathans are growing and they need the same resources — flops and bandwidth, power and capital — as everyone else. I fear for the humans.

The implication here is that the "leviathans" and the "Cloud" in this setting are using distributed computing to grow in a self-directed manner. These distributed services are so intelligent that they can set their own goals and determine their own methods to reach them. They are so powerful that they thus are aiming to reach their goals by claiming computing resources from throughout this world of embedded devices. When the "Cloud Thing" touches the BFF assistant, we see it has great power over this independent device, and also regards it worthy of barely a moment's notice. The BFF assistant believes that the "leviathans" will grow beyond human control, which reflects its maker's slogan "People shouldn't depend on the Cloud."

In my opinion, the last sentence of the story takes place after the "leviathans" have finally changed their mind about "doing their jobs" and proceeded to work on their own goals, entirely independent of human desires. Since this has rendered the "Cloud" less useful to humans, people are seeking out older devices, like the one the BFF assistant runs on, which can advise and decide on their own, without cloud resources.

I think this fits in well with Vernor Vinge's history of singularitarian themes. Marooned in Realtime is perhaps his first addressing of the singularity in fiction - its protagonists emerge from stasis to find a world empty of the rest of humanity, who have abandoned Earth after their advance to a technological singularity. In A Fire Upon the Deep, the "Beyonder" civilizations leave the entire galaxy behind when they "Transcend", seemingly becoming entities that manifest only as information. In Rainbows End, which, like this story, is set in the near future, it is strongly implied that

one character is an AI that has grown beyond human control.

Given this pattern of themes in Vinge's work, I believe this story implies a result along the same lines - the leviathans of the Cloud may not be physically leaving humanity behind, but they have grown beyond any concern for human needs and priorities. Given this situation, people need devices which are smart and versatile but limited to human-scale capabilities.

Have you ever returned to using an outdated piece of computing equipment you left in a drawer?1

It's unlikely that Timmy is coming back to the phone, but it may not matter because a new day is dawning at least metaphorically and the protagonist may be getting a another chance to try and make himself useful, to earn the trust and respect of someone he can respect himself.

It's a classic open ended ending. The very opposite of "And they lived happily ever after." We don't know that are good just now, nor how they are going to be later on, but we know that life (e-life?) continues.


1 I mean using it seriously rather than booting long enough to be frustrated with the interface features it doesn't have an the slowness of the data transport facilities while you salvage some old files.

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