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Ray Kurzweil's Slippery Futurism 308

wjousts writes "Well-known futurist Ray Kurzweil has made many predictions about the future in his books The Age of Intelligent Machines (1990), The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999) and The Singularity is Near (2005), but how well have his predictions held up now that we live 'in the future'? IEEE Spectrum has a piece questioning the Kurzweil's (self proclaimed) accuracy. Quoting: 'Therein lie the frustrations of Kurzweil's brand of tech punditry. On close examination, his clearest and most successful predictions often lack originality or profundity. And most of his predictions come with so many loopholes that they border on the unfalsifiable. Yet he continues to be taken seriously enough as an oracle of technology to command very impressive speaker fees at pricey conferences, to author best-selling books, and to have cofounded Singularity University, where executives and others are paying quite handsomely to learn how to plan for the not-too-distant day when those disappearing computers will make humans both obsolete and immortal.'"
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Ray Kurzweil's Slippery Futurism

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  • by SteveWoz ( 152247 ) on Monday November 29, 2010 @06:36PM (#34381026) Homepage

    I used to disdain all these vague futurists. in many cases, it's sure to happen in the far distant future, and after the fact a few act smart enough to have said it long before. And many times it doesn't happen close to the way that's predicted. I always tended toward the practical side of things, rather than the theoretical.

    But one thing after another after another that was obvious and predictable just by applying Moore's law, still surprised almost everyone when they became reality. Things like lots of movies on a tiny chip.

    I was a singlularity denier, for one thing. But I have to reverse myself and admit that I'm wrong. Oddly, it was Ray, presenting to an audience in Vienna, which convinced me otherwise. The only thing about being a singularity futurist is that you've predicted what's already happened. Try living without today's technology and internet and see how far you get. It's already unclear to what extent the creators (ourselves) or that which we have created (technology) is the master. We always thought that we could turn off unfriendly robots, but we can't really turn off the internet, which is the largest robot yet (and the one that replaces most human brains for getting the best answers to things).

    Ray takes a lot of flak but he deserves respect, even when you think he's wrong.

  • But of Course (Score:5, Interesting)

    by eldavojohn ( 898314 ) * <eldavojohn&gmail,com> on Monday November 29, 2010 @06:40PM (#34381072) Journal
    We have discussed this many times. I debated writing out a lengthy post espousing the many problems with Kurzweil's predictions. Of course I (and Slashdot stories) have done this [] before []. But you know after reading this article, I have this sort of urge to read more of Kurzweil's writings in an attempt to develop an equivalent process for identifying something we could call "Technological Stock Spiel." To some of you Sagan nuts and skeptics, you might recognize the phrase "stock spiel" as something used to designate parlor tricks and underhanded wording to get people to believe that you're a psychic. It's also been called cold reading strategy [] and you've seen shows from Family Guy to South Park parody it.

    Basically I suspect that Kurzweil is adept at standing up in front of a group of people and employing this same sort of strategy that preys on people's understanding of technology instead of their emotions. But both of those things have in common the fact that people want to believe great things. If he's talking to computer scientists, he'll extrapolate on biology. If he's talking to biologists he'll extrapolate on computer science and so on and so forth. And he probably knows exactly what to say so that more than enough people gobble that up. Because of the things that I have studied extensively through college, this man is very capable of talking like he knows just enough and using vague analogies to get people going "Yup, yeah, uh huh I see now, I want to believe!"

    As Walter Sobchak might say, "Forget it, Donny, you're out of your element!"

    That is, of course, unless he's talking to a group of futurists. Then he's just preaching to the overly optimistic choir.
  • by painandgreed ( 692585 ) on Monday November 29, 2010 @06:49PM (#34381176)
    People in 2110 will be looking at copies of the Scientific American from 2010 that have Ray Kurzweil in them talking about a Singlularity and saying they want it. They'll also be wanting their flying cars, AI, and fusion power which the singularity was supposed to give them.
  • by WrongSizeGlass ( 838941 ) on Monday November 29, 2010 @07:11PM (#34381440)

    I can predict the future of the Windows Phone and of Steve Balmer. Fail + Fail = New M$ CEO for January! I remember when the Zune was going to kill the iPod, and the Kin was going to do something I can't remember now, and Slate, and Vista... need we remind you further?

    You can't predict the future by remembering the past. History is just the shackles of the mind. What we need are some forward thinkers who are willing to make the same mistakes over and over again. I call them 'American Voters'. We think we know what we're doing and we act like we know what we're doing, but every two years we don't seem to get anywhere. Which is OK because the present is where it's at. What did the future ever do for us anyway?

  • by funwithBSD ( 245349 ) on Monday November 29, 2010 @07:29PM (#34381686)

    I went to a SVUG meeting once and Douglas Engelbart was speaking there during the 90's

    I got picked to ask him a question about what the next interface computers might be after the keyboard and mouse.

    He was taken aback and answered:

      I don't know.

    On the bright side, I won a copy of OS/2 for stumping the speaker!

  • by lgw ( 121541 ) on Monday November 29, 2010 @07:57PM (#34381946) Journal

    When the first vector processors hit super-computing, it became plainly obvious that computational capacity could always be doubled.

    Always? We can't make much progress without a breakthrough in efficiency. My gaming PC needs a 1 kW power supply (and 11 fans). Double that and I'll trip my breaker. Double that again and it's past what's safe for home wiring. Double that again and you're past what's safe for normal commercial wiring, and you really need something special purpose (beyond 30 A @ 240V). Give it a decade without an efficiency breakthrough and we're talking "space age" SciFi computers that filled buildings (with attached atomic power station).

    Any there's only so much that can be done on the efficiency front. Beyond a certain point, addional parallelism mandates additional latency, because you need physical volume for cooling and therefore separation of components, so you're really talking about adding more computers to a network, and not the power of individual computers.

    We already have a network of computers that exceeds the computing power of the human brain, IMO. What makes the human brain so amazing is what it can do with ~100 W of power. That kind of efficiency gain is not a given.

  • by Bigjeff5 ( 1143585 ) on Monday November 29, 2010 @08:04PM (#34382018)

    Nah, he just has four accounts with mod points to burn, that's all.

  • Re:Oh yeah? (Score:0, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 29, 2010 @08:30PM (#34382300)
    No, they won't. I'm sorry you are unable to grasp our present energy situation. We simply can't make any of those '70s delusions real. They can't work because there's nothing up there. Period.

    "No they're not, and there was plenty of skepticism about such claims when O'Neill in the 70s was proclaiming that we could be doing them all in a few years, because it was clearly technologically impossible with any reasonably justifiable amount of money. There's far less skepticism today because we can see that they could be viable in a few decades."

    Nope. You don't even address your point in your sentence. You say there was no technology in the '70s when clearly there was; then you say it'll be "viable" although you provide no evidence of this, or indeed what you mean by viable.

    That's what I call the Space Nutter delusion. You just *wish* it to be so, but can not provide even the most elementary shred of proof for it.

    Tell me, *what* will be viable? There's NOTHING up there, and we have to bring EVERYTHING up there. What could you possible make viable? And what does time have to do with it? Mining asteroids? Really? Even if they were made of pure gold you'd never make money at it, or even bring back enough of the stuff to be worth the expense.

    Gravity doesn't change, our energy situation doesn't change, rockets don't change, we weigh the same, electricity is still cheap, etc.

    The reason we don't have the things I listed is because THEY MAKE NO SENSE, not because we don't have the technology. There's simply no (sane) reason for any of it.

    They're delusional teenage sci-fi crack dreams.

    "humans expect linear progress when most things are exponential"

    Oh really? Like what? Do you take a plane to work every day or a car? Why? Things haven't changed, that's why. The only thing that we can reasonably say has progressed exponentially is electronics and its retarded offspring, software.

    Why? Because every generation of transistors uses LESS energy, that's why.

  • Re:No quack. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by oatworm ( 969674 ) on Monday November 29, 2010 @09:02PM (#34382630) Homepage
    1) The pig go.
    2) ???
    3) Profit!
  • Re:Punditry Pays (Score:3, Interesting)

    by hey! ( 33014 ) on Monday November 29, 2010 @09:06PM (#34382666) Homepage Journal

    True, but I'd go further. Part of true genius is not being afraid of being wrong. A very intelligent person isn't necessarily a genius, but take that person and have him lavish his time and effort on something others think is a crock, and if he succeeds he's a genius.

    So what happens when a recognized genius becomes, in effect, a *professional* genius? Even genius has its gradations. Not every genius can be a Mozart, an Einstein or a Ramanujian. Such individuals are in a different class. They needn't worry about being wrong because even their rare *mistakes* tend to be more interesting and valuable than the best ideas of mere ordinary geniuses. A lifetime is too short to contain all such persons have to say. Not so the ordinary genius.

    Pity the run-of-the-mill genius who has reduced himself to an idea-cow; who has a decade of genuine brilliance to spread over an entire lifetime in the public eye.

  • Re:Oh yeah? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by lennier ( 44736 ) on Monday November 29, 2010 @09:09PM (#34382696) Homepage

    Why isn't there an equal skepticism about Space Nuttery like Moon colonies, space-based solar power and asteroid mining? They are equally delusional.

    No they're not, and there was plenty of skepticism about such claims when O'Neill in the 70s was proclaiming that we could be doing them all in a few years, because it was clearly technologically impossible with any reasonably justifiable amount of money. There's far less skepticism today because we can see that they could be viable in a few decades.

    Possible, sure. We could go back to the moon with a big enough budget. Economically viable, though?

    Solar microwave satellites were fun in SimCity 2000, and I'd still like to see them operational, but I've not seen even any proof of concept devices yet.

    Further out, the big question about asteroid mining I've never seen plausibly answered is: how do you make mining bulk metal in space cheaper than mining it on Earth?

    The usual space-booster response is "we won't be building stuff on earth, we'll be building stuff in space, and space mining is cheaper for that". But that begs the question: why will we be building megastructures in space in the first place? Not just to build space mining camps so we can build more space mining camps, I assume.

  • by Mitchell314 ( 1576581 ) on Monday November 29, 2010 @09:46PM (#34383024)
    Yeah, but a human has ~3 billion base pairs. IANACS, but with 2 bits per base, so one byte represents 4 bases, so it's roughly equivalent to 750 megabytes. That's pretty impressive compression to shrink to 50 megs (which I agree, is a lot of data).

    Then again, if you skim the "junk DNA" (which may or may not really be junk), you can shrink it quite a bit. OTOH, this does not account for the epigenome though, which is bound to pack on quite a few megabytes itself.
  • Re:What Futurists Do (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 29, 2010 @10:04PM (#34383200)

    Very well said. I can still remember 1984 and a news report making fun of George Orwell's book of the same name. They were pointing out how the contemporary world was nothing like the book 1984. But now looking back, it's clear that those years were the beginning of what eventually led to a drastic shift in the role of media and accountability by governments and corporations. Many of the events of the Iraq war almost seem lifted from the book. The days after 911 I picked that book up and re-read it. Quite an eerie experience to be seeing the world becoming more and more like that book each day I read it. One could argue that much of this is subjective and it's easy to see or not see whatever fits the paradigm of the day. But perhaps that is the whole point. In retrospect we may look back on some of these futurist writings from an entirely fresh perspective. It's not hard science and our culture can sometimes be a little impatient with such nuance and relativism. We want definitive and concrete explanations. Interpretive disciplines are often not taken seriously or made so obscure that they become almost sacred institutions understood by an elite few. Anyway, another piece of 20th century fiction, the original Star Trek, seemed like something in a far-off future to me in childhood. But one only has to look around and see people carrying hand-held communication devices and talking to others through video screens. The internet seemed to appear as a sort of curiosity, but in a very short time it is apart of nearly every facet of life for an ever-growing number of people. It seems like judging "predictions" during the time they are supposed to take place is something that can't really be done because we are too immersed in the time. Who knows how different our view of this decade will be in another 20 or 30 years.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 30, 2010 @05:41AM (#34386296)
    It is a pretty bad approximation. The "tape" in the brain is about 10 or 20 characters long. Try running a 20 digit long division in your head and you'll see just how great a Turing machine we are.

    Nobody is saying that a Turing machine cannot emulate the brain (or that the brain cannot emulate a Turing machine, at least with enough external "tape"). Also, nobody is claiming that humans can solve non-Turing computable problems. It is just that thinking about the brain as an approximation to a Turing machine is a pretty bad model.

The person who can smile when something goes wrong has thought of someone to blame it on.