ray kurzweil’s exponential mythology

November 14, 2009 — 7 Comments

Every enthusiastic movement needs a catchphrase and a talking point used to rebuff critics in one swoop. For the Technological Singularity espoused by Ray Kurzweil, that talking point is the so-called exponential curve of technological advancement. Supposedly, when you plot the entire history of life on our planet, you’ll see that it progresses at an exponential rate. Add technological achievements to the trend line and you’ll see that just as evolution is moving exponentially so does technical advancement, which is why the Singularity will be here in just a few decades rather than a few centuries. And here you were stuck in linear thinking, not realizing the big exponential curve ahead of you and the upcoming rise of intelligent machines which will merge with humans, changing our species once and for all. So what if the graph is totally arbitrary and uses random data points?

giant retro robot

Whoops, that one slipped out before it’s scheduled cue. But since we’ve mentioned the details of the graph in question, let’s give it a closer look. You can’t compare the evolution of living things to technology because, as we should’ve learned in biology class, the more living things there are, the faster evolution takes place and as new environments and mutations arise, so do new species. We can look at evolution as an exponential curve but that actually gets us a quasi-Lamarckian canard instead of the true picture. In the graph, we’re working our way towards humans and what we define as intelligence. But what about the brainy dolphins and chimps? Or how about parrots and wolves which have a level of intellect we could also recognize? And what happened to the speciation and the relationships between organisms? What about the dead ends and the messy parts of the evolutionary process like mass extinctions and repopulations? Why did we throw that out of the equation? Because it’s not focusing on the point Kurzweil wants to prove? That’s hardly a legitimate reason.

And we can ask the same questions about technology listed on the graph. Why do we have basic stone tools, arrows and wheels but not planes, nuclear weapons, high explosives and hundred piece sets of power drills, wrenches, screwdrivers and pliers you can get at hardware stores? Why do we have printing but not art? Why don’t we account for the ancient steam engine built all the way back in the classical world and rejected due to the abundance of cheap human labor? Why do we have personal computers but spaceflight is absent? Holy FSM, we don’t have spaceflight, lunar landings or interplanetary travel on the chart?! That’s an omission which is not dissimilar from randomly leaving out bipedal locomotion when describing how humans evolved. We left our world and set foot on the Moon and that doesn’t merit a blip on Ray’s meta chart, but the invention of a PC that couldn’t store more than one or two image files on this blog on its hard drive gets a note? Is Ray trying his best to melt my brain here? And what about all the abandoned technology or ideas that have been around for about half a century, but are only now starting to really attract investment and interest, technology like plasma rockets, fusion reactors and antimatter propulsion? They’re also conspicuously absent.

Technology and evolution move at an exponential rate only in Ray’s world. In reality, innovation is a messy and often time consuming process which is subject to the whims of new discoveries, money, politics and nature. This is why decades of work on stem cell research are still far from giving us cures for cancer or a way to get a few spare organs on command. This is why instead of planning to fly to Alpha Centauri as many books about spaceflight technology from the 1980s were forecasting we would be by now, we still haven’t repeated the one small step on the Moon that should by all rights be one of the most important moments in all of our history. In the Singularitarian and transhumanist dream world, technology falls form the sky like mana from heaven, but in the world in which we have to live, that’s not the case. Random plot points on a graph massaged to convey the point Ray desperately wants to prove can be arranged any way he feels like but it won’t change the bursts and stalls in our technological development which, charted under real world conditions, look like a tree where the length of each branch is dictated by a mix of money, political sentiment, priorities, number of researchers, corporate interest and our understanding of the relevant science.

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  • loeck

    “You can’t compare the evolution of living things to technology because, as we should’ve learned in biology class, the more living things there are, the faster evolution takes place and as new environments and mutations arise.”

    That’s not necessarily true, as the more people there will be, the more scientists there are, and more people to garner a accidental discovery. So the more people we have the greater rate of scientific discovery there will be.

    Plus the government, in the past, increases scientific spending during times of war, and with the middle east thing going on, another point were we could be seeing more breakthroughs, and although an admitted optimist, I don’t see a reason that we couldn’t get this sort of tech within the lifetime of our children if not the 20 year old’s.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/ Uncle Al

    First derivatives sell books, second derivatives sell guns. Know whether extrema are sulci or gyri.

  • http://scientificilliteracy.blogspot.com Michael Varney

    Ray wants to beat death. At age 61, he can expect at best a couple of decades in which to do so.
    The fear of death can be a powerful motivation, and make one believe things that an otherwise rational mind may dismiss. Look at religion and an afterlife after all.

    However, lets see your chart of how technology progresses. Difficult huh? Because for the very reasons you state, in order to construct such a chart you have to decide what is important enough to include in the data.

    Ray constructed his chart with data he feels will contribute to his goal… to beat death. Arguably the landing of men on the moon has less of an impact on “immortality research” than the invention of the computer.

    We all pick and choose what data we present. When I present my findings in a colloquium, say about inverse square law tests of gravity, I neglect data about sunspot cycles. Including those simply obfuscate the point I was trying to make.

    Ray is desperate… the clock is ticking.

    BTW, the moonshot would have been much more difficult without some sort of computer. Which in turn would have been difficult without glass blowing skills, which in turn would have been difficult without fire.

    Oh crap! Where is fire on Ray’s graph!

  • assman

    I never believed in Kurzweil’s exponential curve but after reading your horrid post, I am starting to believe. I never tried to argue against Kurzweil but reading your argument I now see its harder than I thought.

  • Greg Fish

    “… the more people we have the greater rate of scientific discovery there will be. “

    Possibly. But the big question is whether their discoveries will have anything to do with what Ray considers to be of enough importance. Science is just a matter of how you organize knowledge. What you know and how it applies to the real world is the big question.

    “btw, the moonshot would have been much more difficult without some sort of computer.”

    The computers being used in 1969 were about as mighty as today’s calculators but they got the job done pretty efficiently since all they has to do was crunch numbers. A fair bit of the actual calculating and planning was still done by humans. But modern probes are a totally different issue since they’re basically flying computers.

    “… after reading your horrid post, I am starting to believe [in the exponential curve].”

    Thank you for the non-comment. Please try again when you’d like to point out what the problems with the argument are and what makes the post so horrid.

  • Phil

    “Technology and evolution move at an exponential rate only in Ray’s world”
    Well, even if i agree with most of your post, this sentence seems utterly wrong to me.
    Of course, Ray only showed what was convenient to prove his point, but you can’t honestly DENY that technology move at an exponential rate, do you ?
    From antiquity till start of 18th century, people had to rely on human messengers, birds, smoke signals, or variant of those to transmit messages. Then came the telegraph, first telephones, radio communications. 20 years ago cellular phones were almost sci-fi, now “classical” wired phones are obsolete in most western countries.
    Same goes for armement (cavalry was still used in ww1 !), travelling or medicine.

    Of course, “innovation is a messy and often time consuming process which is subject to the whims of new discoveries, money, politics and nature”. But with nearly instant worldwide communications, each new discovery is shared (or at least, accessible) for the entire scientific AND industrial community. You just can’t count the amount of “accidental” discoveries in physics, optics, biology (you name it) that was used shortafer in a completely different domain. And the fact that so many private companies have access to the latest theoretical knowledge in any scientific domain (when they don’t directly employ scientists) almost guarantees that a new discovery CAN BE used concretely to make cash.

    So no, i don’t think our grandchildren will be immortal thanks to spectacular scientific progress, but i’m pretty sure the world they will live in will have nothing to do with the one we know.

  • Tartessos

    “Technology and evolution move at an exponential rate only in Ray’s world.”

    Are you claiming that Moore’s Law does not exist?