the tech prophet’s visions get graded by ieee

December 13, 2010

In this month’s issue of IEEE Spectrum, digital prophet Ray Kurzweil is graded on the accuracy of his grand predictions and his powers of foresight in the tech world and the results are kind of a mixed bag. While on the one hand, he really is plugged in and has a very good feel for where technology is going, when he tries to fill in the details, he tends to go off the rails in grandiose declarations that never actually manifest themselves in the real world. Actually, as someone also in the tech world, I’d say that his detailed predictions usually talk about things we could imagine ten to thirty years ahead of the time to which he tries to pin them, though it’s a difficult task to predict what’s going to be the new tech craze several decades in the future since they depend on user preference more than anything. Just because you give users a new feature doesn’t mean they’ll ever use it, or if they do, that they’ll use it the way you want. For a recent example, take the XBOX Kinect. Intended to be just a motion controller for a gaming system, it’s now also being used as a cheap, high quality LIDAR.

But that didn’t stop Ray from boldly claiming in 2005 that today, computers as we know them should be just a collection of different devices embedded in our clothing, eyes, and phones. Since you’re probably reading this post using a computer, I’m thinking that he was wrong. Now, oddly enough, the technology to turn your phone into a fully-fledged substitute for a laptop and turning glasses into a screen does exist. It just hasn’t caught on because we’re so used to fully fledged keyboards and computer monitors. Give it a few decades and then we might talk about replacing the office PC with a high powered cell phone enabled with a holographic keyboard, and the monitor with glasses. Computers themselves, however, will never go away because we could make them a lot more powerful by using processors that future smart phones won’t be able to handle without a fan or liquid coolant. Again, the technology doesn’t have very far to go, but users are creatures of habits and once they get used to something, it takes a long time for them to change their ways. And yet, despite all the factors we just covered, Ray still insists that he was right because we have lots of smart phones in the marketplace, and he really didn’t say that computers would literally disappear by this year. Even though he actually did.

And this happens to virtually all of Kurzweil’s big predictions. Boldly ignoring what in computer science-speak is referred to as human factors, i.e. how people use or want to use a particular technology, he starts off with a very grounded, almost innocuous idea, and then tries to take it to unjustified heights. Then, after time passes and only his most conservative and grounded musings come to pass while his fantasies are as out of reach as they were when he indulged them in his books and lectures, he simply won’t admit he’s wrong. According to his own estimates, he was only wrong once and has a 95% accuracy in looking into tech’s future by giving himself a lot of leeway and very generously reinterpreting and rephrasing his predictions after the fact, as the article in IEEE documents with some of his high brow proclamations about computing, AI, and the web. He’s not shy about using definitions most techies would find very bizarre as well just to make his point, referring to software written, maintained, and periodically altered by humans in response to new business models or old problems as budding artificial intelligence in action. I don’t think you have to ask an AI expert to know that’s a really, really big stretch. In reality, Ray is so bold and aggressive in his predictions, and so loath to admit that he’s wrong, scholarly transhumanists are actually trying to distance themselves from him, especially after his asinine claim that the human brain can be reengineered in a million lines of code.

It’s predictions like this from a man who I’m constantly told is a master researcher and always puts in hours and hours of deep study into each and every idea he voices, that make it hard to take him seriously. After his long track record in developing software, he should know full well that lines of code is usually a meaningless measure unless you’re just trying to very roughly scale up the task of rewriting a program. But even after such glaring errors in his public statements, Ray is undeterred and concludes that he’s correct about virtually every one of his futuristic visions. Like all those who claim to be prophets, he puts in just a small kernel of truth into his meditations (I’d say no pun intended, but eh, why not?), and those very reserved and almost obvious little notes give his fans something to latch onto and adjust what he said after the fact. It’s a trick used throughout time and constantly exploited by psychics and astrologers to retain their audiences. Kurzweil is a very smart and very educated man rather than some New Age quack promising immortality through opening your chakra with magic berries, or drinking an amino acid cocktail, and he really should know better than than to use the tactics of woo-meisters in a bid to present himself as a visionary who can read tomorrow’s headlines.

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