how to be a prophet by vagueness and obscurity

April 5, 2011

Nowadays, it seems like Ray Kurzweil is one of the most exciting people in tech, apparently warranting a big write-up of his predictions in Time Magazine, and despite his nearly religious view of technology, named as one of the world’s most influential living atheists. And so, once in a while, we’re treated to a look at how well his prediction actually fared, often by those who’ve actually done very little research into the major disconnect between his seemingly successful predictions and reality. One of the latest iterations of almost suspiciously subtle praise for Kurzweil’s powers of prognostication from TechVert’s JD Rucker, is a perfect example of exactly that, presenting an infographic with a track record of someone who seems to have nothing less than a precognitive powers when it comes to the world of high tech. Though if you manage to catch the attribution on the bottom of the graphic itself, you’ll find that its source is none other than Ray and once again, he’s giving a very, very generous reinterpretation to his predictions and omits the myriad of details he actually got wrong.

Remember when last year, the much less lenient judges at IEEE spectrum decided to put his predictions in their proper place and evaluate how what he actually said compares to what he claims he said when grading his own predictions in retrospect? Even when simply quoting obvious trends, his record actually tends to be quite mediocre and starts out with a reasonable idea, such as that more and more computing will be mobile and web access will be close to ubiquitous, and starts adding in statements about brain implants, intelligent and web-enabled clothing, and other personal fantasies which are decades away from practical use, if they’ll actually ever be mass marketed in the first place. Then, he goes back and revises his own claims as shown by the link above, claiming that he never actually said that computers as we know them would vanish by 2010 even though in his TED presentation he said it in pretty much those exact words. Along the way, he also held that by 2009, we would’ve adopted intelligent highways with self-piloting cars. Google’s autonomous vehicle guided by sensors and GPS is still just an experiment and highways don’t manage their own traffic, unless a sign telling you about an accident or travel time to an exit counts as high tech traffic management.

So were you to do a cold reading of technology’s future ala Kurzweil, just think big, make lots of claims, and if you get something rather obvious right, just forget all the other stuff you added to your prediction and you too can be cited as a pioneer and visionary in fields you actually know little to nothing about, and said to have the kind of uncanny accuracy that makes everything you say compelling. You know, kind of like astrologers whose random wild guesses are edited down to just the vaguely right ones if we give them a lot of leeway when they manage to get something they consider to be an accurate prediction? And hey, maybe your own evaluation of your own predictive powers can also be cited by particularly lazy writers as they gush about the fantastic world of tomorrow you’ve been promising in your countless speeches and articles. The speeches and articles with which you make a good chunk of cash by hawking everything from alkaline water and vitamins for those who want to live long enough to see the Singularity, to classes at your own little university of futurism. Why study to be a real expert in AI or computing when you can just play one on TV and in the press? If anything, the pay is a lot better when you just talk about the promise of AI and intelligent machines rather than try to build them…

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  • Anonymous

    As time goes by, and more and more of Kurzweil’s predictions don’t come to pass, he will lose his credibility and people will stop paying attention to him.

  • FloozieGal

    So true, but unfortunately another one will come along with more wild predictions.
    People want to believe it will all be so much better SOON and they will believe anyone who tells them that Nirvana is just around the next corner.

  • Anonymous

    Singularitarians acuse skeptics in believing in the soul, when they are critical of mind uploading. But doesn’t the idea of mind uploading require some kind of strange mind body dualism?

    Singularitaians argue that we already modify out brains with computers. This is true – we have brain pasemakers for treating parkinsons. However, they soon make the strange extrapolation that soon we will replace large portions of our brains which electronics. I don’t think so. It’s more likely that you will just die – become retared – once enough of you brain is replaced by computer parts.