Chapter Nine of Age of Spiritual Machines

Here is the link. This is a good place to start to review Kurzweil’s 1996-1997 predictions. I remember reading this chapter myself in 2000 and analyzing the way in which the predictions did sync up with my own and the way they did not.

There are two categories of qualifying words used for the technology predictions: either they’re 1) “ubiquitous”, “common”, or the like, or 2) they simply exist. For something to qualify as “common” in my eyes would perhaps mean that a third of the white collar business world in the United States uses it on a weekly basis. (To be very generous.) For #2, the prediction can be regarded as having come “true” even if the product only exists as a prototype in a lab and has for some time.

Comments

  1. Dave

    I don’t see why we care about the distinction between 1) and 2). His predictions are mainly important only as they apply to the existence of certain technologies (at a given price). Even though he may make the distinction between “exist” and “are common”, it is really not important from a futurism perspective, especially in the context of trying to predict human-level artificial intelligence.

    If we get to 2029, and he thinks that human-level AI is “common”, and it turns out there are only a few machines with human level AI, I think it is clear we will have to say he was correct.

  2. Tom McCabe

    I’m sorry, but although Kurzweil does get a lot right, there’s really no reasonable way to say that we have these things now, or that we have a high enough chance of having them in the next few years to call it a foregone conclusion:

    “People typically have at least a dozen computers on and around their bodies, which are networked using “body LANs” (local area networks).”

    “The majority of text is created using continuous speech recognition (CSR) dictation software, but keyboards are still used. CSR is very accurate, far more so than the human transcriptionists who were used up until a few years ago. ”

    “Autonomous nanoengineered machines (that is, machines constructed atom by atom and molecule by molecule) have been demonstrated and include their own computational controls.”

    “Documents circa 2009 routinely include embedded moving images and sounds.”

    “Students interact with their computers primarily by voice and by pointing with a device that looks like a pencil.”

    “Intelligent courseware has emerged as a common means of learning. Recent controversial studies have shown that students can learn basic skills such as reading and math just as readily with interactive learning software as with human teachers, particularly when the ratio of students to human teachers is more than one to one. Although the studies have come under attack, most students and their parents have accepted this notion for years.”

    “Training and developing new skills is emerging as an ongoing responsibility in most careers, not just an occasional supplement, as the level of skill needed for meaningful employment soars ever higher.”

    “”Telephone” communication is primarily wireless, and routinely includes high-resolution moving images.”

    “Virtually all communication is digital and encrypted, with public keys available to government authorities.”

    “Interactive games routinely include all-encompassing visual and auditory environments, but a satisfactory, all-encompassing tactile environment is not yet available. The online chat rooms of the late 1990s have been replaced with virtual environments where you can meet people with full visual realism. ”

    “Despite occasional corrections, the ten years leading up to 2009 have seen continuous economic expansion and prosperity due to the dominance of the knowledge content of products and services. The greatest gains continue to be in the value of the stock market.”

    “Europe is several years ahead of Japan and Korea in adopting the American emphasis on venture capital, employee stock options, and tax policies that encourage entrepreneurship, although these practices have become popular throughout the world. ”

    “Intelligent roads are in use, primarily for long-distance travel. Once your car’s computer guidance system locks onto the control sensors on one of these highways, you can sit back and relax.”

    “A company west of the Mississippi and north of the Mason-Dixon line has surpassed a trillion dollars in market capitalization.”

    Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

  3. Dave

    At least a few of those are right:

    “People typically have at least a dozen computers on and around their bodies, which are networked using “body LANs” (local area networks).” ==> Bluetooth

    “Documents circa 2009 routinely include embedded moving images and sounds.” ==> A lot of web content

    “”Telephone” communication is primarily wireless, and routinely includes high-resolution moving images.” ==> Cell phones, Skype

    “Virtually all communication is digital and encrypted, with public keys available to government authorities.” ==> Gmail is encrypted by default

    “Interactive games routinely include all-encompassing visual and auditory environments, but a satisfactory, all-encompassing tactile environment is not yet available. The online chat rooms of the late 1990s have been replaced with virtual environments where you can meet people with full visual realism. ” ==> Second Life

    And the job training and education ones are debatable.

    The final two on your list he’s already admitted are wrong, and I think he said the last one was “tongue and cheek”.

  4. “People typically have at least a dozen computers on and around their bodies, which are networked using “body LANs” (local area networks).” ==> Bluetooth

    A dozen ate least means I have more than 12 bluetooth devices on my body, even if I count, headset, cell phone itself and maybe a mouse, I still only have 3, more than 12 is just an absurd. And other than with these 3 technologies, bluetooth is not that widely used anyway.

  5. Reading that is very illuminating.

    Its fair to say that Kurzweil isn’t completely off-the-scale wrong; he’s a lot more right than wrong, and its extremely impressive. But he IS consistently slightly off.

    It isn’t a question of dates, though. Its something else, which I can’t quite boil down.

  6. Arie

    Kurzweil himself recently shifted some predictions from 2009 to 2020: devices integrated in clothing, images projected on retina, and self driving vehicles.
    I take that as a quiet admission that these predictions were indeed too optimistic.

  7. Arie

    So let’s rate the predictions from Chapter 9. If we take each paragraph as a broad prediction, we have 59 predictions. My personal judgement was:
    flat-out wrong: 18 predictions
    very questionable: 21 predictions
    fully true: 20 predictions

    So i would say that Ray Kurzweil was half right with his predictions. Wich is pretty good compared with most futurists, but simply too optimistic.

    Ofcourse, his underlying methods for predicting technological change are sound, there is no evidence of any slowdown in the acceleration of technological change. But this is evidence that emergence of practical solutions and market saturation are difficult to pinpoint, even if one is able to predict the progression of flops/bandwidth etc.

  8. Tom McCabe

    ““People typically have at least a dozen computers on and around their bodies, which are networked using “body LANs” (local area networks).” ==> Bluetooth”

    What Leon Palafox says.

    ““Documents circa 2009 routinely include embedded moving images and sounds.” ==> A lot of web content”

    How many websites have you visited over the past week, and how many of those have included embedded images and sounds (not just links to them, but actually embedded in the text?). We have the ability to do this technologically, we just don’t because it’s as annoying as hell.

    ““”Telephone” communication is primarily wireless, and routinely includes high-resolution moving images.” ==> Cell phones, Skype”

    If you ask random people a). how many phone calls they’ve made during the past week, and b). how many of those included moving images, what do you think they’re going to say?

    ““Virtually all communication is digital and encrypted, with public keys available to government authorities.” ==> Gmail is encrypted by default”

    “Virtually all” does not mean “one particular website”, it means “virtually all”. How many websites have you visited in the past week, and how many of those used https:// instead of http://?

    ““Interactive games routinely include all-encompassing visual and auditory environments, but a satisfactory, all-encompassing tactile environment is not yet available. The online chat rooms of the late 1990s have been replaced with virtual environments where you can meet people with full visual realism. ” ==> Second Life”

    Second Life is *not* an “all-encompassing visual environment” and it does *not* include “full visual realism”; anyone who had actually played it would know that.

  9. Matt Perry

    @TheMediumDog “It isn’t a question of dates, though. Its something else, which I can’t quite boil down.”

    I think it’s often the misprediction of which kinds of technologies are going to be desirable to own. We could technically have 12 networked devices around our body, but who would want to!? Who wants to speak all of their words to their computer? Offices would be very noisy! Why would students interact with their laptops using their voices if they are in a lecture? Full 3D chatrooms like Secondlife and PlayStation Home exist but certainly people would rather use Facebook Chat over these for common conversation. All of these are possible but nobody wants to do them. This is Ray’s weakness.

    @Tom McCabe: a number of these are true, though. Nano-engineered machines have been demonstrated. The majority of documents do include vision and sound (although this is usually for advertisements, unfortunately). Many university courses are not taught in person. We do now have much higher requirements for first-time job hunters with many students graduating from university with a great degree and no job to use it in. In my job I have to keep on top of the latest developments or I’m dust.

    Telephone conversations -are- almost totally wireless – I don’t think I’ve known anyone with a landline who isn’t my mother for five years and even my nan owns a mobile. The moving images part is a throwback to the point I was making the TheMediumDog, in the UK we’ve had mobile videophones for roughly seven years (since the 3 network was created), but it turns out that nobody wanted it.

  10. Arie

    “We could technically have 12 networked devices around our body, but who would want to!?”

    Ray is correct that we use ever more devices that could qualify as personal computers. But these devices are also integrating, most cellphones have music-players and cameras these days. So in the end, one central processing unit might be all we need, besides some body monitors and devices to compliment our visual/auditory biology. I think it is also correct that these devices will become more integrated with the owner and will need wireless communication for constant information exchange.

    For instance, this afternoon i have a meeting in another town. My personal virtual assistant might remind me it is time to leave because there is an unusual ammount of traffic on the highway. As I head to the elevator, my car might boot its operating system and perform a veriety of safety checks. And behind the wheel the directions are overlayed on the road by my glasses. All of this requires instant connectivity.

    “Telephone conversations -are- almost totally wireless”

    Perhaps you americans are way ahead, but here in Europe most people and all businesses still use landlines.

  11. Steven Hales

    If Kurzweil would focus on purpose and use rather than gee whiz tech he would have pushed into the dust bin about 70% of these so-called predictions. If he had asked questions as an economist would, like how much time does this save or does it increase productivity, he would have seen that CSR would be a niche product where time and labor saving functions are paramount, like the legal and the medical professions. CSR has very specialized uses today but has not caught on as more useful than using a keyboard to input text, witness the growing volume of text messages entered via a keyboard. I know Nuance had a prototype smartphone that did CSR about 2-1/2 years ago but it was never really picked up by the major cellphone makers. Some VR is creeping into smartphones today and CSR is currently available via a phonecall to a CSR server, offloading the CSR task to a remote computer but it too has not caught on as really useful or time-saving or labor-saving. Again the focus in prediction/projection should be on purpose and function in an economic context this keeps you honest and limits the geewhiz factor. The focus should be “what is the value added in CSR as opposed to entering text via a keyboard?” If you can answer that in a non-geeky gee whiz tech manner then it might be a good prediction.

    In another post I pointed out the importance of combinatorial technological evolution in making projections of future technology, I don’t think that Kurzweil thinks about tech in this manner. It is the combination of a variety of technologies that made the smartphone take off but Kurzweil only vaguely hinted at small, thin, light, powerful and connected. These are all trends firmly in place in 1996 and it didn’t take a great mind to follow and project, heck Star Trek had better tech than Kurzweil and certainly inspired more people than he has. Moore’s Law had been around for almost 30 years and I remember the trends I discussed with colleagues in the early 1980s about networks being the catalyst for the PCs in our departments to be really useful. We talked about the trends to more power and thinner and lighter and more useful. We were looking at applications of networking to leverage our people’s talent and allow the automation of dozens of manual tasks.

    When Kurzweil talks about haptic tech he is simply referring to the virtual reality already available for decades in flight simulators for the military and commercial aviation. Here he is simply making a projection for the diffusion of an innovation and as such it doesn’t qualify as a prediction just a trend. Haptics is simply taking all the control systems of a flight simulator and transforming gestures in a force feedback sytem to give the illusion of touch and feel. Kurzweil then launches into a rhapsody of virtual everything without any mention of usefulness and purpose.

    These predictions are simply following diffusions of existing tech in 1996 not new tech. Smaller, thinner, faster, lighter were and still are trends. Digitizing books and documents is something I did in the late 1980s. We scanned and OCRed thousands and cleaned up the errors. We talked about digital libraries with network access c1988. Media convergence was a topic as early as McLuhan who said the content of any medium is always another medium. Kurzweil is the classic, “if it wasn’t invented here it doesn’t exist”

    We can deconstruct most of Kurzweil’s stuff in this manner but what I hope we can begin to think about tech in the way Brian Arthur and Kevin Kelly are talking and thinking. Arthur is laying the groundwork for a science of technological evolution and Kelly is hinting at a philosophy of tech.

  12. Matt Perry

    “Perhaps you americans are way ahead, but here in Europe most people and all businesses still use landlines.”

    Actually I’m British, and although business mostly use landlines (often because they’re networked internally, for instance my number is just 4 digits long), a huge number of people especially in the upper echelons use business mobile phones. And the idea that most people use landlines in their personal lives is flat wrong. Mobile penetration is over 100% and landline prices have plummeted in the last decade for a very obvious reason.

  13. Panda

    If Mr. Kurzweil had put forth more data, such as trend graphs and industry/scientific interviews, and then transparently explained the reasoning behind his theory as to why the trend would go the way he predicted, then today we would have been thanking Mr. Kurzweil for helping us learn how to better make predictions.

  14. Dave:

    “Virtually all communication is digital and encrypted, with public keys available to government authorities.” ==> Gmail is encrypted by default

    The connection between your computer and the Gmail servers is encrypted, yes. But the actual e-mail protocol is unencrypted: sending and receiving of messages between different mail servers happens in the open.

  15. Barrett Haynes

    Ray Kurzweil is sure to be proven far more accurate that some want to admit. I & mine believe his Technological Singularity (which I call the techno/singular revelation) will prove to be his greatest prophecy. But first, there are financial factors affecting temporal accuracy that should be factored out. One case-in-point, I wrote a book titled AXON-I (see copyright 1990, started in 1988). AXON-I explains how to build an extremely efficient fully functional whole-body-interface for teleoperation/telemechanisms or virtual interaction. I am only just now getting to a financial point where I can build a prototype to prove the innovative concept feasibility. Though I have been invited to speek on the book my such notables as Dr. Henry T. Engle or Dr. Michael Heim, the device is not yet in hardware anywhere on earth 23 years after my first documentation of the original inspiration. When the feasibility is proven then Kurzweil’s prediction of whole-body-interface will have proven behind schedule, not ahead of schedule. Its just that putting into hardware for what is “proven” in virtual design is a task on economic schedule. Economic delays of prototypes in hardware should not be part of (non economic) prophecy evaluation when that prophecy or prophecies have been proven possible a decade or more earlier on paper. The catch is that the proof, as we say, in the pudding, or, in the hardware/prototype… only then can exonerates the ageing prophecy. I believe this will prove to be the case in much of Ray’s visions as he was, for one example, predicting what I had already delineated on paper.
    One must take into account the current slump into socialism which will no doubt slow ALL positive progression. Yours, J. Barrett Haynes
    P.S.- The proof will be in the putting… into hardware; prototypes. See also my patent, Cornea-Borne Image Display, my paper Mechanthropics & Symbioscope, by J. Barrett Haynes, A.K.A. John B. Haynes. P.P.S.- The Halos are coming.

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