Update: Ray Kurzweil’s January 17th, 2010 response to this is posted below my initial post. He said, “your review is biased, incorrect, and misleading in many different ways”.
In May 2008, a poster on ImmInst (the life extension grassroots organization I co-founded in 2002) pointed out that it looked like Kurzweil’s 1999 predictions for the year 2009 would fail. Now that 2009 is over, we can see that he was mostly correct.
Futurism should not be about storytelling, with overly specific scenarios and dates. Rather, scenarios should be offered as vague guesses at what the future might be like, not declarative prophesizing. I do believe that Kurzweil’s predictions for 2009 will come true, but maybe not until 2016 or 2018.
Here are the failed predictions:
1. Personal computers with high resolution interface embedded in clothing and jewelry, networked in Body LAN’s.
2. The majority of text is created using continuous speech recognition (CSR) software.
3. Computer displays built into eyeglasses project the images directly onto the user’s retinas.
4. In terms of circuitry, three-dimensional chips are commonly used.
5. Translating Telephone technology is commonly used for many language pairs.
6. Warfare is dominated by unmanned intelligent airborne devices. Many of these flying weapons are the size of small birds, or smaller.
7. 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.
All false! Sometimes Kurzweil’s predictions sound more like a visionary wish list of technological goodies than carefully calibrated technological forecasting. Useful for inspiration, certainly, but as far as correctness goes, the dates seem a little premature.
Update: I have absolutely nothing against Kurzweil, and I consider him a transhumanist role model, in a way. The only reason I point out that he got his predictions wrong is that basic idea of accountability. Why bother making predictions if you aren’t held accountable for them, and people like me don’t point it out? Of course some of the technologies exist today — the implication from Kurzweil is that they would now be commonplace. One commenter pointed out that people always ask “when?”, but it wouldn’t kill futurists to give probability distributions rather than discrete dates. The movement towards probability distributions in futurism rather than discrete dates is something that I and a few others are currently pioneering in a world irrationally biased towards specific dates (like 2012, for instance, which acquired fame without any scientific support whatsoever) and vivid narratives.
So far, I haven’t seen Kurzweil straight-up admit that he was wrong. I think he would benefit from doing so on some of these points. Perhaps the masses would take him less seriously if he acknowledged he was wrong, but it would make serious forecasters take him more seriously. If writing for a popular audience is a tradeoff where you necessarily sound less credible to serious forecasters, then a writer has to choose one or the other. It might not be possible to be popular and accurate at the same time. My role is to improve futurism by pointing out inaccurate predictions. I commend Kurzweil for making predictions at all, but we must raise the bar. Concrete date-centric predictions ought to be thrown out, and replaced by probability distributions.
Some futurism-oriented friends of mine have pointed out that you can say anything you want in futurism and it doesn’t matter, because you will never be held accountable for your predictions. Some of the comments on this blog post are proving that true — because people like Kurzweil for his thought-provoking books, they pretend as if the accuracy of his predictions don’t matter. They do. We can consider his works thought-provoking and still look at his predictions with a critical, rational eye. One example of a terribly failed futurist is Ian Pearson, who predicted human-equivalent AI in 2015, and was recently let go from British Telecom, where he was “resident futurist”. I feel bad that terrible futurists like Pearson exist because trashy newspapers like the Daily Mail then go and write up their predictions without knowing any better, thereby giving futurism a bad name.
I’ve been disturbed by the most recent media articles covering Kurzweil that claim that immortality could be here within 20 years. It could, but maybe not, and when articles like that say, “The 61-year-old American, who has predicted new technologies arriving before, says our understanding of genes and computer technology is accelerating at an incredible rate”, and people don’t care about which new technologies he has predicted and what error rate he had, that is intellectually pathetic. We must know, and we must create records for accountability.
Ray Kurzweil response:
January 17, 2010
I want to respond to your Blog post â€œReviewing Kurzweil Predictions from 1999 for 2009.â€
This starts out â€œMichael Anissimov notes that Ray Kurzweil had several predictions from 1999 for 2009 and those predictions are in general wrong.â€
You also write â€œRay Kurzweilâ€™s Failed 2009 Predictions. In May 2008, a poster on ImmInst (the life extension grassroots organization I co-founded in 2002) pointed out that it looked like Kurzweilâ€™s 1999 predictions for the year 2009 would fail. Now that 2009 is over, we can see that he was mostly correct.â€
Your review is biased, incorrect, and misleading in many different ways.
First of all, I did not make â€œseveral predictionsâ€ for 2009. I made 108 predictions in The Age of Spiritual Machines (TASM), which, incidentally, I wrote in 1996 to 1997. It takes a year to publish, so the book came out at the end of 1998. It is very misleading to take 7 predictions out of 108 and present that as all of my predictions for 2009.
I am in the process of writing a prediction-by-prediction analysis of these, which will be available soon and I will send it to you. But to summarize, of these 108 predictions, 89 were entirely correct by the end of 2009.
An additional 13 were what I would call â€œessentially correctâ€ (for a total of 102 out of 108). You will note that the specificity of my predictions in TASM was by decades. There were predictions for 2009, 2019, 2029, and 2099. The 2009 predictions were providing a vision of what the world would be like around the end of the first decade of the new millennium. My critics were not saying â€œKurzweilâ€™s predictions for 2009 are ridiculous, they will not come true until 2010 or 2011.â€ Rather, they were saying that my predictions were off by decades or centuries or would never happen. So if predictions made around 1996 for 2009 come true a year or a couple of years after 2009, given that the specificity was by decade, and the critics were saying that they were wrong by decades or centuries, then I would consider them to constitute an essentially accurate vision of what the world would be like around now.
My critics are very quick to jump on and exaggerate the slightest issue with my predictions. For example, earlier this year, one critic wrote that my prediction (made in 1996) that by 2009 there would exist a supercomputer that would be capable of performing 20 petaflops (quadrillion operations per second)â€ was â€œnot just a little bit wrong, but wildly, laughably wrong.â€ I wrote back that IBMâ€™s 20 petaflop Sequoia supercomputer was already under construction and that IBM has announced that it will be operational in 2012. Since that time, another 20 petaflop supercomputer has been announced that will be operational next year, in 2011. Is it fair or reasonable to call this prediction â€œwildly, laughably wrong?â€
I make this very point in my movie The Singularity is Near, A True Story about Future. One of my key (and consistent) predictions is that a computer will pass the Turing test by 2029. The first long-term prediction on the Long Now website (www.longnow.org) is a bet that I have with Mitch Kapor regarding this prediction. Mitch and I put up $20,000, and this amount plus interest will go to the foundation of the winnerâ€™s choice. I will win if a computer passes the Turing test by 2029 (and we have elaborate rules that we negotiated) and Mitch will win if that does not happen. In the movie, I create an AI-based avatar named Ramona and she fails the test in 2029 and Mitch wins the bet. However, she goes on to pass the test in 2033. If that is indeed what happens in the future, whose vision of the future can we say was correct?
From a strictly literal point of view and in terms of the rules of the bet, Kapor will have won the wager. But Kaporâ€™s critique is not that â€œKurzweilâ€™s prediction of a computer passing the Turing test in 2029 is ridiculous, it wonâ€™t happen until 2033.â€ Rather he is saying I am off by centuries if it ever happens at all. My point is that if a computer passes the Turing test by 2033 rather than 2029 my vision of the future would be â€œessentially correct.â€ And so it is with the 13 predictions out of 108 that I made in TASM that are likely to come true in the next year or couple of years. By my calculation, 102 out of 108 predictions are either precisely correct or essentially correct.
Another 3 are partially correct, 2 look like they are about 10 years off, and 1, which was tongue in cheek anyway, was just wrong.
So for starters, your list of 7 predictions is misleading and is the result of severe selection bias. Moreover, most of these are not actually wrong. You have also changed the wording in ways that change the meaning of the predictions, or have just misinterpreted either the prediction or the current reality.
Take, for example, the first one you cite. The correct prediction was â€œPersonal computers are available in a wide range of sizes and shapes, and are commonly embedded in clothing and jewelryâ€¦â€ When I wrote this prediction, portable computers were large heavy devices carried under your arm. Today they are indeed embedded in shirt pockets, jacket pockets, and hung from belt loops. Colorful iPod nano models are worn on blouses as jewelry pins or on a sleeve while running, health monitors are woven into undergarments, there are now computers in hearing aids, and there are many other examples. The prediction does not say that all computers would be small devices, just that this would be “common,” which indeed is the case.. And â€œcomputersâ€ should not be restricted to the current category we happen to call â€œpersonal computers.â€ All of these devices â€“ iPods, smart phones, etc. are in fact sophisticated â€œcomputers.â€ By a reasonable interpretation of the prediction and the current reality, it is correct, not â€œfalse.â€
There are indeed â€œcomputer displays that project images directly onto the eyes.â€ The prediction did not say that all displays would be this way or that it would be the majority, or even common.
You cite the prediction that â€œthree-dimensional chips are commonly usedâ€ as false. But it is not false. Many if not most semiconductors fabricated today are in fact 3D chips, using vertical stacking technology. It is obviously only the beginning of a broad trend, but it is the case that three-dimensional chips are commonly used today.
â€œTranslating Telephone technologyâ€ was indeed available only in prototype form earlier in 2009, but now is a popular iPhone app and the technology is available on Symbian phones and on Google’s popular new Nexus One, using Google’s voice translation server. My prediction was that it would be â€œcommonly used,â€ not that it would be ubiquitous. I suppose we could argue how â€œcommonâ€ its use is, but it is already a popular app. Having been introduced late in 2009, it is likely to become quite popular on many phones worldwide in 2010.
â€œWarfare is dominated by unmanned intelligent airborne devicesâ€ is certainly true in Afghanistan. As Wired recently noted, “The unmanned air war … has escalated under McChrystalâ€™s watch….â€ Also there are munitions that are about the size of birds that can be released from larger aircraft and that have their own intelligent navigation.
So even of this highly selective list, your interpretation of the predictions is rigid and idiosyncratic. You have a certain vision of how these types of developments will or should manifest themselves, but under a reasonable interpretation, most of your selected predictions are in fact not false.
The status of these predictions changes very quickly. In November 2009, the idea of large-vocabulary, continuous, speaker-independent speech recognition on a cell phone was still off in the future. Just one month later, this became one of the most popular free apps for the iPhone (Dragon Dictation from Nuance, which used to be Kurzweil Computer Products, my first major company) as well as the popular Google Search on iPhones and in Google Droid and Nexus One phones.
Two or three years from now is a very long way off, and the world will again be quite different, so for the handful of my 108 predictions for 2009 that are not literally true now, most will likely become true over that time.
So I agree with you that there should be accountability for predictions, but such reviews need to be free of bias, fair, and not subject to selection bias and myopic interpretations of both the words used and the current reality.
In this essay I am working on, I will also review my predictions written in the mid 1980s in The Age of Intelligent Machines, which were also very accurate.
I am not saying that there are no misses, but it I believe it is fair to say that the vision of the future that I have painted in the past for the current world is quite accurate, especially compared to the critics who at the time said that these predictions were off by decades or centuries.