Accelerating Future Transhumanism, AI, nanotech, the Singularity, and extinction risk.

28Jul/1012

Terry Grossman: Rethinking the Promise of Genetics

Great article from h+ magazine from about a week ago: "Rethinking the Promise of Genomics". This is by Terry Grossman, co-author (with Ray Kurzweil) of Fantastic Voyage:

I used to be a big believer in the enormous potential of genomics, and each of my two previous books, Fantastic Voyage and TRANSCEND: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever, had chapters devoted to this topic. The relevant chapter in the earlier book, Fantastic Voyage, published in 2004, was titled "The Promise of Genomics." My co-author in these books, Ray Kurzweil, is widely regarded as one of the world's foremost inventors and futurists, and he has made predictions for what is likely to occur in the future in the field of genomics . Yet, these days I find that I am feeling far less confident at least for the near term about the near term prospects for this "promise."

Here's a key quote by Grossman:

Currently I have moved much closer to the idea of "genetic irrelevance," the idea that in the overwhelming majority of cases, our genes are of much less importance in determining our fate and that the environment in which we live and the lifestyle choices we make are of far greater importance.

Please note that I said this is true in the "overwhelming majority of cases," but it is not true all the time. About one in 20 people is born with an abnormal gene that will create a major problem that can affect life and be quite relevant, either from birth or at some point further down the line. Examples include cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that can manifest from birth for which we have been doing routine screening for decades and the BRCA-1 and BRCA-2 genes, which dramatically increase a woman's risk of breast and ovarian cancer later in life. But for nearly 95 percent of us, we come off of the assembly line of birth virtually perfect.

Illuminating stuff. Go exercise! It's important that the advocates of science and technology make it clear to the public that we are willing to be pessimistic about a technology's dividends when it looks rational to do so. Grossman's article reminds me of an excellent 2001 article by John Smart, "Performance Limitations on Natural and Engineered Biological Systems":

The more complex any life form becomes, the more it becomes a legacy/path dependent system, with many antagonistic pleiotropies (negative effects in other places and functions in the organism) whenever any further change is contemplated. It seems that evolutionary development, just like differentiation from a zygote or stem cell to a mature tissue, becomes increasingly terminally differentiated the more complex and specialized the organism. One extreme case of this kind of terminal differentiation, at the cellular level, is nerve cells in the human brain, which are so specialized, and the connections they support so complex, that they cannot even replace themselves, in general. Could they eventually learn to do so without disrupting the connectionist complexity that they create in the brain, after their development has stopped? Perhaps not. The more complex the system becomes, the less flexible it is. It gets progressively harder to make small changes in the genes that would improve system, and given how finely tuned so many system elements are, large changes are out of the question.

Because the reasons outlined by Grossman and Smart, I am more in the school that cybernetics (implants, brain-computer interfaces, wearable computing, etc.) will provide the most significant performance upgrades to humans in the nearer term (20-30 years). At first bio-transhumanism will be more of a side phenomenon than the central thrust of the transition. There will be much more effective and reliable means to make humans stronger and faster before we can make ourselves live longer and deeply exploit our own genetics.

Filed under: biology, futurism 12 Comments
11Jun/108

Michael Anissimov Essays at the Lifeboat Foundation

The Lifeboat Foundation website got a complete makeover not too long ago, and all my essays there were upgraded with new images to make them ever more interesting! I suggest you go on over and check some of them out. Many of them are adaptations of my best blog posts:

Existential risks:

Classifying Extinction Risks -- 2007

Futurism:

10 Futuristic Materials -- 2008
Brain-Computer Interfaces for Manipulating Dreams -- 2008
Top Ten Cybernetic Upgrades Everyone Will Want -- 2007 (one of my faves!)
Immortalist Utilitarianism -- 2004 (a classic early work!)
Top Ten Transhumanist Technologies -- 2007 (made the Digg frontpage!)

Nanotechnology

First-Stage Nanoproducts and Nanoweaponry -- 2006

Robotics/AI

What are the Benefits of Mind Uploading? -- 2009

7Jun/104

Shimizu Corporation Megaengineering Projects

This site has been making the rounds on the blogosphere, I just thought I'd link it because it's cool stuff. Even though this company has a big vision, it also has a lot of contemporary achievements and projects, including $14 billion annual sales. Patrick Millard's Formatting Gaia blog has a good overview of Shizmu's visionary projects.

In Japan, it is socially acceptable for even the largest firms to be inspired by radical futuristic visions. In the USA, it's acceptable, but mostly behind closed doors, or publicly in places like Silicon Valley. It's politically dicey in many places, because the party line is that true positive change can only be achieved by either 1) taxing corporations to pay for need X, or 2) deregulating corporations so they can produce enough wealth so that need X is eventually filled. However, more modern politicians (Obama) have come to realize that technology, not just political or social agitation, can produce lasting positive change. Meanwhile, many Democrat and Republican politico-bots fight it out forever on TV and in the blogosphere, accomplishing relatively little, while the true gains come from technological and scientific innovation.

Filed under: futurism 4 Comments
24May/103

Martine Rothblatt in Forbes Magazine

There is a story on Martine Rothblatt, a prominent transhumanist, in the most recent issue of Forbes magazine. It tells the story of how Martine transitioned from being a satellite company executive to a pharmaceutical executive to save her daughter from a rare disease.

Some of you may recall my liveblogging coverage from the 3rd annual Terasem Colloquium on the Law of Transbeman Persons and the 4th annual Terasem Colloquium on the Law of Futuristic Persons, which were hosted in Satellite Beach, Florida, by Martine and her wife Bina. These intimate gatherings gave me the opportunity to speak one-on-one with memorable characters such as Wendell Wallach, Marvin Minsky, and many others.

H/t to Robert Freitas for the link.

20May/107

Phil Bowermaster Responds to Annalee Newitz: “Five Arguments Against Four Arguments Against Immortaility”

Phil Bowermaster responds here. Me, I can appreciate the io9 post as a masterpiece of generalization from fictional evidence; including images, I count eleven specific appeals to fictional evidence. This appears to be an early form of co-processing, where content from an external device (in this case, poor television shows) heavily intertwines itself with the thinking processes of the writer, to the point where reality cannot be distinguished from fiction.

9Apr/1063

Forbes “Life in 2020” Articles

Forbes has recently published a package of articles on predictions for life in the year 2020, and their social media wing emailed me to publish the links, so here they are! 2010 is a good year to make predictions for 2015 and 2020. If you want to be a futurist in 2015 or 2020, start now with some predictions! Anyway, here is the blurb and links:

You will be healthier. Your technology will be more human. You will fight to keep your job. You will walk to work. There will be nowhere to hide. Your life is about to change.

Transportation in 2020
In 10 years, your commute will be short, cheap and, dare we say, fun.

The Classroom In 2020
The next decade will bring an end to school as we know it.

Your Choice In 2020
How big computing will make every action a transaction.

Your Computer In 2020
Traditional computers are disappearing; human beings themselves are becoming information augmented.

Your Home In 2020
Goodbye, McMansions. In 2020 we'll build for the triple bottom line: people, planet as well as profit.

Your Job In 2020
In 2020 you will fight to keep your job.

Your Diet In 2020
In 2020 you will finally start taking care of yourself.

Your Health In 2020
Passive patients will become empowered participants.

Making Whuffie
Social networks change the way we look at the world and introduce new economic incentives.

Filed under: futurism 63 Comments
26Jan/1014

Assorted Links 1/26/2010


John Robb on Homemade Microwave Weapons

James Hughes: Problems of Transhumanism: Liberal Democracy vs. Technocratic Absolutism
Technology Review: Defining an Algorithm for Inventing from Nature
New Study: Human Running Speeds of 35 to 40 mph May be Biologically Possible
NASA's Puffin: Will It Be the Personal Transport Vehicle of our SciFi Future?
Simon Conway Morris: Aliens are Likely to Look and Behave Like Us
Current TV's Max and Jason on Connecting Science and Culture
Patrick Millard: Open Sim Project
Nick Bostrom: Moral Uncertainty: Towards a Solution?
Humanity+ Conference in London in April
Wired: Removing Part of Skull Makes for Better Brain Scans
Scientific American: Time to Ban Production of Nuclear Weapons Material
Ray Kurzweil at SU/MIT/X Prize BCI Workshop (More from Singularity Hub)
Gary Kasparov on AI: The Chess Master and the Computer
Nanowerk: Simple DNA Nanomachine is Capable of Continuous Rotation
Video Gamers: Size of Brain Structures Predicts Success
Robots Climb Up the Wall (w/ Video)
Retail Meat Linked to Urinary Tract Infections: Strong Evidence
The Human Brain Uses a Grid to Represent Space
Scientists Identify Ecuador's Yasuní National Park as one of the Most Biodiverse Places on Earth
Face Recognition Ability Inherited Separately from IQ
Bill Gates' New Website
Researchers Discover Ebola's Deadly Secret
Study suggests theory for insect colonies as 'superorganisms'
Explained: the Shannon Limit
Wired: Never Mind the Singularity, Here's the Science
Utopian Pessimist Calls on Radical Tech to Save Economy
A Lawyer's View of the Risk of Black Hole Catastrophe at the LHC
Aubrey de Grey in Helsinki, Finland
Will the First Self-Replicating Machine Be Our Last Invention?

20Jan/1017

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.

19Jan/1051

Keith Norbury on Ray Kurzweil Response

Here's a comment from Keith Norbury on the Kurzweil response post that I agree with:

It looks as though Kurzweil and Anissimov are both quibbling. I had similar thoughts as Anissimov did when I scrolled through the predictions in The Age of Spiritual Machines. But I also thought, well, Kurzweil is just a little hasty in his enthusiasm. Yes, there's a danger in setting firm dates for predictions of technological progress. However, because he makes them, Kurzweil gets people's attention. Even when he is wrong on the exact date, he is still able to point to a trend that indicates he will be right soon enough (in most cases). So far, though, the dates have passed for the easier predictions. It gets harder going ahead.

Kurzweil's main point is that technology is improving exponentially not linearly. That's a difficult point to grasp. However, we still don't know if even exponential growth is enough to tackle some sticky problems, such as simulating human intelligence. Nobody knows where the goal posts are yet. Nor do we understand yet the principles involved in uploading a human mind to computer, never mind the engineering it would require. The answers might be just around the corner, or they might be a long way away. Time travel, for example, is possible under the laws of physics. However, the huge energies required pose a giant obstacle to making it a reality.

I'm now reading Kim Stanley Robinson's excellent Red Mars, which points out the difficulties in making predictions. It's speculative fiction but also hard science fiction. The trouble is, though, that the hard science in Red Mars is the science of 1993 when it was written. In the book, the voyage to Mars took nine months, as predicted using the technology that was proven in 1993. Since then, an ion propulsion system is well along the road to development that promises to shorten the trip to about 40 days -- when it happens. That certainly doesn't look like it will be by 2026, as in Red Mars. One could argue that Robinson wasn't being a futurist when he wrote Red Mars. However, at the time he was striving to imagine as accurately as he could, based on the knowledge available, what that future mission would look like. Unfortunately, he didn't imagine that humans would develop a better technology for getting to Mars, even though the principles of ion propulsion were already well known back in the 1990s.

My guess is that Robinson, in writing Red Mars, was thinking too linearly about technological progress and not in the exponential way that Kurzweil does. That's what sets Kurzweil apart from other intelligent people who speculate about the future.

I agree with Kurzweil that many important technological metrics are improving exponentially, and that his linear-thinking critics are incorrect. I have always argued that major change is likely in the relatively near future. I regard a Singularity at 2029 or earlier as definitely within the realm of possibility. I am a "Singularitarian" of the type that Kurzweil describes in his book. Much of my life is focused around the idea of a Singularity, similar but not the same as Kurzweil's idea of the Singularity. I object to Kurzweil's statements that MNT and nanorobots will certainly be a reality in the 2020s. I object to a lot of other things. I agree on the broad outlines of exponential change. I do not think Kurzweil is an "idiot", as Singularity Hub misleadingly claimed recently. I think Kurzweil is a genius and I applaud him for making predictions at all.

It is much easier to criticize than to make predictions, I admit that. I believe that Kurzweil's model is a good framework, and my model of the future is extremely similar to his relative to the mainstream. Still, the fine points are worth arguing. My main focus is on the points themselves. Perhaps I should have just listed the items and not even called them Kurzweil's predictions, so I could criticize them at will without in any way threatening his reputation. In any case, I don't think that Kurzweil's reputation is at risk here. As he pointed out, I just poked at 7 out of 108 of his predictions in the book. I apologize for the sensationalist title of my original post -- I didn't mean that ALL of Kurzweil's predictions for 2009 had failed, just "Here's a few failed predictions that I found on this specific web page and I agree with".

I'm sure that everyone is interested in seeing Kurzweil's point-by-point analysis of his predictions in The Age of Spiritual Machines. Considering the concerns raised by those seven predictions I mentioned, I think a thorough review of the book is in order, and I'm pleased that Kurzweil himself has taken up the task. I gave the original post a provocative title because I strongly believed that investigation would benefit the entire futurist community, and I hoped to start a conservation on it. In that respect, it appears to have succeeded.

Filed under: futurism, meta 51 Comments
19Jan/104

January 19, 2010 Response to Ray Kurzweil

I have written Ray a short initial response, which I pursued one or two lines of criticism but mostly admitted that he's right that 7 is a narrow selection of predictions and that if he is 102 for 108 then I would be very impressed. The key issue is how vague or precise these predictions were to start with, as Brian writes here.

Kurzweil requested that I withhold further judgment until he produces his point-by-point analysis of his 1996-1997 predictions, so I will be waiting on that before posting my full response. In truth, it's been a few years since I looked at The Age of Spiritual Machines, but I remember reading it several times in the 2000-2005 date range.

I think that Kurzweil is one of the best futurists out there, but here he is essentially claiming that his ability to predict the future is unparalleled. I think that such a claim deserves a lot of skepticism and verification before acceptance. Maybe he is right, though -- this issue is complex, and requires time to go through the whole thing. The reason why I focused on 7 predictions in my initial criticism is because I found them listed at another place on the Internet and addressing all 108 predictions would have been quite time-consuming. It could be that they are a highly non-representative sample.

Reflecting that, I have updated the title of my original post from "Kurzweil's Failed 2009 Predictions" to "7 of 108 of Ray Kurzweil's 1996-1997 Predictions for 2009 Which Seem Incorrect to Me".

Filed under: futurism 4 Comments
18Jan/1080

Ray Kurzweil Response to “Ray Kurzweil’s Failed 2009 Predictions”

Today, I received an email from Ray Kurzweil responding to my January 5th post titled "Ray Kurzweil's Failed 2009 Predictions", where I said that I found a list of seven of his "1999 predictions for 2009" that I thought were false. Below is the letter in its entirety. I have read the letter and am thinking about it. I will conduct further research on all the claims and produce a response with my new thoughts shortly.

-----

January 17, 2010

Dear Michael,

I want to respond to your Blog post "Reviewing Kurzweil Predictions from 1999 for 2009."

This starts out "Michael Anissimov notes that Ray Kurzweil had several predictions from 1999 for 2009 and those predictions are in general wrong."

You also write "Ray Kurzweil'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 Kurzweil's 1999 predictions for the year 2009 would fail. Now that 2009 is over, we can see that he was mostly correct."

Your review is biased, incorrect, and misleading in many different ways.

First of all, I did not make "several predictions” 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 "essentially correct" (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 "Kurzweil's predictions for 2009 are ridiculous, they will not come true until 2010 or 2011." 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) was "not just a little bit wrong, but wildly, laughably wrong." I wrote back that IBM'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 "wildly, laughably wrong?"

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 winner'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 Kapor's critique is not that "Kurzweil's prediction of a computer passing the Turing test in 2029 is ridiculous, it won't happen until 2033." 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 "essentially correct." 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 "Personal computers are available in a wide range of sizes and shapes, and are commonly embedded in clothing and jewelry." 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 "computers" should not be restricted to the current category we happen to call "personal computers." All of these devices --  iPods, smart phones, etc. are in fact sophisticated"computers." By a reasonable interpretation of the prediction and the current reality, it is correct, not "false."

There are indeed "computer displays that project images directly onto the eyes." 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 "three-dimensional chips are commonly used" 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.

"Translating Telephone technology" 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 "commonly used," not that it would be ubiquitous. I suppose we could argue how "common" 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.

"Warfare is dominated by unmanned intelligent airborne devices" is certainly true in Afghanistan. As Wired recently noted, "The unmanned air war ... has escalated under McChrystal's watch...." 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.

Best,
Ray Kurzweil

Filed under: futurism, meta 80 Comments
5Jan/10171

7 of 108 of Ray Kurzweil’s 1996-1997 Predictions for 2009 Which Seem Incorrect

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

Dear Michael,

I want to respond to your Blog post “Reviewing Kurzweil Predictions from 1999 for 2009.”

This starts out “Michael Anissimov notes that Ray Kurzweil had several predictions from 1999 for 2009 and those predictions are in general wrong.”

You also write “Ray Kurzweil’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 Kurzweil’s 1999 predictions for the year 2009 would fail. Now that 2009 is over, we can see that he was mostly correct.”

Your review is biased, incorrect, and misleading in many different ways.

First of all, I did not make “several predictions” 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 “essentially correct” (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 “Kurzweil’s predictions for 2009 are ridiculous, they will not come true until 2010 or 2011.” 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)” was “not just a little bit wrong, but wildly, laughably wrong.” I wrote back that IBM’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 “wildly, laughably wrong?”

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 winner’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 Kapor’s critique is not that “Kurzweil’s prediction of a computer passing the Turing test in 2029 is ridiculous, it won’t happen until 2033.” 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 “essentially correct.” 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 “Personal computers are available in a wide range of sizes and shapes, and are commonly embedded in clothing and jewelry…” 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 “computers” should not be restricted to the current category we happen to call “personal computers.” All of these devices – iPods, smart phones, etc. are in fact sophisticated “computers.” By a reasonable interpretation of the prediction and the current reality, it is correct, not “false.”

There are indeed “computer displays that project images directly onto the eyes.” 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 “three-dimensional chips are commonly used” 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.

“Translating Telephone technology” 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 “commonly used,” not that it would be ubiquitous. I suppose we could argue how “common” 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.

“Warfare is dominated by unmanned intelligent airborne devices” is certainly true in Afghanistan. As Wired recently noted, "The unmanned air war ... has escalated under McChrystal’s watch....” 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.

Best,
Ray Kurzweil

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