Ray Kurzweil is famous for his predictions about the future, especially about the development of AI. It’s estimated he’s been right about 86 percent of the time. Some of his ‘correct predictions’ include the Internet and an unbeatable chess-playing computer for the 1990s, as well as handheld computers (smartphones) and wearable tech like iPods for the 2000s.
How Does Kurzweil Make His Predictions about the Future?
Ray Kurzweil uses the law of accelerating returns. The idea is that technology advances exponentially because every advance helps fuel the next one.
For example, in the realm of computers, there is Moore’s Law—which says that the number of transistors on a computer chip (and thus the chip’s power) doubles roughly every two years because the size of the transistor halves. Such trends cause exponential growth, and if this growth curve is followed, how powerful computers will soon be can be figured out, and thus predictions made of what they will soon do.
This is a transcript from the video series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Kurzweil’s Predictions of the Future
According to Kurzweil, a prominent transhumanist and author of The Singularity Is Near, the development of artificial intelligence is inevitable and right around the corner. He says computers will be routinely passing the Turing test by 2029. In that same decade, nanobots will be able to cure practically any disease and heal any wound, including those in the brain.
Nanobots will also spontaneously create food by simply reorganizing existing matter. By the 2030s, advancing technology will enable the understanding of the workings of the human brain to such a degree that it will be possible to upload someone’s neural structure onto a computer or into a robotic body.
Kurzweil hopes to live this long, so he can upload himself to a computer and thus, in his view, live forever.
Kurzweil’s predictions founded what’s called ‘the transhumanist movement’. According to Kurzweil, 2045 will ring in the singularity. Computing power will be so great that it will be impossible for ordinary humans (not augmented by technology) to keep up, and augmentation will be so common that the line between human and machine will be blurred.
Learn more about Doctor Who and time travel paradoxes.
Can Kurzweil’s Predictions Be Trusted?
Objections to Kurzweil’s theory are abundant. It’s said he is right around 86 percent of the time. For one thing, he said that about himself. But kind of like Nostradamus, his predictions are open to interpretation, and many predictions he says are hits, most consider misses, like his prediction of ubiquitous driverless cars by 2009.
Indeed, Kurzweil is notorious for not admitting when he’s wrong. His idea that transistors will reach their limits around 2045, but according to the International Technology Roadmap for Semiconductors, that will actually happen in 2021. Of course, he may have meant that the next supposed development—stacking transistors 3-dimensionally—will reach its limit by 2045. But that’s supposed to reach its limit in 2024. He might have also meant ‘the next hypothetical development’.
But defending his predictions this way helps prove the previous point. When his predictions aren’t wrong, it’s almost always because they are vague. And his predictions that are hits are not as remarkable as they seem. He predicted the rapid expansion of the Internet in 1990, but aspects of the Internet had been around for decades and other futurists had already made similar predictions. Indeed, AOL and CompuServe were already selling access to the Internet at that time.
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Complexity Brakes that Force Us to Reevaluate
Giant advances in software engineering, cognitive science, and neuroscience (just to name a few) are also required, and those fields don’t advance exponentially. They require insight and breakthroughs, and can even hit what Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen called a ‘complexity brake’: “The more we learn, the more we realize there is more to know, and the more we have to go back and revise our earlier understandings.”
Anyone familiar with the history of science knows that scientific progress is not even close to a straight line, much less an exponential curve upward.
Indeed, although the notion of being able to upload oneself into a computer before one dies fuels most of Kurzweil’s enthusiasm for AI, AI might not even make it possible.
To borrow an analogy from computational neuroscientist Nicolas Rougier, early attempts at flight that copied birds failed miserably. People had to come up with new unique designs. In the same way, the artificially intelligent machines that are built may be so different from humans that there may be no way to transfer information from one to the other. So perhaps the very principle of brain-uploading is just pseudoscience.
Learn more about Arrival—aliens and radical translation.
Making Accurate Predictions Is Harder than It Looks
Indeed, Kurzweil himself dabbles in pseudoscience. The so-called ‘immortality cocktail’ of supplements he takes in an attempt to live long enough to see the singularity has not been verified scientifically and is based primarily on the debunked notion that mega-dosing vitamins promote health. He has even advocated for bioidentical hormone replacement, a baseless ‘alternative medicine’ therapy that is known not to work.
In reality, unless human predictions about the future are based on physical laws—like astrophysicists use laws of planetary motion to predict eclipses—human predictions about the future are usually inaccurate.
Common Questions about Ray Kurzweil’s Predictions about the Future
Ray Kurzweil uses something called the law of accelerating returns for making predictions about the future. The idea is that technology advances exponentially because every advance helps fuel the next one.
One reason might be that his predictions about the future are vague. So if they are wrong they could just be interpreted differently. And his predictions that are hits are not as remarkable as they seem.
Not all growth in science and technology is exponential. Sometimes a breakthrough means going back and revising earlier understandings. Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen calls this a ‘complexity brake‘.