Ray Kurzweil’s Myth of Progress

I have taken an optimistic view of progress on this blog, but it is possible to take any position to an extreme. Ray Kurzweil’s position on progress, as expressed in his 2005 book The Singularity is Near, is wild enough to seem almost a caricature.

He constantly asserts that nearly every kind of change is accelerating exponentially:

The key idea underlying the impending Singularity is that the pace of change of our human-created technology is accelerating and its powers are expanding at an exponential pace. Exponential growth is deceptive. It starts out almost imperceptibly and then explodes with unexpected fury— unexpected, that is, if one does not take care to follow its trajectory. (pp. 7-8)

We are now in the early stages of this transition. The acceleration of paradigm shift (the rate at which we change fundamental technical approaches) as well as the exponential growth of the capacity of information technology are both beginning to reach the “knee of the curve,” which is the stage at which an exponential trend becomes noticeable. Shortly after this stage, the trend quickly becomes explosive. Before the middle of this century, the growth rates of our technology— which will be indistinguishable from ourselves— will be so steep as to appear essentially vertical. From a strictly mathematical perspective, the growth rates will still be finite but so extreme that the changes they bring about will appear to rupture the fabric of human history. That, at least, will be the perspective of unenhanced biological humanity. (p. 9)

In other words, Kurzweil believes that the ends of the ages have come upon us, although in a new, secular way. However, he cannot say that we have reached the “explosive” point quite yet, because if that were true, everyone would notice. In order to explain the fact that people haven’t noticed it yet, he has to say that we are just about to reach that point. It should be noted that this was written 10 years ago, so it is pretty reasonable to say that it has already been falsified, since we still haven’t noticed any explosion.

He uses the “exponential” idea to make definite claims about how much progress is made or will be made in various periods of time, as for example here:

Most long-range forecasts of what is technically feasible in future time periods dramatically underestimate the power of future developments because they are based on what I call the “intuitive linear” view of history rather than the “historical exponential” view. My models show that we are doubling the paradigm-shift rate every decade, as I will discuss in the next chapter. Thus the twentieth century was gradually speeding up to today’s rate of progress; its achievements, therefore, were equivalent to about twenty years of progress at the rate in 2000. We’ll make another twenty years of progress in just fourteen years (by 2014), and then do the same again in only seven years. To express this another way, we won’t experience one hundred years of technological advance in the twenty-first century; we will witness on the order of twenty thousand years of progress (again, when measured by today’s rate of progress), or about one thousand times greater than what was achieved in the twentieth century. (p.11)

If this is not clear, he is claiming here that the amount of change in the world that was made between the year 1900 and the 2000 was the same as the amount of change between the year 2000 and the year 2014. It is possible for him to make this claim because he was writing in the year 2005 and expected impossible changes in the next 10 years. But if someone in the year 1900 were to use a time machine to travel to the year 2000 and then to the year 2014, there is simply no way they would claim that the two periods contained an equal amount of change. I’m not sure how one would mathematically formalize this but Kurzweil’s claim here would be a lot like saying that the difference between blue and pink is about the same as the difference between two shades of pink.

He is quite definite about what he expects to happen by various dates:

The current disadvantages of Web-based commerce (for example, limitations in the ability to directly interact with products and the frequent frustrations of interacting with inflexible menus and forms instead of human personnel) will gradually dissolve as the trends move robustly in favor of the electronic world. By the end of this decade, computers will disappear as distinct physical objects, with displays built in our eyeglasses, and electronics woven in our clothing, providing full-immersion visual virtual reality. Thus, “going to a Web site” will mean entering a virtual-reality environment— at least for the visual and auditory senses— where we can directly interact with products and people, both real and simulated. (pp. 104-105)

“By the end of this decade” refers to the year 2010.

The full-immersion visual-auditory virtual-reality environments, which will be ubiquitous during the second decade of this century, will hasten the trend toward people living and working wherever they wish. Once we have full-immersion virtual-reality environments incorporating all of the senses, which will be feasible by the late 2020s, there will be no reason to utilize real offices. Real estate will become virtual. (p. 105)

This is not yet completely disproved but there is not much more time for the “ubiquitous” virtual reality environments.

Returning to the limits of computation according to physics, the estimates above were expressed in terms of laptop-size computers because that is a familiar form factor today. By the second decade of this century, however, most computing will not be organized in such rectangular devices but will be highly distributed throughout the environment. Computing will be everywhere: in the walls, in our furniture, in our clothing, and in our bodies and brains. (p. 136)

No comment on this prediction is necessary. Along the same lines:

Early in the second decade of this century, the Web will provide full immersion visual-auditory virtual reality with images written directly to our retinas from our eyeglasses and lenses and very high-bandwidth wireless Internet access woven in our clothing. These capabilities will not be restricted just to the privileged. Just like cell phones, by the time they work well they will be everywhere. (p. 472)

Apart from particular predictions, there are obvious general problems with his claims about exponentially accelerating change. A day lasts 24 hours, and that isn’t going to change. It takes a human being 18 years (or more, depending on how you define it) to grow to adulthood, and that isn’t going to change.  Ray apparently believes that such things make no difference:

Each example of information technology starts out with early-adoption versions that do not work very well and that are unaffordable except by the elite. Subsequently the technology works a bit better and becomes merely expensive. Then it works quite well and becomes inexpensive. Finally it works extremely well and is almost free. The cell phone, for example, is somewhere between these last two stages. Consider that a decade ago if a character in a movie took out a portable telephone, this was an indication that this person must be very wealthy, powerful, or both. Yet there are societies around the world in which the majority of the population were farming with their hands two decades ago and now have thriving information-based economies with widespread use of cell phones (for example, Asian societies, including rural areas of China). This lag from very expensive early adopters to very inexpensive, ubiquitous adoption now takes about a decade. But in keeping with the doubling of the paradigm-shift rate each decade, this lag will be only five years a decade from now. In twenty years, the lag will be only two to three years. (p. 469)

In the first place, his description of what happened with cell phones is not historically accurate. The use of cell phones in the USA in 1995 was indeed rare, but it was already quite a bit more common in Europe, and certainly did not indicate that someone must be wealthy or powerful (e.g. in 1996 one of my many European acquaintances who possessed cell phones was a teen-age girl from a broken family.) In general he shortens various actual time frames in this way in order to cause the appearance of greater acceleration; the actual process of cell phone adoption would be better assigned a 20 year period. It is also a fallacy to confuse movement which people see as being within a single technology, e.g. from cell phones in general to smart phones, with the adoption of a new technology. And it doesn’t matter here whether or not there is really a new technology or not; what matters is whether people see it as adopting something new, because people are much more unwilling to adopt a new technology than to upgrade a presently used one. As one example, Ray was right to predict the coming of virtual reality technologies, even though his time frame was wrong, and these are currently being developed. But according to him, their wide-spread adoption should take less than five years, and it is already obvious that this will turn out to be entirely false.

Ray’s book is hundreds of pages long, and one could easily write an entire book in refutation. In addition to being wrong in his specific expectations, there are many religious, philosophical, and moral issues that are raised by many of his proposals, which I have not discussed. However, it should be noted that for the most part his predictions are probably physically possible, although exaggerated, and may actually happen sooner or later, with the exception of some of the more extreme claims. But I suspect that there is more going on than simply exaggerating and predicting that various technologies will arrive sooner than they actually will.

Rather, it seems that Ray’s motives are quasi-religious; as I stated above, he believes that the end of the ages is upon us. He discusses this comparison himself:

George Gilder has described my scientific and philosophical views as “a substitute vision for those who have lost faith in the traditional object of religious belief.” Gilder’s statement is understandable, as there are at least apparent similarities between anticipation of the Singularity and anticipation of the transformations articulated by traditional religions. But I did not come to my perspective as a result of searching for an alternative to customary faith. The origin of my quest to understand technology trends was practical: an attempt to time my inventions and to make optimal tactical decisions in launching technology enterprises. Over time this modeling of technology took on a life of its own and led me to formulate a theory of technology evolution. It was not a huge leap from there to reflect on the impact of these crucial changes on social and cultural institutions and on my own life. So, while being a Singularitarian is not a matter of faith but one of understanding, pondering the scientific trends I’ve discussed in this book inescapably engenders new perspectives on the issues that traditional religions have attempted to address: the nature of mortality and immortality, the purpose of our lives, and intelligence in the universe. (p. 370)

But the fact that someone recognizes the possibility of undue influences upon his beliefs and claims to be free of them does not mean that he is actually free of them. Ray Kurzweil is currently 67 years old. He will likely die within 25 years. It is perfectly clear that one of his main preoccupations is how to prevent this from happening:

Biotechnology will extend biology and correct its obvious flaws. The overlapping revolution of nanotechnology will enable us to expand beyond the severe limitations of biology. As Terry Grossman and I articulated in Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever, we are rapidly gaining the knowledge and the tools to indefinitely maintain and extend the “house” each of us calls his body and brain. Unfortunately the vast majority of our baby-boomer peers are unaware of the fact that they do not have to suffer and die in the “normal” course of life, as prior generations have done— if they take aggressive action, action that goes beyond the usual notion of a basically healthy lifestyle. (p. 323)

And this is not merely some vague hope, but a belief that he acts upon:

I have been very aggressive about reprogramming my biochemistry. I take 250 supplements (pills) a day and receive a half-dozen intravenous therapies each week (basically nutritional supplements delivered directly into my bloodstream, thereby bypassing my GI tract). As a result, the metabolic reactions in my body are completely different than they would otherwise be. Approaching this as an engineer, I measure dozens of levels of nutrients (such as vitamins, minerals, and fats), hormones, and metabolic by-products in my blood and other body samples (such as hair and saliva). Overall, my levels are where I want them to be, although I continually fine-tune my program based on the research that I conduct with Grossman. Although my program may seem extreme, it is actually conservative— and optimal (based on my current knowledge). Grossman and I have extensively researched each of the several hundred therapies that I use for safety and efficacy. I stay away from ideas that are unproven or appear to be risky (the use of human-growth hormone, for example). (pp. 211-212)

In other words, it is very likely that Kurzweil’s predictions are as ridiculous as they are because he insists on a time frame to his “Singularity” that will allow him personally to avoid death. It won’t help him, for example, if all his predictions come to pass, but everything happens after he is dead.

But it won’t work, Ray. You are going to die.


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