Shonky futurism: debunking Kurzweil

Paul Raven @ 30-11-2010

This one should set the transhumanist blogosphere alight for a week or so; IEEE Spectrum has an article that carefully picks apart the futurist predictions of Ray Kurzweil, prophet of the Technological Singularity. In summary: the best way to make successful predictions is to couch them vaguely enough that you can argue for their veracity after the point [via SlashDot].

Therein lie the frustrations of Kurzweil’s brand of tech punditry. On close examination, his clearest and most successful predictions often lack originality or profundity. And most of his predictions come with so many loopholes that they border on the unfalsifiable. Yet he continues to be taken seriously enough as an oracle of technology to command very impressive speaker fees at pricey conferences, to author best-selling books, and to have cofounded Singularity University, where executives and others are paying quite handsomely to learn how to plan for the not-too-distant day when those disappearing computers will make humans both obsolete and immortal.

I have to admit to having a soft spot for Kurzweil and his geek-Barnum schtick, but as time has gone by (and with thanks to the readership of this very blog, who are very good at making me question my assumptions and reassess my ideas) I’ve increasingly seen him as a shrewd businessman rather than a visionary prophet.

That said, I think there’s a social value in his popularisation of transhumanist tropes – it takes real charisma to sell ideas that speculative to folk enmired in the corporatist mindset, and I think he reaches audiences who are resistant to the sort of speculative thinking that informs good science fiction. And as to his exorbitant speaking fees, well, that’s the marketplace at work. Can’t blame the guy for taking the money if it’s available, can you? After all, those diet supplements probably cost a fair bit… ;)

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7 Responses to “Shonky futurism: debunking Kurzweil”

  1. Charlie Stross says:

    I *don’t* have any time for Kurzweil — I was on the Extropians mailing list in the early 90s, and I know where he got those memes from!

    He’s an amazingly good self-publicist, but I don’t think he’s the original thinker so many people mistake him for.

  2. Sterling Camden says:

    The line between prophet and shyster is only imaginary.

  3. Chad says:

    It is impossible to accurately predict anything in detail, so any prediction is always going to be vague.

  4. Nader says:

    Still, he stuck his neck out on his list of predictions for 2009 in The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999).
    As you might expect, he proved to be wide off the mark. You can check out my assessment of his predictions here:
    http://ttapress.com/fix/features/looking-back/
    Incidentally, while Kurzweil didn’t admit he was wrong, he did pen a piece in December 2009 in which he pushed the dates of his predictions for things like self-driving cars and VR from 2009 to the 2020s. In short, the expectations are the same, but he seems to allow they’re a bit later in coming. (You can find the piece here: http://www.nydailynews.com/opinions/2009/12/13/2009-12-13_top_futurist_ray_kurzweil_predicts_how_technology_will_change_humanity_by_2020.html)

  5. Nader says:
  6. jt says:

    Kurzweil’s no prophet, but there’s a lot of ground to cover between prophet and shrewd businessman.

    I think his strength, as hinted in the post, is to get people thinking about what could be coming. I tell people that we might be uploading our brains into robot bodies, etc. and they call me crazy, but when I explain why Kurzweil thinks it’ll happen, they start to get it.

  7. jon says:

    It’s good to be very wary of anyone claiming to be able to predict the future. Several people have got one or two things right over the years (and are usually lauded as visionaries for the coincidences). But almost no-one, in fact I’d go so far as to say no-one at all, has ever given us an accurate all-round prediction of what life would be like even a decade or two into the future.

    Futurists by nature tend to be very giggly and excitable about their favorite topic, and thus see changes happening far more rapidly than they ever would on an actual timeline. Not saying it isn’t fun to try though, and I’ll continue to read whatever they have to say even if I have trouble thinking of them as anything other than SF writers.

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