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… 😉