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Predicting the future; or, the burden of details

Posted by Christopher Shea  December 16, 2008 04:30 PM

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Ray Kurzweil: inventor, futurist

Ray Kurzweil, the noted inventor, founder of Kurzweil Technologies (based in Wellesley), and committed futurist has made some bold predictions over the years -- as those irrepressible futurists are wont to do.

What's his hit-to-miss ratio? Based on a list of technological gadgets that Kurzweil, in his 1999 book "The Age of Spiritual Machines," boldly proclaimed would arrive by the end of next year … well, let's just say some engineers had better get cracking.

First, the predictions that look pretty solid. Kurzweil said that individuals would primarily use portable computers (the laptop business seems not to be hurting), that rotating memories like hard drives and CD-ROMs would be on their way out (hello, solid-state drives!), and that books and magazines would routinely be read on book-size displays (Amazon's Kindle is sold out through January).

Then things get shakier. It was Eliezer Yudkowsky, writing on Overcoming Bias, the blog of the Future of Humanity Institute, at Oxford, who called attention to some of the misses. (Yudkowsky, in turn, was drawing on observations by an anonymous poster on the Web site of the Wisconsin-based Immortality Institute.)

Kurzweil opined 9 years ago that by the end of '09:

--We'll be wearing computerized glasses that let us simultaneously view virtual images and the world around us.
--The typical American will have at least a dozen computers on his body, in the form of credit cards, rings and brooches. They'll be networked, and they'll get us through security checkpoints, monitor our vital signs, and provide GPS-style directions.
--Blindness will be downgraded from disability to mere inconvenience, because of the proliferation of portable text-readers that will read aloud books, menus, and bus schedules.
--Phones will have built-in, instant-translation software, enabling effortless cross-cultural conversations (even if neither speaker knows a word of the other's language).
--Cars will guide themselves down the road. Humans will simply buckle up and kick back.

Now, it's true that's Kurzweil has helped create a hand-held text reader for the blind, launched with much fanfare earlier this year (and still in early-adoption phase). But as for the rest? Overoptimism aside, Yudkowsky says that Kurzweil gets suckered again and again by the "conjunction fallacy": He piles details onto his scenarios that makes them more concrete and, for the unwary, more persuasive -- but which also make them more unlikely.

Psychologists have long noted our susceptibility to the conjunction fallacy: In one noted 1982 experiment, test subjects were given two possible scenarios for the following year: First, "A Russian invasion of Poland, and a complete suspension of diplomatic relations between the USA and the Soviet Union." Second, "A complete suspension of diplomatic relations between the USA and the Soviet Union."

The subjects overwhelmingly chose Scenario #1, which has a certain narrative flair, as more likely. But Scenario #1 is by definition less likely than Scenario #2, because it incorporates the prediction made in Scenario #2 then goes ahead and adds a second one (a specific military invasion).

The lesson to futurists: Go ahead and predict a wearable computer, if you like, but restrain yourself from saying it will come in the form of a ring and will keep tabs on cholesterol levels. A keen awareness of the conjuction fallacy, Yudkowsky says, marks the "line of demarcation" between truly rigorous futurists and those trying to make a media splash. Of Kurzweil he says: "I don't think he's weighing every detail carefully."

The Kurzweil–National Federation of the Blind Reader: A prediction that came true, although its adoption is behind schedule
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3 comments so far...
  1. Here's a list of his predictions from Wiki:

    Posted by jc December 18, 08 02:43 PM
  1. Augmented reality is what he is talking about. I seem to remember a sony game that has a webcam attached to it. See Sony EyePet. I dunno what to say the 2nd. Bluetooth devices and phones qualify as computers or at least computing devices and a personal area network is certainly do-able; maybe people decided that it wasn't really necessary afterall. key fobs may be a simpler solution in some cases and you could use an android/iphone for gps stuff, though in japan you really can use your phone for just about anything. The Pentagon currently is or was testing such a translation device in Iraq and it is a trivial problem now to have voice recognition+language translation in a hand held device (although maybe not a $400 phone). The Grand DARPA challenge showed that it was doable to have automated cars but they're still a little ways off.

    Posted by THAN December 18, 08 10:00 PM
  1. It's only the end of 2008, not 2009. He's still got a whole year left.

    Also, this: http://www.trustedreviews.com/peripherals/news/2008/11/14/Vuzix-Widescreen-OLED-Video-Headsets-Land-In-UK/p1

    Posted by jammus December 22, 08 07:07 AM
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