My Reply to Ray Kurzweil


Just before Christmas, inventor Ray Kurzweil replied to my recent feature article for IEEE Spectrum, which looked skeptically at his track record as a futurist. Please do read Kurzweil’s rebuttal.

Kurzweil comes closest to showing me in error by pointing out that the published article used the word “foolproof” inappropriately, but as a note from the magazine’s editors acknowledges, that was not my doing:

Editor’s comment, 30 December 2010: Mr. Kurzweil’s objection to John Rennie’s critique begins with, and makes much of, the use of the word “foolproof.” In fact, that word was never used by Mr. Rennie. In an editing error, the word “foolproof” was inserted into a sentence in Mr. Rennie’s article, after Mr. Rennie had reviewed the editing. IEEE Spectrum regrets this lapse.

My response to Kurzweil’s rebuttal is as follows :

Ray Kurzweil was kind to take the time to reply to my article, though his responses, I think, show the gulf between his perceptions of what he is saying and how the rest of the world understands him. No doubt he sees that as our failure, not his.

According to his newly released “How My Predictions are Faring” document, since Kurzweil wrote to Michael Anissimov last January, his count of the number of predictions he made has increased from 108 to 147, and his own scoring of the predictions as “correct” or “essentially correct” has dropped from 94.5 percent to 86 percent. Perhaps he and I are seeing more eye to eye all the time.

IEEE Spectrum’s editors have been kind enough to acknowledge that the unfortunate word “foolproof” found its way into my article only after I had signed off on it. Whatever other inaccuracies, misquotes, misunderstandings and made-up factoids Kurzweil thinks he sees in my article, he has not specified them. Meanwhile, I stand by my statements and invite readers to follow the links to video of his TED talk and to Anissimov’s Accelerating Futures web site—just some of the many sources I consulted—to judge for themselves.

Putting aside the word “foolproof,” I assume Kurzweil is comfortable with my description of automated speech translation as widespread and real-time? Here are Kurzweil’s relevant predictions for 2009 in The Age of Spiritual Machines: “Listening machines can also translate what is being said into another language in real time, so they are commonly used by hearing people as well” and “Translating Telephone technology (where you speak in English and your friend hears you in Japanese, and vice versa) is commonly used for many language pairs.” The technology exists, but do readers feel that in their experience, this description is sufficiently accurate to count as “essentially correct” in Kurzweil’s scoring?

Kurzweil is simply not a reliable judge of his own prophecies. For example, in his “How My Predictions Are Faring” document (which he posted to the site after my article appeared), he hails as “correct” his prediction about “The Computer Itself” that three-dimensional chips will be common by 2009, and he cites as proof the popularity of vertical stacking architectures in ubiquitous MEMS and CMOS chips. But those are image sensors, not microprocessors, which seems like a rather generous interpretation of what he could have meant by “computer.” He also boasts that chips with more sophisticated 3-D designs, better suited for microprocessors and memory, are expected to be 6 percent of the semiconductor market… by 2015. This is his idea of a validation?

Or this: “There is a growing perception that the primary disabilities of blindness, deafness, and physical impairment do not impart handicaps. Disabled persons routinely describe their disabilities as mere inconveniences.” Kurzweil deems that prediction “correct,” too. Would disabled audiences who heard that statement in 1999 have imagined the current world as the fulfillment of that promise?

Kurzweil waves away my review by saying that I cherrypick predictions rather than evaluating all of them. But as I noted, the problem with weighing Kurzweil’s record is that so many of his predictions are so open to interpretation that any scoring is debatable. Does the existence of a phone app prove a technology is in wide use? Do iPhones count as jewelry? Do they count as clothing? If a service becomes available in late December 2010, is that a hit or a miss? How about if it comes out two years from now? How about five years from now—on a 10-year prediction?

The specific predictions in question aren’t obscure ones. Kurzweil’s prediction about the rise of networked computing in everyday life is one of the standard proofs of his prophetic abilities mentioned in his introductions and press materials. (It’s the first one he mentions in “How My Predictions Are Faring.”) My point was that his claim looks less impressive if one looks at all the others who were implicitly making the same extrapolation yet who never get the same credit. Kurzweil’s reliance on his law of accelerating returns instead of “intuition” in this regard is a distinction without a difference.

Similarly, I continue to be baffled by Kurzweil’s statement about disappearing computers. He is wrong: I am more than happy to recognize the microprocessors embedded in objects as computers, and I said as much in the article. So why did he say in 2005 that by 2010, computers would disappear? Microprocessors were already commonly embedded in other devices. Kurzweil’s statement meant only that computers of all types would continue to get more powerful rapidly—which I called insipid. I stand by that description, too.

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27 Responses to My Reply to Ray Kurzweil

  1. Of course, when it really gets interesting is 10, 20, 30 years from now. If Kurzweil is right and technology is feeding on itself exponentially, the dates you mention don’t matter much. But if he is wrong, his predictions will diverge ever further from reality.

    I know IEEE isn’t the place for it, but it would be nice to see an analysis of transhumanism as an ideology / religion, rather than a scientific hypothesis. You’d be amazed how ardent its adherents can be.

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  2. Thomas says:

    It strikes me that the author has perhaps just the tiniest chip on his shoulder… It would serve most readers well to read Kurzweil’s initial rebuttal to Rennie’s previous article – the rebuttal is here:

    It seems that the author really hasn’t paid much attention to the points raised in Kurzweil’s rebuttal as he simply repeats a lot of the complaints he mentioned in his original article:

    There also appears to be an abundant lack of research conducted before writing this article – as quite a few of the technologies whose absence the author bemoans do, in fact, exist:

    “Would disabled audiences who heard that statement [that various physical or sensory handicaps are deemed as mere inconveniences] in 1999 have imagined the current world as the fulfillment of that promise?”
    Surely the author would agree, however, that these technologies are rapidly advancing and becoming widespread?

    Such as bionic limbs: or restoration of sight through artificial – – or organic means? – And of course cochlear implants continue their ever-increasing refinement – and they have been around for years!!

    There are other ironically embarrassing uses of rhetoric in this article – “Do iPhones count as jewelry?” Err… well, it depends on how much money you have –

    The author also criticises the law of accelerating returns – which seems strange, since it is so easily demonstrable when one looks at the history of technological advance, and although perhaps more of a hypothesis than a law, is remarkably consistent.

    Although at first glance this article may seem quite sound, it pays to do one’s research to the full. I happen to rather like Ray Kurzweil and agree with a lot of his ambitions – but the fact that an individual has a sunny disposition towards a rather outlandish movement does not in any way diminish the factual framework upon which that movement is built – the author would do well to remember this.

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    • John Rennie says:

      Kurzweil and I may both simply be reiterating our points. It’s certainly the case that neither of us seems on the verge of convincing the other.

      But in fact I have read Kurzweil’s letter carefully, and his “How My Predictions Are Faring” document in which he further defends his predictions, and I don’t see how you think I haven’t. Where do I seem to be denying the existence of technologies? My article and my reply both acknowledged that many of the technologies said would be commonplace exist; what I said was that they do not seem to be as widespread as Kurzweil insists. In many cases, he takes a self-servingly rosy view of their deployment. For example, technologies are surely improving the lives of the disabled, but how many blind, deaf or seriously physically impaired people do you think would describe their disabilities as “mere inconveniences”? Kurzweil’s arrogance on this point borders on the offensive.

      My asking “Do iPhones count as jewelry?” wasn’t rhetorical. If you don’t count smartphones as jewelry, Kurzweil’s prediction that many of us would be wearing computers as jewelry by now seems less confirmed. And I’ll repeat what I said in my article: I don’t have a problem with that definition, but it isn’t one that many people who read Kurzweil’s prediction when he made it would have assumed.

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  3. Dean says:

    It matters less that Kurzweil makes chronologically correct predictions and more that we are on the same track with the predictions he makes.

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  4. Michael says:

    John Rennie, I obviously don’t know you, but you come across as a jealous school boy!

    I think you wrote an absurd article to begin with and now have the nerve to continue arguing with one of the geniuses of our generation.

    I don’t understand why the IEEE would even print such a silly, childish article in the first place.

    Do you truly think that when predicting the future you will get every detail correct? I don’t and find Ray’s predictions to be incredibly accurate when you look at the broader points of this work.


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    • John Rennie says:

      Michael, I appreciate that you don’t think I’m worthy to contest the words of Ray Kurzweil. And I hate to be the one to break this to you, but you should know: standing up for him will not make Ray love you back.

      Meanwhile, if you would like to contest specific arguments in my article, please go ahead.

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      • Seth says:

        I have to agree with John here, just saying that Kurzweil is a “genius of our generation” is not an argument and frankly I think everyone is getting tired of dogmatic BS.. that’s why we are talking about SCIENCE and TECH not religion.

        We should be encouraged to question authority figures and keep people honest to their statements and hold accountability where it is due. He is not a prophet. We need to stop treating him as though he is. And just because he’s intelligent in many ways and has had some great ideas about what MIGHT happen in the future (and often times is correct – but not always)

        Keeping people honest is admirable, not “childish”. I’m not sure what is going through Michael’s head…?

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  5. So, you have discovered that Ray Kurzweil is not God. Congratulations!

    In all forms of forecasting there are inherent uncertainties.

    If the National Weather Service were required to be 100% correct all of the time then their forecasts would be so short-term as to be essentially valueless.

    There is genuine value (for many of us) in knowing what possibly could come to pass, even though fate sometimes chooses another path for the most prosaic of reasons.

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    • John Rennie says:

      Where did I ask for Kurzweil to be 100% accurate? Or to hit any other arbitrary standard of accuracy? What I questioned was whether he deserves the credit he gives himself for predicting accurately.

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  6. APM says:

    I think arguments over whether phones count as jewellery or if computers have disappeared are detracting from taking a step back and analysing Rays philosophy as a whole.

    Is technological development accelerating that will lead to an AI singularity in the foreseeable future?
    I wish I knew…

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  7. Pingback: Kurzweil, the Singularity and His Futurism | Retort

  8. Branimir Iliev says:

    “…the gulf between his perceptions of what he is saying and how the rest of the world understands him.”

    No, there is no “gulf” and you don’t speak for “the rest of the world” and you could be more persuasive if you kept this personal conceit of yours, well, to yourself. Frankly, I despise this sort of arrogance. I don’t speak for the rest of the world but neither do I pretend to whereas by just hearing the tenor of some of your rhetoric I get that sense. For instance, in the next line you go on to say that he “sees that as our failure, not his.” Again, who is “our”? I think you mean “your/my” but you’re apparently too self-involved as the Speaker of Planet Earth in your ongoing fantasy to see past that. Speaking of gulfs, the only “gulf” here is the one you are creating in your mind between what Kurzweil is saying and what you think he is saying. Yes, a piece of writing can have multiple interpretations. I’m sure he understands that what is ‘jewelry’ to a teenager may be alien hardware to his grandpa. On a final note on this beaten horse, I would say that you are fine to think whatever you think but don’t pretend to speak for me or for society in general…it’s annoying, to say the least, pretentious, and flat-out wrong.

    Moving on… Your ‘rebuttal’ actually doesn’t do a good enough job of rebutting anything of import because you are primarily nit-picking Kurzweil’s words out of context. The crux of his message is the exponential growth of information technologies and now since nearly all technologies are becoming translated into one form or another of ‘information technologies’ there is really little to pick at. (E.g. engineering, medicine, research sciences, etc.) Not so much whether “computers” actually “dissappear” in the literal sense, rather their continued miniaturization and implementation into the most casual and everyday of things like clothing, accessories, etc. I for one, as in ‘speaking for myself’, do see more and more of this happening. In 2005, not many of our smaller accessories were computerized or at least as a ‘widespread phenomenon’ type of trend; now so many are (ipods in clothing, smart watches, in running shoes, and so on). Also, people do display their smart phones, or ‘smart’ accessories in a way just like jewelry. Young people in college compare them, show them off, play with them in public places all the time so people can see…

    Also, in your rebuttal you try to paint Kurzweil’s predictions as “insipid” or “obvious” or maybe predictable(?). For one, he isn’t trying to give the exact number of calculations per second that an IBM chip will be doing when it comes out in June 9th of 2014. That’s not really what makes them interesting. Neither is whether something will be ‘jewelry’ in the traditional sense of the word. He is describing his vision of the future based upon his analysis of past and current technological trends. If you want to fail him for not being specific enough for you, well, fine. I think his vision is interesting and a complex alternative to the usual religious or pseudo-science or Hollywood ‘Evil Aliens’ sci-fi themes/mumbo-jumbo humans are served daily. It’s tech-savvy, bold, humanistic and optimistic, oft-misunderstood but refreshing and different to the usual insipid, yes favorite word of yours, cliched offerings we are given, like “Son, the world will look like it always has.” You don’t agree, fine, but a battle of hair-splitting semantics doesn’t really diminish Kurzweil’s vision. I think, you are just talking past each other at this point.

    Kurzweil can wax poetic with his message at times using allusive language like “spiritual”/ “godlike” / “reincarnate”. For me at least, it’s understandable- the loss of his father, the specter of death, the bad aftertaste of its contemplation and the desire to conquer this ‘finality’ perhaps through technology, say, as opposed to mythology. But beyond that drama, he spices up an otherwise inaccessible subject that is usually perceived as boring by the general public. I think that adds flavor to his techno-prognostications unless you prefer yours extra-dry and dull. To me, imagining machines that have spiritual depth and emotional intelligence is fascinating and possible when you consider the analytical groundwork he lays for such predictions. Again don’t take some of his words too literally like “dissappear”. Even a word like “widespread” can be true or false depending on the demographic you look at. Suppose some ipod shuffle think that looks like a piece of “jewelry” is cool for girls but maybe the 55-65 segment doesn’t think much of it? How “widespread” is it? Depends on which level of the bird’s eye view, I would think.

    I also get the sense that you think that he is ‘patting himself on the back’ or giving himself too much credit. I think he is a confident yet humble man. He never tries to score the last point in the interviews and confrontations he’s had with people who disagree with him. I’ve noticed that he just kind of says, “ok we’ll see”, of course not in so many words. He shrugs off criticism sometimes because I think he is genuinely confident; it’s not an act for him. Sometimes though I can see how that can rub some people like you the wrong way and be perceived as patronizing or self-congratulatory. But I don’t think that’s the case. He is just confident about his vision and will defend it, especially if it’s being misrepresented, but his track record speaks for itself and semantics wars might be beside the point.

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    • John Rennie says:

      There, there. I’m sure you feel much better getting that out of your system.

      Unfortunately, your defenses of Kurzweil just tend to validate my point. He very expressly does want to be taken as exactly right in making his predictions. It’s a point he reiterates again and again. It’s why he meticulously (and over-generously, in my opinion) scored his own predictions. His whole methodology is based on making exact projections about how fast various technologies will advance. And when he is confronted with failures of those predictions, he is quick to hide behind the precise wording of what he wrote. So let’s not pretend he doesn’t want to be taken literally.

      Kurzweil succeeds for two reasons. First, he is genuinely correct in many of his predictions (a fact I’ve never contested because, honestly, most of those predictions aren’t too surprising or outlandish, and Kurzweil is a very smart guy). Second, when Kurzweil is wrong, he has throngs of people like yourself who are happy to make excuses for him because they like the vision of the future he paints. I’m saying that futurism ought to be accountable for what it says. Otherwise, even if it’s entertaining and inspiring, it’s intellectually hollow.

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  9. Branimir Iliev says:

    “There, there. I’m sure you feel much better getting that out of your system.”

    Ah, got it.
    So, first, congrats for the nice rationalization and confirmation of your arrogance. I think, if you recall, the original issue was you presuming to speak for the world – the height of conceited, delusional thinking… But now that my psychology is already being figured out by Mr. Rennie, we can all rest easy about that other thing because the attention is on me now. Wow, yeah, good one. I didn’t see that coming. I mean I haven’t seen that since, I don’t know, fourth grade?

    You know what’s truly amusing though? That,’ there, there’ and mostly nowhere, you ended up writing two meandering pieces on how you think Kurzweil’s predictions are not entirely accurate because you don’t entirely agree on the definitions. These pieces went nowhere really important with their ‘challenges’ – nit-picking the semantics of words – failing to undermine his main thesis, and they were essay length to boot! So I’m sure you know about getting ‘things out of your system’. I mean talk about aimless pontificating, because that has to be your forte in life.

    Speaking of ‘validating points’, did you notice you just kind of repeated what you already think? Now isn’t that silly? Yes, I think I know that he wants to be right about his predictions; doesn’t that go without saying? Where did I say that he doesn’t want this? My point was that he writes figuratively sometimes about things like ‘reincarnation’ and ‘god’. My other point was that the accuracy of a proposition like ‘widespread’ depends maybe on demographics/context. That was a suggestion. I don’t presume to say this is exactly what Kurzweil is saying though maybe he keeps this in mind. I think he even has categories of ‘correct’ like ‘essentially correct’ or ‘mostly’ or what not. Does this sound like a man who wants an exact definition of ‘jewelry’ with respect to ishuffles and so forth?

    He wants to be taken literally as in the meaning of the overall prediction or the vision of the prediction, so to speak. If he didn’t settle on the particular Webster’s definition of ‘jewelry’ maybe it’s because the meaning of words can change and ‘jewelry’ can be ‘computer gadgets’ for a teen and a ‘gold bracelet’ for grandma. Literal or figurative, words need context and he usually provides one.

    I notice in your last paragraph you keep playing that same broken record, simultaneously giving him a backhanded compliment about how he is ‘right’ about so many of his predictions and what a ‘smart’ guy he is, but oh yeah, at the same time guys, wink wink, they’re too obvious to be what, truly prophetic? “Obvious’. Of course. I think I got your message. Which I addressed in my original post about ‘specificity’ – how specific would you like him to get? Like to look at his crystal ball and tell you exactly when the next cool smartphone app will come out? I made this point already – if that’s all you got, then I’m sorry but it’s weak…

    Oh, and if he is wrong then he is. He isn’t my father and I could care less. I like that his vision is fresh and interesting but when he’s wrong, he is wrong and I think he admits that too. I don’t make excuses for him – do I need to? Is the man on trial? I just don’t like this presumption of yours to say that there is a gulf between what he thinks and what ‘the world’ thinks because I am part of the world and I happen to agree with a good number of the things he proposes about the future. As do many others. Now this doesn’t make the predictions right but it does refute your point that there is said gulf between him and ‘the rest of us’. Also, he is not as defensive as you paint him to be but to each their own I suppose.

    Fine, cast me as one of the sycophants in his throng of ‘fans’ (although, doesn’t that mean that he is popular and the gulf is more of a ‘stream’ or a narrow dry creek?). I mean this must surely nullify my arguments. Look on the even brighter side though: since I’m is so wrong and Kurzweil is so obvious, you can just go ahead and bask in self-satisfaction, pat yourself on the back, brag to your friends about it, and say that Ray Kurzweil loves the curvature of his own shadow and his predictions are so obvious you could have made them…uh, if you felt like it, (cough, cough). Maybe a third article is in order now? Here‘s one possible title: “Why Kurzweil is so wrong and I’m so right and, seriously guys, I’m not patting myself on the back – he is!”

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    • John Rennie says:

      Uh huh. I wrote, “There, there,” because your first message seemed a bit excessive and intemperate; your second message has done nothing to alter that opinion.

      You seem to be most exercised about my having used the phrase “…the gulf between his perceptions of what he is saying and how the rest of the world understands him,” because you think “the rest of the world” is arrogant presumption. And you offer the proof that you’re part of the “rest of the world” and you understand him fine. But I didn’t say “the entire rest of the world.” I’m part of the “rest of the world,” too. My meaning is obvious: given that Kurzweil doesn’t flag which of his words are apparently to be taken literally and which are to be taken figuratively, he doesn’t seem overly concerned about making himself clear.

      I’d rather not keep going back and forth with you over these same points, so unless you have something new to add, you’re welcome to have the last word.

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  10. Branimir Iliev says:

    Okay, Mr. Rennie, I must be wrong and you must be right of course. You win. Congratulations.

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  11. Douglas Pope says:

    Seriously, guys, I don’t mean to be deprecating towards an honest debate, but that was one of the most pointless exchanges between two individuals I’ve ever seen. You are both obviously intelligent people, and this level of bickering is beneath you both. As for Kurtzweil’s predictions, I think we can all agree that they have not always been a hundred percent spot-on, but we can also agree that Kurtzweil’s ideas are certainly interesting. His theories pertaining to the so-called Singularity are controversial to say the least, and even though we may or may not agree as to the veracity of this theory, it is at the very least an interesting intellectual exercise to imagine such a world as Kurtzweil portrays. It is the sort of thing that would make science fiction writers swoon. I’ve very much enjoyed reading your comments. I’d just like to say good night to you all, and play nice.

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  12. Hobagman says:

    Lately I’ve been reading “The singularity is near”, and I do frequently find the style infuriatingly like that of a wriggling worm. However, I actually find the general arguments and ideas to be fascinating and largely convincing. As far as the testability of Kurzweil’s predictions, I would first say I think it is remarkable that he made a document to look at this himself. Saying what you will about how he actually scores, it is at least true that he is not shying away from the debate. That’s why it’s a little disappointing to see the argument turn somewhat personal with Ray’s response, your second blog post here, and then the interesting comments below. Ray’s defensiveness must be somewhat understandable when you consider how skeptical society and perhaps especially scientific society often treats the concepts in his work. Many or most people I know do not believe in the Singularity, which I find, well, illogical.

    Obviously arguments are contentious by nature and I am impressed by the mere fact that Mr. Rennie wrote an article on the subject, at the very least showing how he acknowledges and is willing to publicly discuss what looks like a very important, and yet malnourished discussion.

    It does seem like Mr. Rennie’s arguments could be improved by discussing some of the more substantive elements of Kurzweil’s thesis, such as the singularity itself, computers passing the Turing test, and so on. If Kurzweil’s predictions are failing so poorly as Mr. Rennie says, then what does that mean for Kurzweil’s singularity? Will the singularity not actually occur? Or will it occur in 200 years instead of 20, for example? Or will it never occur — an assertion which, as I said above, I find to be logically dubious. Or perhaps Mr. Rennie disagrees? Really, this is the substantive focus of Kurzweil’s writing, and even Mr. Rennie must admit that his critique is stillborn without addressing these questions.

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  13. dhinesh says:

    hey guys i think i don’t have a high intellectual capacity over science or society or universe to equate or argue with you all .But i want to share what i know about existing scenario we’re now struggling to face and the future we’re all afraid to face . you see, while scientists and theoretical physicists like MICHIO KAKU ,STEPHEN HAWKING are seriously involved in the propaganda of telling people about parallel universes,string theories,virtual realities some are really dedicated themselves in developing new era in the name of trans-humanism through the idea of implementing bio-sensor chips in brains to enhance the human ability,improve quality of living and building a strong,unique society by selected paring models to produce off-spring with the desired traits (eugenics) thus controlling and suppressing the weaker section of the humanity and further pushing ‘em to their extinction. since they wont be able to compete with the scientifically designed proto-type humans ,with much higher abilities than ‘em .They just fascinate people with their colorful visions they portray about their future humans ,endowed with the super-human powers who are capable of doing heavy task given to ‘em. And meanwhile the economists around the world proposing their theories of power shift to Asia namely India and China, declaring ‘em as the sole super-powers of the future. what do you think can be done with these issues ? These are all because of greediness to get more than what is really needed. so the better way to fix this is ti inculcate in mind that nothing is better than mother nature alone. The society have to be reprogrammed or remodeled to the very essence of truth. just imagine the things we’ve lost in the past. can you see or hear the minute things in nature which a cave man had seen or heard million years ago ? That was the time where man had made a mutual relationship with nature,to have the ability to perfectly receive as well as send the signals to the nature. Can this be achieved by the present human who lives in a condo with highly air-conditioned rooms,DVDs,home theatres ….we have to start trusting the mother nature as we did million years ago.

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  14. dhinesh says:

    so instead of terribly reviewing the issues let we try finding the alternatives through that we can live happily without domination,bloodshed,caste,creed ,disparity …if the review happened to be in going along with nature and restructuring human relationships i would ve given you all a huge applauds ?!

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  15. Luke says:

    I feel like I’m a few months late to the conversation (and I probably am) but I didn’t really encounter any discussion BETWEEN skeptics of Kurzweil and Kurzweilians until now, which I find very intriguing.

    I find it such a curious case in which a group that contains so many members who are opposed to ideas of religion or cults displaying common characteristics of cult members or religious members: Defending their leaders and revering them as infallible, hoping for transcendence to come to only those who believe in it, a strong desire and goal of immortality/self-betterment, etc.

    I have finally pinpointed, thanks to your help, what it was that was unsettling about Kurzweil’s rebuttals… he doesn’t ever accept that yes, he may have been wrong. Instead he returns to “Well look, I was actually right, you just misread me.” I’ve seen him refute even trivial claims, and does not conceded that ANY of his predictions were more incorrect than correct. I think it would make him more believable if he did concede the fact in the instances where he was incorrect. It’s one of the most frustrating argument tactics, where everyone else misunderstands what he “meant” to give himself infallibility.

    Yes, he is an extremely intelligent man, and if one day people are enjoying uploading their minds and truly believing that it is THEM, and not simply a “copypaste”, so be it. I won’t stop them from doing that, but I do want them to perhaps question the intentions of Ray Kurzweil; this is a man who lost his father at a young age, and who has mentioned his goal of “bringing him back” by sequencing his DNA, so he can be reunited… it wouldn’t necessarily be the same consciousness (likely it wouldn’t be.) All of his predictions for life extension fall perfectly within his expected life and age; whether or not that was even SLIGHTLY influenced by his fear of death, I do not know, but he is experiencing the same symptoms of someone who leads or JOINS a cult; isolation, fear of death, loneliness, desire for belonging.

    Even intelligent people are influenced by their emotions whether we want to believe it or not. Yes, he has made many predictions, but the predictions he is relying on most for immortality and bringing his father back to life are at the extreme end; just because he was correct about some (the “likely to happen anyways” predictions) doesn’t mean that any predictions of transcendence will occur. It just gives credibility to someone who understands computers very well, but not biology as much.

    OK, go ahead, rip this argument apart, but healthy skepticism is good for all people who will defend their leaders to the death. I hope no one is basing their life off of these predictions becoming true… maybe you could try and do important things, saving our dwindling resources before they are gone, preventing the destruction of the environment before we are all choking from a lack of oxygen, and IF these things are true, let them be a little bonus.

    But to say that religious people are wrong, and another leader is right, is contradictory; he is not a prophet, just a man who looked at an exponential curve and mixed in his emotional attachment to immortality.

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  16. Jeffrey Crook says:

    Love the discussion here in as much as it provided somewhat of a mirror to myself … I regularly discuss all manner of social, political, and philosophical issues with a small group of friends via e-mail … we’ve recently spent much time on Kurzweil and his ideas/predictions … Much like some of the posts above, there was much disagreement among us … typical of our human frailty and ego, participants in the discussion, including myself, often interject petty or otherwise condescending overtones … it is not uncommon when one is passionate about their thoughts/ideas … I think it also pretty typical that both sides of a discussion will tend to manipulate/inflect the language and/or data within their postings to more favorably present their opinion … Kurzweil clearly does this with his responses to criticism (nothing unique in that regard) as does the author of this article; though I am not suggesting that either opinion is any less valid as a result. And of course, great minds/egos are always going to have much difficulty in admitting they may be wrong about something. That human fallibility should not serve to cloud the overall content of the ideas. I am not implying the author is suggesting this, but the casual reader could easily make said sweeping generalizations, based on preconceptions or otherwise.

    I could interject some detailed thoughts on the notion of how Kurzweil’s personal life experiences may be influencing his work, his predictions, and his general world view, but will focus instead only on the content of his ideas; only mentioning the personal component in passing (hence this paragraph), as a gentle reminder of its relevance in the overall consideration of his work.

    In terms of his ideas, for the most part, I view the concept of the ‘Law of Accelerating Returns’ to be fairly self-evident (in most cases where he cites it), based on the historical body of evidence that has already passed before us. I cannot adequately speak to the timing of when Kurzweil made many of his predictions (or whether or not others were also making the same predictions at the same time), but it would seem his success rate (whether it be 70, 80 or 90%) is pretty damn good. Not exactly apples to apples, but if I were a sport’s better with any of those success rates, I’d likely be making this post from my own private island.

    From here, the following is a copy & paste of some general thoughts I interjected with my groups discussion as related (in quotations):

    “Personally, I’ve found Kurzweil’s ideas have given me a much more positive outlook towards the future … It has helped to inform my everyday life. There are many great minds out there doing great work towards the enhancement/evolution of the human experience/species. None of this great work will completely stop bad things from happening (whether Acts of God or not) … and there is no guarantee that any particular individual, much less everyone, can and will come along for the ride … I guess that’s just part of the human experience as well (whether one considers it fair or not) … the dialectic of progress will always come into play, but I embrace that as a necessary and valuable component that constantly challenges us to progress.

    I, like all of us, fall short of the proverbial glory quite often, but do recognize the need for eternal vigilance as related. I do not view Kurzweil (or for that matter, Ken Wilber, Joseph Campbell, or any other individual who, I believe, represented good ideas) as a so-called prophet, savior, or otherwise as I consider that a mistake of valuing the messenger over the message. I am simply incorporating what I consider good ideas into my experience of living a human life. I believe this contributes to the overall progress of the collective human experience.”

    With this said, I do have criticisms of Kurzweil’s predictions … having read much criticism from folks in the various biological fields, I find his predictions relative to reverse engineering of the brain to be difficult to accept. Not saying that it may not eventually take place, just think the timing is off (and perhaps way off). Beyond that, his predictions further down the road are certainly subject to events/variables not yet encountered. Kurzweil contends (and presents graphical, historical evidence) that suggests the Law of Accelerating Returns has been unimpaired by external forces (wars, economic crisis, etc.), but nevertheless, the future has not been written. Though not a perfect analogy, I am reminded, ‘past performance is no guarantee of future returns’.

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  17. Diane Crane says:

    So where are the female scientist voices here? Are we involved with futurism as through the male eyes only? It sometimes appears that way. From my own standpoint, I’d say that if this species really is set on embracing Mr. Kurzweil’s ideas then we’d better start weeding out some of the gross imperfections that we’ve developed – start with constantly killing each other, continue with the cultural discrepancies – Islam, etc. There are those individuals, who, for whatever reason, may not want to follow you and your futurist edicts, because what you are proposing offers no choice. Too, all this tech is very expensive, and who will be meant to truly inherit the earth, only the rich who can afford this? You appear to be dictating what everyone is going to follow without exceptions. what about those who may see a different path, or those just getting by from day to day?

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  18. Tom says:

    Just to clear things up – Kurzweil is not a genius. In AI research, he is not in the top 100 – and probably not in the top 1000 either. He has made no theoretical contributions to the field; all he did was some minor applied research. Ray Kurzweil is to e.g. Geoffrey Hinton (or any other of the great names of AI) what a garage inventor is to Einstein. This man was a nobody in the field until he started writing his books in the 90s.

    These books were not written as a serious researcher but as a guru. This is when he found his true calling – he even wrote a diet book, clearly not hindered by his total lack of medical knowledge! Yet this man is worshipped as if he was Alan Turing, back from a three-days rest in the grave. His detractors are insulted. His obvious lies about his predictions are ignored or even defended by an army of believers. And these are people who pretend to be enlightened by science!

    Have none of them considered talking to the people actually building this future – those inventing new hardware, those imagining new developments in AI, those working in programming language theory, information theory, those involved directly in cognitive psychology, (computational) neuroscience, etc.? Maybe these people would each know a little more about their respective fields, and collectively about the technological future. At least they would fare much better than a man who is clearly just listening to emerging trends in AI, and blindly predicting that each and every one of them will be immediately successful and fruitful…

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  19. Tom says:

    The “singularity” might be real. But it is hard to tell. Before Kurzweil, people who (unlike him) were major researchers in AI made similar predictions, and they were systematically off by at least decades. After 60 years, tt seems a stretch to me to say that we are already halfway through to human capabilities. In terms of neuroscience at least, we are clearly just getting started. So setting brain/computer equivalence as a medium-term goal seems overly optimistic.

    For brain-computer equivalence, we need faster computers – but that is only half of the story, even assuming that Moore’s law remains true. The other half is better algorithms. Kurzweil is very proud to say that thinking involves hierarchies of pattern recognizers; we have already had those for decades! Without the right algorithms they are useless. Historically, radical new developments in algorithms are few and far between – the most popular algorithms right now are decades old (e.g. Backpropagation, Restricted Boltzmann Machines), even though important improvements are made every year. But let us assume that we will indeed manage to find algorithms emulating brain function.

    Assuming we achieve brain-computer equivalence in the next decades, this does not mean an intelligence “explosion” will immediately follow. If a super-computer can emulate a human brain at real-time speed, and if Moore’s law still applies by then, then it will still take years before we can emulate 2, 4, 8, 16 human brains (or still a single human brain, but that is 2 times, then 4 times, then 8 times faster). Also, being able to replicate a generic human brain is not the same as being able to replicate a genius scientist. It is also not the same as being able to create a thinking entity of an entirely different kind, able to live on the web and absorb its contents without going insane. Consider the time that may be needed for this piece of software to grow: human beings need to grow up, to study for years, and many of them still end up having psychological issues of one kind or another (from depression to schizophrenia to dementia). An artificial brain, depending on its structure, might suffer from entirely new “psychological” afflictions which we will need to debug – consider how limited we are at dealing with afflictions we have known for decades! Finally, if this artificial human brain is to improve upon itself, it will have to face a task much harder than merely reverse-engineering.

    All in all, I am not saying that the singularity will not or cannot happen. Simply, it is very unclear when it will occur; and when and if it does occur, it is not obvious at all that it should occur as an “explosion” rather than very gradually over many more decades. Kurzweil does not have access to this information any more than me or you, although he sure seems convinced otherwise.

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