Can Ray Kurzweil's Rosy Predictions Stand Up To Fact-Checking?

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When the Singularity arrives in 2045, Ray Kurzweil will finally be infallible. Until, then, however the famous futurist's meat brain has made some ludicrously inaccurate predictions, as Newsweek magazine pointed out recently. Kurzweil has sent an angry letter to the magazine, to try and clear his name.

The Newsweek article is mostly pretty respectful and contains tons of information — I didn't know that Kurzweil had invented the flat-bed scanner and was friends with Stevie Wonder — but it does quote critic PZ Myers, who basically says Kurzweil is a bit of a kook. And then they go back and test the famously optimistic futurist's predictions against reality, and the results are not so good:

[W]hen you go back and check Kurzweil's previous books, you find that many of his predictions turned out to be wrong-not just a little bit wrong, but wildly, laughably wrong. During the height of the dotcom boom in 1998, Kurzweil predicted that the economy would keep on booming right through 2009 (and on to 2019, for that matter) and that one U.S. company (he didn't say which) would have a market capitalization of more than $1 trillion. Not even close. Kurzweil also predict-ed that by 2009 a top supercomputer would be capable of performing 20 quadrillion operations per second (20 petaflops in computer jargon), the same as the human brain. In fact, the top supercomputer just broke the one-petaflop mark-though Kurzweil says he considers all of Google to be a giant supercomputer and that it is, indeed, capable of performing 20 petaflops. Kurzweil also predicted that by now our cars would be able to drive themselves by communicating with intelligent sensors embedded in highways, and that speech recognition would be in widespread use. Neither has happened, but he insists they're both right around the corner. ("I was off by a few years," he says.)


And according to Newsweek, a New York screening of the Kurzweil documentary Transcendant Man turned a bit contentious:

As for fears that computers will kill us, or keep us as slaves, Kurzweil insists the computers will want us around.

Kurzweil took some serious heat on this last point during a panel discussion after the premiere of Transcendent Man at the Tribeca Film Festival last month. Some leading artificial-intelligence experts were in the audience, and they think we are racing toward a dystopian future. But Kurzweil is having none of that-he thinks the "man-machine civilization" is going to be wonderful. He doesn't argue. He just sits there, smiling. Ask him a pointed question and he just dodges it and launches into another monologue. He has no doubt. None.

I can't find it in the online version, but apparently the Newsweek article includes a sidebar listing all of Kurzweil's past predictions, including many that turned out to be wrong. It's this sidebar that he takes the most issue with, in his new open letter to Newsweek, which is probably too long for the magazine to print:

I appreciate your bringing my ideas to your readership. However, there are numerous inaccuracies and misrepresentations in Daniel Lyons' story. For example, of the many accurate predictions for the year 2009 that I wrote in my book The Age of Spiritual Machines, written in the late 1990s, only three are listed in the sidebar "Kurzweil's Crystal Ball" while a larger number are listed as "false." Of these "false" predictions, a number are in fact true, and others are only a few years away. For example, "Computers will be commonly embedded in clothing and jewelry" is listed as false. When I wrote this prediction, portable computers were large heavy devices carried under your arm. Today they are indeed embedded in shirt pockets, jacket pockets, and hung from belt loops. Colorful iPod nano models are worn on blouses as jewelry pins, health monitors are woven into undergarments, there are now computers in hearing aids, and there are many other examples.

"Most portable computers will not have keyboards" is listed as "False." When I wrote this, every portable computer had an (alphanumeric) keyboard. Today the majority of portable computers such as MP3 players, cameras, phones, game players and many other varieties do not have keyboards. The full quote of my prediction makes it clear that I am referring to computerized devices that "make phone calls, access the web, monitor body functions, provide directions, and provide a variety of other services."


One of Kurzweil's arguments in his defense: he predicted the Internet would "take off" in the late 1980s, when few people believed that. (Actually, a lot of college campuses and even some high schools were actively on the net in the late 1980s, and you already had networks of FTP sites and Gophers and so on.) On the other hand, computing has progressed much faster than a lot of people would have predicted a couple decades ago — so it's not a bad time to be an unalloyed optimist.