How accurately must you predict the future before you can call yourself a futurist? That’s the central question in a bit of online controversy regarding Ray Kurzweil. The well known inventor and author has made many predictions over his career, and if you’ve seen any of his lectures you know about the major ones. Artificial intelligence will match and then exceed the human brain. Humans and machines will merge. The universe will be full of intelligence. But it’s a series of more precise predictions that he wrote for his 1998 book, The Age of Spiritual Machines (TASM) that are drawing flak. In a recent post on his blog, Accelerating Future, Michael Anissimov has challenged TASM’s predictions for 2009. Anissimov is no futurism lightweight, he’s an integral part of the Lifeboat Foundation, the Singularity Institute and the Immortality Institute. He and Kurzweil both work with the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence and the Singularity Summit. In his post, Anissimov points out that seven of Kurzweil’s forecasts have failed to come true by the end of 2009. Kurzweil responded to the critique on the blog. The biggest point: TASM makes 108 predictions for 2009, and Kurzweil says that 102 were correct or “essentially correct”. This gives us all another chance to debate a favorite issue among technophiles: Does Kurzweil know what the hell he is talking about?

kurzweil vs annissimov
Kurzweil (left) has defended the predictions that were critiqued by Anissimov (right) in his blog. Intense futurist debating action!

In this corner, the challenger…

First, let’s just jump straight into the predictions that Anissimov critiques. I’m going to paraphrase horrifically here so I encourage you to browse through TASM on your own to get the original text.

1) People will be wearing computers in the form of jewelry and clothing.
2) The majority of text will be generated using speech to text software.
3) Computer displays in glasses will be able to project images directly onto the eyes.
4) Three dimensional computer chips will be commonly used.
5) Translating telephone technology will be commonly used.
6) Warfare will be dominated by airborne drones, some as small as birds.
7) Intelligent roads (really highways) will allow humans to sit back and let the computers do the driving.

As you can tell by my gratuitous use of hyperlinks, many of these technologies are in development if not in commercial use. None, however, are so widespread or dominant in their field that we can point to them and say “oh, well that’s obviously come to pass.” Like any good critic, Anissimov uses this lack of overwhelming evidence as a prod for Kurzweil and other futurists. He calls for a departure from “story telling” futurism towards one that focuses on probability distributions for events. Anissimov asks for all of us science minded folk to hold our futurists to strict account. If we don’t police these wild theorists, who will?

And in this corner, the champ…

Well, Kurzweil will. In his retort he carefully points out the ways in which he has already pursued the efforts that Anissimov is advocating. His predictions in TASM were for decades, not particular years (2009 to 2019, 2019 to 2029,etc). Most of his forecasts should be seen as having a plus or minus probably distribution around them. Kurzweil is also writing his own report to review and analyze his work in TASM. According to his response in Accelerating Futures, that report is forthcoming. In short, the futurist is not giving us magical exact dates, and is critical of his own work.

Of course, he also illustrates the ways in which Anissimov fails as a critic. Grabbing 7 out of 108 predictions and using them to declare a failure is misleading. Even if all seven are wrong (more on that below) what about the other 101? Personally, I’m impressed with anyone who has greater than 90% accuracy in future forecasting. Kurzweil also questions whether being off by a few years is really failing to predict the future. If all seven come to pass in 2012, was Kurzweil an idiot? By asking for probability distributions to predictions, but then demanding precision in those predictions to qualify for success, Anissimov is venturing into (but not reaching) hypocrisy.

Much as he did when challenged by Daniel Lyons in Newsweek, Kurzweil also takes the opportunity to actively defend his predictions one by one. Again, I’m paraphrasing grotesquely, so feel free to jump to Accelerating Future and read the original responses:

1) iPod shuffles, health monitors, hearing aids…these are all computers that can be worn on the body and fit the prediction.
2) Speech to text is gaining ground. It’s available in hand held devices, and as (semi) popular Apps on smartphones.
3) The technology to project images on the eye from a device embedded in glasses does exist. It isn’t common yet.
4) By 3D we mean any layering of silicon, not necessarily cubes. Such 3D computer chips are being shipped for sale now and becoming more common every day.
5) Like speech to text, this technology is gaining ground and has related Apps for smartphones.
6) Drones are a major part of the war in Afghanistan. Some of their explosive ordinance is the size of birds and contain their own navigating intelligence.
7) Kurzweil doesn’t address this one directly. I’d agree with Anissimov that we can consider it largely a “fail”, but just for now. The next few years could prove Kurzweil correct.

Even looking just at these cherry picked predictions from TASM, I’m going to give this debate to Kurzweil. If we included the other 101, I’m inclined to think that the futurist will win there as well. We’ll have to wait for Kurzweil’s essay on the subject and see how he interprets his work in TASM. According to his blog response the score (in his thoughts) is: 89 correct, 13 “essentially correct”, 3 partially correct, 2 are ten years off, 1 is just wrong (but it was tongue in cheek anyway).

Again, I find 90% or greater accuracy to be remarkable. Of course, when reviewing your own work it’s easy to see how you were right. I look forward to how others will score Kurzweil after a careful examination of all 108 predictions (starting with making sure there are really 108 of them). If most of these are accurate, what does that mean for the future?

Not much. Sure, it may mean that Kurzweil is extraordinarily gifted at seeing how trends will develop in the future. Yet those predictions in of themselves are not what causes something to happen. It takes the combined work of the global scientific community to create the steady rising tide of technology that affects our lives. At best, futurists can provide us with the insight to avoid upcoming dangers. Bioterrorism, nanotechnological pollution, anti-technology fundamentalism…these are potential conflicts that Kurzweil, or others, are actively seeking to avoid. That’s the real part of Kurzweil’s work that I admire. Correct predictions in a book are just credentials that can help the Kurzweils of the world convince our leaders to plan for both the good and the bad of the future. Through his work at Singularity University, and his books and lectures, Kurzweil may convince enough of us to look forward and plan for what may come. I think we should listen. He seems to know what the hell he is talking about.

[photo credit: created from images at Wiki Commons and Accelerating Futures]