Desert of My Real Life

{December 31, 2008}   Failed Predictions

Predicting the future is a notoriously difficult endeavor and yet there is never a shortage of people willing to play the game, especially at the end of a year. 

Many of the predictions for 2009 seem to involve world politics.  For example, over at Psychic World, Craig and Jane Hamilton-Parker predict that an assassination attempt on Barack Obama will occur in 2009.  They posted this prediction on October 9, 2008 and then updated the entry on October 27, 2008 (in red font, just so we know that it’s an important update).  The update tells us (and I can almost hear the breathlessness with which this important information is stated) that this prediction already came true!  Apparently, the vague assassination “plot” by two neo-Nazis thwarted by the ATF in October constitutes an assassination “attempt”.  The fact that these men did not actually begin to implement the plot, which involved first shooting over 100 black people in Tennessee and following that spree up with the assassination of then-Senator Obama, doesn’t matter to the psychics who made this prediction.  It still counts as a success for their ability to predict the future.  An even bigger issue for me is the fact that they predicted the assassination attempt would take place in 2009.  Clearly, this plot was discovered in 2008.  The psychics never discuss how useful it is for a prediction to be that far off in its timing and details.

As amusing as I find the predictions of psychics who claim to be able to “foresee” the future, the predictions that I’m most interested in are the ones made by those who examine trends and then predict where those trends will take us.  People who make these kinds of predictions are called “futurists” or “futurologists” and, unlike psychics, claim no mysticism in coming to their predictions.  Instead, according to Wikipedia, futurologists study “yesterday’s and today’s changes, and aggregating and analyzing both lay and professional strategies, and opinions with respect to tomorrow. It includes analyzing the sources, patterns, and causes of change and stability in the attempt to develop foresight and to map possible futures.”  Although futurologists make predictions about many different fields, I’m particularly interested in the area of technology, especially because technological change is very rapid and vast.  I think technology shows despite their claims to scientific methodologies, the predictions of futurologists are typically as wrong as the predictions made by those claiming to have a mystical insight into the future. 

The technological futurologist that has gotten the most attention in the US in recent years is Ray Kurzweil, the author of a number of books that have captured the popular imagination.  Kurzweil is a computer scientist from a time when computer scientists were rare.  When he was just a teenager, long before computers were widespread and common, he created computer software that wrote impressive musical compostions using the patterns it discovered analyzing great masterworks.  He also developed the first optical character recognition software which led to his invention, in 1976, of The Reading Machine, which read written text out loud for blind people.  Since that time, he’s invented musical synthesizers, speech recognition devices, computer technology for use in education, and a whole host of other useful tools.  He’s obviously a smart, creative guy who knows a lot about technology and how to use it to benefit humans.  Kurzweil’s faith in technology is so great that he considers himself to be a transhumanist, advocating the use of technology to “overcome what it regards as undesirable and unnecessary aspects of the human condition, such as disability, suffering, disease, aging, and involuntary death,” according to Wikipedia.  It is in this area that many of his predictions fail.

In his 1999 book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, about the impact of artifcial intelligence on human consciousness, Ray Kurzweil made a number of predictions about technology at the end of 2009, 2019, 2029, and 2099.  Since we are just about to begin the year 2009, I thought it might be interesting to consider how likely it is that Kurzweil’s predictions can come true in the next year.  Chapter 9 of the book, which makes predictions for 2009, can be read online here.

The chapter is divided into sections called The Computer Itself, Education, Disabilities, Communication, Business and Economics, Politics and Society, The Arts, Warfare, Health and Medicine, and Philosophy.  Although some of Kurzweil’s predictions have indeed come to be reality, the vast majority of them are still far off into the future.  In fact, some involve technological tangents that seemed interesting in 1999 but that our society has chosen not to pursue.

Kurzweil predicted that the computer itself would be much more ubiquitous than it actually is and that they would be smaller than they actually are.  Because computers are so ubiquitous and small today, it’s difficult to imagine how someone might have overestimated these trends just ten years ago.  But that’s the problem with Kurzweil.  He is such a technology evangelist that he tends to go too far.  In the case of the computer itself, he predicted that the average person would have a dozen computers on and around her body which would communicate with each other using a wireless body local area network (LAN).  These computers would monitor bodily functions and provide automated identity verification for financial transactions and for entry into secure areas.  The technology he describes is nearly available now in the form of radio frequency identification (RFID) chips which are common in some warehouses and which are now part of every US passport.  Most of these RFID chips are passive devices, however, which means that they can only be read by an external device and do not provide computing power themselves.  In addition, there has been something of an uproar over the increased use of these chips.  For example, I recently received a new ATM/credit card from my bank that had an RFID chip embedded in it to make using the card easier.  I would no longer need to swipe the card to use it.  Instead, I could simply tap it against any reader.  But because it doesn’t have to be swiped, anyone who got close enough to me with a reader could read the chip.  I didn’t see the advantage of having such a chip in my credit card and saw many disadvantages and so I returned it, making a special request to get a card without the chip.  I suspect there are others out there who have similar concerns.  Kurzweil did predict that privacy issues would be a concern in 2009 but I’ll talk about that later.

Some of the other things about the computer itself that Kurzweil got seriously wrong involve the way in which we interact with our computers.  He predicted that most text would be created using continuous speech recognition software–in other words, we would speak to our computers and they would transcribe our speech into text.  This is clearly not going to become the norm in the next year and I’m not sure we would want it to become the norm.  As I sit typing this blog entry, for example, I have the television on (because multi-tasking is the prevalent way of interacting with the world–something that Kurzweil does not mention) and Evelyn is sitting next to me interacting with her own computer.  Neither of us would want the other to be talking to her computer at this moment.  This might be an example of a place where a cool technology would actually be an obstacle to the way most users interact with their computers.  But Kurzweil did not stop there.  He also predicted that we would wear glasses that allowed us to see the regular visual world in front of us but with a virtual world superimposed on it using tiny lasers.  Such glasses do exist but they are novelties, used only in experimental situations.  And I think most people would find such a superimposition to be a distraction.  Until some benefit can be shown for this technology and how it allows us to interact with the world, I think it will remain a novelty.

Another area where Kurzweil predictions have not come to fruition (yet) is the area of disability.  It is in this area that Kurzweil betrays his transhuman biases.  He predicted that by the end of 2009, disabilities such as blindness and deafness could be dealt with using computing technologies to the extent that such disabilities are no longer considered handicaps but are instead mere inconveniences.  Although significant progress has been made in the area of augmenting such situations using computing technologies, we are nowhere close to where Kurzweil predicted we would be.  Kurzweil’s zeal in the advancement of technology once again led him to overestimate the progress that we would be able to make in ten years.  The history of technology is filled with such zeal and overestimation.

I won’t detail every area that Kurzweil gets things wrong but I do want to touch on the area of politics and society.  The Obama campaign rode its unprecedented use of technology to a presidential victory but in ways that were not predicted by Kurzweil.  Kurzweil predicted that privacy issues would be a primary political issue and although there are groups of people who are very concerned with privacy in our society today (both because of technical issues and because of political issues involved with the War on Terror), I don’t think too many people would say that privacy is a primary political issue in our society, although I, for one, wish it was a bigger issue for most people. 

I’m curious to see which of Kurzweil’s predictions do eventually come to pass.  My guess is that anyone who pays close attention to technological issues could attain the same level of accuracy that he does.  At least he doesn’t claim to have some mystical connection to what the future will bring.

Big Kurzweil fan — he is revered in the blindness community. I read Spiritual Machines and was really captured by it. You are right of course that visionaries sometimes can’t see the devices for their big ideas, and Kurzweil probably didn’t factor in 8 years of political/financial disaster, war expenses,etc. He thought we would all be tinkering in our garages. You cute little ivnentor, you…
Read FutureShock again if you haven’t lately, or ever. It is a little more satifying to see the predictions of 30 years ago coming true, rather than just 10.
My reflections on reading Spiritual Machines are here:

Robin DeRosa says:

I would rather have the US government secretly monitor all of my phone calls than have a dozen computers attached to my body to monitor my bodily functions. I’m just saying.

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