Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Ray Kurzweil's (Sometimes) Wrong Predictions

Note: there was a followup blog post to this one, presenting some complementary views that I also hold, and linking to some more recent comments by Ray Kurzweil on the  matter.

Forbes blogger Alex Knapp, who often covers advanced technology and futurist topics, recently wrote a post titled Ray Kurzweil's Predictions for 2009 Were Mostly Inaccurate ...

Some of Knapp's posts are annoyingly opinionated and closed-minded, but this one was well-put together, and I made a lengthy comment there, which I repeat here.  You should read his post first to get the context...

And also, once you read his post, you might want to read Ray's rebuttal to Michael Anissimov's earlier critique of his predictions. 

Ray rates himself as 90% right out of 100+ predictions; Michael looks at only a handful of Ray's predictions and finds most of them unfulfilled.

Looking at the "90% right" that Ray claims, it seems to me about half of these are strong wins, and the other half are places where the technologies Ray has forecast DO now exist, but aren't as good or as prevalent as he had envisioned.

On the other hand, Alex Knapp in Forbes took Ray's top 10 predictions rather than the full 100+, and found a lower accuracy for these.

An excerpt from my comment to Alex's post on the Forbes site (with light edits) is:



One thing that should be clarified for the general readership is that the vast majority of those of us in the "Singularitarian" community do not, and never did, buy into all of Ray Kurzweil's temporally-specific predictions.  We love Ray dearly and respect him immensely -- and I think the world owes Ray a great debt for all he's done, not only as an inventor, but to bring the world's attention to the Singularity and related themes.  However, nearly all of us who believe a technological Singularity is a likely event this century, prefer to shy away from the extreme specificity of Ray's predictions.

Predicting a Singularity in 2045 makes headlines, and is evocative.  Predicting exactly which technologies will succeed by 2009 or 2019 makes headlines, and is evocative.  But most Singularitarians understand that predictions with this level of predictions aren't plausible to make.

The main problem with specific technology forecasts, is highlighted by thinking about multiple kinds of predictions one could make in reference to any technology X:

1) How long would it take to develop X if a number of moderately large, well-organized, well-funded teams of really smart people were working on it continuously?

2) How long would it take to develop X if a large, well-funded, bloated, inefficient government or corporate bureaucracy were working on it continuously?

3) How long would it take to develop X if there were almost no $$ put into the development of X, so X had to be developed by ragtag groups of mavericks working largely in their spare time?

4) How long would it take to develop X if a handful of well-run but closed-minded large companies dominated the X industry with moderately-functional tools, making it nearly impossible to get funding for alternate, radical approaches to X with more medium-term potential

When thinking about the future of a technology one loves or wants, it's easy to fall into making predictions based on Case 1.  But in reality what we often have is Case 2 or 3 or 4.

Predicting the future of a technology is not just about what is "on the horizon" in terms of science and technology, but also about how society will "choose" to handle that technology.   That's what's hard to predict.

For example a lot of Ray's failed top predictions had to do with speech technology.  As that is pretty close to my own research area, I can say pretty confidently that we COULD have had great text to speech technology by now.  But instead we've had Case 4 above -- a few large companies have dominated the market with mediocre HMM-based text to speech systems.  These work well enough that it's hard to make something better, using a deeper and more ultimately promising approach, without a couple years effort by a dedicated team of professionals.  But nobody wants to fund that couple years effort commercially, because the competition from HMM based systems seems too steep.  And it's not the kind of work that is effectively done in universities, as it requires a combination of engineering and research.

Medical research, unfortunately, is Case 2.  Pharma firms are commonly bloated and inefficient and shut off to new ideas, partly because of their co-dependent relationship with the FDA.  Radical new approaches to medicine have terrible trouble getting funded lately.  You can't get VC $$ for a new therapeutic approach until you've shown it to work in mouse trials or preferably human trials -- so how do you get the $$ to fund the research leading up to those trials?

Artificial General Intelligence, my  main research area, is of course Case 3.  There's essentially no direct funding for AGI on the planet, so we need to get AGI research done via getting funding for other sorts of  projects and cleverly working AGI into these projects....  A massive efficiency drain!!

If speech-to-text, longevity therapy or AGI had been worked on in the last 10 years with the efficiency that Apple put into building the iPad, or Google put into building its search and ad engines, then we'd be a heck of a lot further advanced on all three.

Ray's predictive methodology tries to incorporate all these social and funding related factors into its extrapolations, but ultimately that's too hard to do, because the time series being extrapolated aren't that long and depend on so many factors.

However, the failure of many of his specific predictions, does not remotely imply he got the big picture wrong.  Lots of things have developed faster than he or anyone thought they would in 2009, just as some developed more slowly.

To my mind, the broad scope of exponential technological acceleration is very clear and obvious, and predicting the specifics is futile and unnecessary -- except, say, for marketing purposes, or for trying to assess the viability of a particular business in a particular area.

The nearness of the Singularity does not depend on whether text-to-speech matures in 2009 or 2019 -- nor on whether AGI or longevity pills emerge in 2020 or 2040.  

To me, as a 45 year old guy, it matters a lot personally whether the Singularity happens in 2025, 2045 or 2095.  But in the grand scope of human history, it may not matter at all....

The overall scope and trend of technology development is harder to capsulize in sound bites and blog posts than specific predictions -- hence we have phenomena like Ray's book with its overly specific predictions, and your acute blog post refuting them. 

Anyway, anyone who is reading this and not familiar with the issues involved, I encourage you to read Ray's book the Singularity is Near -- and also Damien  Broderick's book "The Spike."  

Broderick's book made very similar points around a decade earlier, -- but it didn't get famous.  Why?  Because "Spike" sounds less funky than "Singularity", because the time wasn't quite ripe then, and because Broderick restricted himself to pointing out the very clear general trends rather than trying and failing to make overly precise predictions!

Ben Goertzel

P.S. Regarding Ray's prediction that "“The neo-Luddite movement is growing.” -- I think that the influence of the Taliban possibly should push this into the "Prediction Met" or "Partially Met" category.  The prediction was wrong if restricted to the US, but scarily correct globally...


Anonymous said...

I read Kurzweil's book The Age of Spiritual Machines shortly after it was published and I particularly enjoyed his concrete predictions for each decade.

I don't care if he missed the mark by a few years. If he had restricted himself to vague general predictions he might have gotten less criticism but the book wouldn't have been such a joy to read.

Matthew Fuller said...

Ben, do you think Ray Kurzweil would be categorized more as a hedgehog or a fox in terms of his prediction and research style?

He clearly belongs in an extreme minority with unusual views, which fits well with the hedgehog label.

The original classification scheme comes from Tetlock:


And Hanson, whom I thought was obviously a fox, is not so easily labeled.


Michael Anissimov said...

I find it hard to read such long italics posts.. can you just put it in normal font? Thanks Ben. :)

Todor "Tosh" Arnaudov - Twenkid said...

"...ragtag groups of mavericks"... :D

My personal prediction from 2 years ago which I still hold is that there will be human-level AGI at one-level or another (even if it's childish or incomplete) by the end of the decade, and once a break-through is made, the rest would be easy.

In my opinion there's an apparent a technological spike in the last few years, and plenty of computational resources which are under-utilized.

Another support is that there are a lot of foundations and experimental data which are accumulating in neuroscience, developmental psychology, cognitive science, neurolinguistics, etc. etc..

It is AGI-related, even if it's not formally declared as such yet, I myself find correlations and evidences matching with my theoretical speculative work, while I even can't fully concentrate on this research yet.
Neuroscience produce a big amount of experimental data and hypothesis, which have to be systematized.

IMHO soon AGI researcher and even tools will start to infer insights by automatic crunching of that data, and workable models might be shaped quickly.

I recently noticed also that a lot of multidisciplinary research centers in University in Europe and USA are starting to emerge, devoted to computational neuroscience and multisensory integration by the brain, and developmental psychology, which is one-step closer to AGI going into serious established research.

The IMCLEVER project of EU, Juergen Schmidhuber, Marcus Hutter, Shane Legg's work, I'd mention also the directions of the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT), last autumn they had somewhat AGI-sh PhDs program starting in the field of robotics.

The AGI conferences, AGIRI's Summer schools, two AGI courses in Plovdiv University...

In general, I think there are evidences that AGI is getting closer to the established academia.

Dune Epigraphs said...

Great rebuttal Ben. It is important in terms of building awareness of these issues that they are brought to the forefront and discussed by serious thinkers such as yourself. As you write, Kurzweil's predictions may be critiqued when viewed explicitly, and on a tight reading of the specifics, but if one takes a broader viewpoint, they are remarkably accurate.

Anonymous said...

I've been watching a lot of AI talks lately and I'm surprised how many people in industry are working on AI projects. e.g. IBM had 25 researchers working on Watson for 5 years, Honda has 63 researchers working on Asimo (on all levels of the brain from DNA to neuron network simulation to high level tasks like object recognition), Google has probably hundreds of people working on search (they will launch a new version of search soon which will work with entities instead of words and will be able to answer questions directly instead of just showing search results), Microsoft also has several teams working on AI, Apple is working on Siri, etc Add to that all the people working on AI and AGI at universities.

We live in an interesting time for AI. It's becoming more and more mainstream. So I guess we'll see human-level intelligence sooner rather than later.

Dan Văsii said...

Hey, Ben! There is a problem with AGI, and is a big one, and it is the very real reason for it is no funding: there is NEITHER DEFINITION, NOR THEORY to explain human intelligence in algorhythmical fashion, i.e. to formalize H.I in order to put in into computer programs. Think how useful such a human-grade program would be when searching the net - I have to eye-scan maybe even hundreds of sites provided by Google for a topic. It is not as I'd ask a person for informations - in that case the number would be drasticly reduced.

Anonymous said...

Stands, points and announces forcefully, "that man there is an assassin from the future."
Then flees for his life signing his post ...

Eddie G said...

As a longtime Transhumanist, I agree with you 100% on your assessment of Kurzweil, Ben. Looking at Kurzweil's timeline of future events vs. what actually happened (so far), it becomes clear that his general vision of the future is correct, but his timetable for the debut of the new technologies is too optimistic. The more I've thought about this, the more I realize that that simple rule of thumb really does describe it. Singularity 2045 is more likely to be Singularity 2075.

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