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Best futurists ever: Ray Kurzweil’s predictions for the future of technology, medicine, and A.I.

Futurist Ray Kurzweil stands on a stage at SXSW 2017.
By Matthew Kennedy

“It is said that people overestimate what can be accomplished in the short term, and underestimate the changes that will occur in the long term.” —Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines

It’s difficult to speculate on the future—both near and far—without considering Ray Kurzweil. He’s an inventor, a computer scientist, and not least of all a futurist. Remarkably accomplished, he’s written on topics ranging from biotechnology and nanotechnology to artificial intelligence, transhumanism, and the technological singularity. Since 2012, Kurzweil has also been a Director of Engineering at Google, heading up a team developing machine intelligence and natural language understanding.

Kurzweil’s books include The Age of Intelligent Machines (TAIM) (1990), The Age of Spiritual Machines (TASM) (1999), The Singularity is Near (TSIN) (2005), and How to Create a Mind (2012). Through these works, he’s made hundreds of predictions about the future of human beings and the technologies that will come to shape them—and he claims he has done so with a success rate of 86%.

The ‘law of accelerating returns’

Central to Kurzweil’s astonishing prescience is his “law of accelerating returns”—a theory guided by a belief that fundamental measures of information technology follow predictable and exponential trajectories, which (surprisingly) are not disrupted by conditions such as war, peace, prosperity, or recession.

Building on Moore’s Law and Vernor Vinge’s popularization of the technological singularity (a theorized moment when artificial intelligence exceeds human comprehension), Kurzweil has established a framework through which he has arrived at predictions for the 20th and 21st centuries—some of which are staggering.

Below we review a handful of Kurzweil’s predictions that have turned out to be true.

Kasparov vs. Deep Blue

In 1990, Kurzweil predicted that advances in computing technology would allow a computer programmed to play chess to beat the world’s best human chess player by the year 2000.

“It will be interesting to see what our reaction will be when a computer takes the world chess championship,” he wrote in TAIM. “Playing a master game of chess is often considered an example of high intellectual (even creative) achievement. When a computer does become the chess champion, which I believe will happen before the end of the century, we will either think more of computers, less of ourselves, or less of chess.”

In May 1997, the then-world champion of chess, Garry Kasparov, was defeated by IBM’s Deep Blue computer.

It seems safe to say we don’t think less of ourselves, nor less of chess

The decline of physical media

In 1999, the same year that the first DVD player was released, Kurzweil predicted the transition of certain media from physical objects into digital objects, including music, films, and books. Conjuring up a hypothetical of the year 2009, he wrote:

“Computers routinely include wireless technology to plug into the ever-present worldwide network, providing reliable, instantly available, very-high-bandwidth communication. Digital objects such as books, music albums, movies, and software are rapidly distributed as data files through the wireless network, and typically do not have a physical object associated with them.”

Sure enough, in 2008 Apple’s iTunes Store become the number one distributor of music in the US, surpassing all brick-and-mortar stores; and by early 2010, 10 billion songs had been downloaded from the iTunes Store.

In the same year, Amazon announced that its e-book sales had outpaced its hardcopy sales nearly two to one.

In fact, Kurzweil predicted the transformation of text even earlier than 1999; in The Age of Intelligent Machines (1990), he wrote:

“The concept of a document will undergo substantial change. Extremely high resolution easy-to-view screens will become as common and as easy to read from as paper. As a result, we will routinely create, modify, handle, and read documents without their ever being converted to paper form.”

Wearable technology

In 1999, Kurzweil predicted that by 2009 personal computers would be available in a wide range of shapes and sizes. They would be embedded into clothing and jewelry such as “wristwatches, earrings, and other ornaments”.

Indeed, by 2009 wearable computers were gaining popularity with devices like the iPod Nano and Fitbit steadily being adopted.

“When I wrote this prediction in the 1990s, portable computers were large, heavy devices carried under your arm. Today, they are commonly found in shirt pockets and jacket pockets, and hung from belt loops. Colorful iPod nano models are worn on blouses or on sleeves while running. Health monitors can be woven into undergarments. There are now computers in hearing aids, and there are many other examples.”

Cloud computing

These days cloud computing underpins many services, with major providers including Amazon, Microsoft, IBM, and Google—but that wasn’t always the case.

In 2000, Kurzweil predicted that by 2010 computers would routinely tap into the “world wide mesh”—an evolution of the World Wide Web that would see devices become servers and thereby form vast supercomputers and data storage banks. This also turned out to be true, and in 2010 he wrote:

“The ‘worldwide mesh,’ which we now call the cloud, is indeed harnessing computers on the net to form supercomputers, providing vast memory banks and computing resources to anyone who wants to access them. People are increasingly moving their file storage and computing needs to the cloud.”

Warfare

On a grimmer note, Kurzweil made a series of successful predictions in the 1990s concerning military technology and warfare. In TASM, he expected the following developments would occur by 2009:

“Humans are generally far removed from the scene of battle.”

“Warfare is dominated by unmanned intelligent airborne devices.”

“Many of these flying weapons are the size of small birds, or smaller.”

These three predictions (among others) did come to fruition. By 2009, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles and drones was steadily rising, and DARPA-funded reconnaissance drones were being designed and refined to mimic birds. According to Kurzweil, between 2002 and 2008 “the total number of unmanned aircraft increased from 167 to well over 6,000”.

Remote surgery

Kurzweil has accurately predicted numerous advancements in health and medicine, including that by 2009 physicians would be able to:

“…routinely train in virtual reality environments, which include a haptic interface.” He also speculated that such systems would “simulate the visual, auditory and tactile experience of medical procedures, including surgery”.

Indeed, by 2010 virtual reality environments were being used for anatomy instruction education and surgery simulation. Some minimally invasive procedures and remote surgeries were also being conducted using teleoperators.

On this topic, he has said:

“Remote surgery is essentially advanced telecommuting for surgeons, where the physical distance between the surgeon and the patient is immaterial. Since the first major transatlantic remote surgery was performed in 2001, the field of telesurgery has been growing fast.”

These are just a few of Kurzweil’s many accurate predictions. You can read more about them, and his other successes, in his 2010 essay titled “How My Predictions Are Faring.”

You can also watch Kurzweil talk about his intriguing ideas in a recent interview at SXSW 2018.

Image source: nrkbeta