The Future of AI Predictions

The American author and futurist Ray Kurzweil, who now works on Google's machine learning project, predicts that by 2029, humans will be extending their lives considerably or even indefinitely. By 2040, he believes, the human brain could be enhanced by tiny nanobots that connect to cloud-based computer networks, while uploading your mind to a computer will be feasible as humans become purely software-based.

Kurzweil also thinks that an exponential increase in technologies like robotics and artificial intelligence will lead to a technological singularity in the year 2045. This is a hypothetical event in which artificial intelligence enters a 'runaway reaction', causing an intelligence explosion and resulting in a powerful superintelligence whose cognitive abilities could be as far above humans' as human intelligence is above snail intelligence.

But is it really possible to predict the future, more than one or a few years? If we examine Kurzweil's visions more closely it's apparent that his most successful predictions are little more than extrapolations based on Moore's Law, lacking originality or profundity. The vast majority of his predictions, however, have proved to be highly unrealistic.

By now, for instance, our computers should be interwoven in clothing and jewelry, while eyeglasses are beaming images directly onto our retinas. Ads would utilize a technology whereby two ultrasonic beams can be targeted to intersect at a specific point, delivering a localized sound message that only a single person can hear. By 2029 researchers, having reverse engineered the human brain, will build an AI that can pass as human with a consciousness that is indistinguishable. Neuroscientists, AI researchers, and others have objected that no one today has even the faintest idea of how to accomplish these feats.

Of course tech predictions have always been hard, especially when they're about the future. Some famous examples: "This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication," as telegraph company Western Union stated in 1876. In 1916, Charlie Chaplin claimed that “The cinema is little more than a fad. It’s canned drama. What audiences really want to see is flesh and blood on the stage”.

Despite this mistake, 30 years later, Darryl Zanuck of 20th Century Fox was convinced that "Television won't be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night." In 1955 Alex Lewyt, president of Lewyt vacuum company, claimed that "Nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners will probably be a reality within ten years," and in 1977 Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, thought that "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home."

This isn't to say that the world isn't changing at an ever increasing pace because of robotics, AI and developments in neuroscience. Technologies have to be 'disruptive' and certainties of the past are being exposed and undermined. However, new developments do not benefit all people equally, nor is everyone prepared or able to continuously adapt. "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses,” as Henry Ford never said.

This may bring some people to a nostalgic longing for the familiarity of the past, when everything seemed to be so much easier. This in turn can lead to revisionist or revengeful ideas that could throw our world into turmoil, if solutions for a fair distribution of the new wealth that revolutionary technologies bring, fail to be implemented. The recent rise of the populist D.J. Trump in the USA is a harbinger of this “movement against reality.”

The future is there to be discovered, but what we find will usually be anything but what we predicted. Rather, it will go far beyond whatever we could have imagined with the knowledge we now have.