Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Futurologists Say the Darnedest Things

Singularitarian Robot Cultist Michael Anissimov has called my attention to one of his fellow-futurologists, one Gene Stephens, who has apparently said the following extremely curious thing:
“With the equivalent of 5,000 years of technological progress expected between 2000 and 2025, it’s difficult to forecast the dilemmas that lie ahead.”

This person apparently works for the FBI and is also a member of an ominously-monikered organization of which I have never before heard called "Police Futurists International," which I must say red-lights every alarm across my personal control-panel.

Quite apart from all that, however, I must confess to feelings of deep perplexity about the actual claim that is being highlighted in this quotation.

When Stephens suggests that the equivalent of 5,000 years of technological progress is "expected" between 2000 and 2025, just who is it that he thinks "expects" this? I think that probably at least a hundred thousand people expect the arrival of the Biblical Rapture for every single person on earth who expects 5,000 years of technological progress to have nudged humanity into an unfathomable elsewhere fifteen years hence. Even so, I think it would be problematic to describe the Biblical Rapture to be generically "expected" in any sense, surely?

When Stephens suggests that the equivalent of 5,000 years of technological progress is expected between 2000 and 2025, is he aware that nearly ten of those twenty-five years have already elapsed? Maybe when Stephens evokes "5,000 years of technological progress" he means to refer to the 5,000 years of technological progress that played out between 45,000 BCE and 40,000 BCE? Otherwise, is it his view that the Bush years amounted to a kind of Golden Age in which the equivalent of, say, 2,000 years of technological progress took place? One wonders why the kids are still listening to "new" music from the 90s, why my 1998 computer crashes less than my 2006 one, why obesity and flu pandemics rather than immortalization therapies are sweeping the planet, and why the Shuttle and the Concorde are grounded rather than zipping us off to the L5 Four Seasons right about now?

And just what are we to make of that apparent fudging of actual substance through the introduction of the notion of "equivalency" here? When Stephens suggests that the "equivalent" of 5,000 years of technological progress is expected between 2000 and 2025, does that mean that he will be satisfied that such an "equivalent" is in evidence if by 2025 we just get more boner pills, more ubiquitous jittery digital media, more windmills, and maybe a 70s-style Chinese Moon landing as seems more likely in my view?

One has to wonder if the self-congratulatory attribution of "expertise" to the futurologist (whatever that "expertise" is finally supposed to consist of, apart from what looks to me like relentless corporate-friendly bullshit-artistry) ever diminishes the least bit in the face of serially failed prognostication? Can the futurologists ever get it so wrong so often that the people who take them seriously in the first place will ever, well, stop taking them seriously? Honestly, how many times does energy too cheap to meter, radical longevity medicine, artificial intelligence, robotic super-sex, and universal superabundance on the cheap have to fail to arrive fifteen years from today before the futurologists' literally annual supremely confidence declarations that they will arrive fifteen years from today will fail to attract the attention of breathless corporate media outlets and even serious policy-makers who have, after all, actual jobs to do that often require sensible deliberation about the funding and regulation of technoscience in an actual world of actual consequences to actual diverse stakeholders with little connection to the deranged and deranging hyperbole of futurology?


Eric said...

"Can the futurologists ever get it so wrong so often that the people who take them seriously in the first place will ever, well, stop taking them seriously?"

Not as long as people want to be told their lives will magically improve "soon" without them so much as lifting a finger. This is the entire basis of the success astrology as well as the rapture-humpers you mentioned already.

That said, they did finally fix the bugs in the iphone so that's 500 years of progress right there.

Anonymous said...

Longtime reader - first time comment... Eric made me laugh so hard I had to post!


Marc_Geddes said...


Don't worry. The robot cultists are indeed all wrong so far, but that doesn't that someone will come along who isn't.

I can do it all myself Dale my friend. Singularity, Robot God, shiny hot new bods and all that. I think I've finally cracked it working part-time on my own using just a lap-top, wikipedia, a daily coffee from Starbucks and the odd sci-fi novel and movie as inspiration.

Nato Welch said...

I can't believe you didn't really dig into the first absurdity that came immediately to my mind:

How exactly can one "expect" 5000 years of forthcoming technological progress while admitting the incompetence of your own forecasting powers in the very same sentence?

When did "forecasts" stealthily become "expectations"?

I can see it now: futurists will magically excuse themselves from error, as it becomes apparent, by saying to the world: "See? I TOLD you predicting the future was hard WITH ALL THAT HYPER-SPEED TECHNO PROGRESS whizzing around!"

I tend to believe that 5000 techno-years is just one of those forecasts that he's claiming it's so hard to get right - but he seems to have graduated it to the status of a given.

jimf said...

Something I posted to a certain mailing list back in 2000
(almost 15 years ago, in terms of the then-current rate
of technological progress ;-> ).

Date: 12/21/2000
Subject: Re: Kurzweil vs. Dertouzos

Joseph Sterlynne wrote:

>> An exchange between Ray Kurzweil and Michael Dertouzos in MIT's _Technology
>> Review_ over future technological progress:
>> Kurzweil vs. Dertouzos

In this letter, Ray Kurzweil makes the same claim I heard him
make in his keynote address this past summer at PC Expo in New
York -- namely, that the 21st century will encompass 20,000 years
of technological progress, measured as the amount of progress
accomplished in one calendar year at the current (year 2000)
rate, because (Kurzweil claims) technological progress is and
will continue to be described by an exponential curve. He made
the same claim at that Spiritual Robots seminar at Stanford
hosted by Douglas Hofstadter and in a recent article in an
on-line magazine called "Business 2.0" at

This statement (that the next century will see the equivalent of
20,000 years of progress at today's rate) is certainly a very
potent rhetorical device, which rivets the audience's attention
and gets their adrenaline surging (either out or fear or
anticipation!) A friend of mine, who was with me at PC Expo,
asked me later exactly how this 20,000 years will be distributed
over the next century, and apart from saying that most of it will
be stuffed into the last decades, I never bothered to provide him
with a better answer.

However, I later resurrected some college calculus, and after a
bit of stumbling around, came up with an exponential function (a
pair of them, actually -- one is the derivative of the other)
that, if I did the math correctly, gives some interesting
intermediate numbers between now and 2100, and fits Kurzweil's
20,000-year figure closely enough.

The function E(x), which gives the total elapsed technological
progress (in years at current year 2000 rate of progress) between
now (year 2000, x=0) and a century from now (year 2100, x=100)

E(x) = (13.8 * e^.0725x) - 13.8

The function I(x), which gives the instantaneous rate of progress
relative to the current (year 2000) rate, is:

I(x) = d/dx E(x) = e^.0725x

Here are some representative values:

Elapsed E(x) I(x)
Time (yrs) (Total Progress since 2000) (Instantaneous Rate)
Year (since 2000) (years at 2000 rate) (compared to 2000 rate)

2000 0 0 1
2001 1 1.034 1.075
2002 2 2.153 1.156
2005 5 6.029 1.437
2010 10 14.69 2.065
2015 15 27.14 2.967
2020 20 45.03 4.263
2025 25 70.74 6.128
2030 30 107.7 8.802
2035 35 160.7 12.65
2040 40 237.0 18.17
2045 45 346.6 26.11
2050 50 504.0 37.52
2060 60 1055 77.48
2070 70 2194 160.0
2080 80 4544 330.3
2090 90 9398 682.0
2100 100 19420 1408

As you can see, it kind of sneaks up on you!

jimf said...

HOWEVER, it later occurred to me that these numerically
impressive "years at current rate of progress" numbers start to
look a little fluffy if you shift your Year 0 point of view
backward a few decades (which I've already lived long enough to
do while staying within the span of years encompassed by my own
personal memories) and use the formula to compute "years at
then-current rate of progress" looking forward to the present
from that past vantage point. For example, according to the
exponential function I plotted (derived from Kurzweil's
20,000-years-in-the-next-century statement), between now and
2040, there will be 237 years of progress at the year 2000 rate.
OK, so that also means (assuming the same curve was in effect)
that there's been 237 years of progress at the **1960** rate of
progress between 1960 and now.

I was thinking of a science-fiction story by Robert A. Heinlein
called _The Door Into Summer_ (there are, of course, hundreds of
similar examples), which was written in 1956. This story starts
around 1970 (only 14 years in the future, from the point of view
of its authorship), by which time, Heinlein imagines, there will
be household robots (the hero of the story is an engineer and
entrepreneur who had founded a company called "Hired Girl, Inc."
[now **that** really dates the story!] and is forced out by his
business partners).

Now, looking forward from 1956, Heinlein plausibly (for the time)
imagined useful robots by 1970, 14 years later. Remember, those
were the heady days of the earliest commercial digital computers
("electronic brains") and Alan Turing's speculations about the
possibility of artificial intelligence, as well as of the
post-war consumer electronics boom (the beginning of the Age of
Television). Heinlein might have been mildly disappointed if
you'd told him that consumer housecleaning robots wouldn't have
been invented even by the year 2000, 44 years later. He would
**certainly** have been disappointed if you'd gone on to tell him
that, since progress is exponential, that 44-year gap is really
equivalent to something like 350 years at the "1956 rate of
progress". He might think, "wow, 350 years ain't what it's
cracked up to be!". He would probably have been appalled if
you'd then added that technology optimists in 2000 now anticipate
that such devices might start showing up around 2040, after
**more than six thousand years** of progress at the 1956 rate!!

jimf said...

I suspect our **expectations** of the future may be exponential
in some sense, too. In other words, we can imagine all sorts of
things we'd like to have or do, and even portray them to the masses
by means of TV shows like _Star Trek_, many of which (like
intelligent machines or immortality) are out of reach to an
indeterminate degree compared to what is possible with today's
technology. Kurzweil says we've all adapted to and internalized the
current rate of change, which causes us to underestimate the
progress that will occur during a future calendar period (like
the next century), but I wonder if our unbounded hopes for
the future make our linear view the more realistic one, even
if Kurzweil's exponential curve is accurate.

There's a special edition of _Newsweek_ magazine on the
newsstands right now entitled "Issues 2001" which has a section
called "The Technological Human" starting on p. 46 and containing
nine articles. One of these, on p. 50, is entitled "2001: Why
HAL Never Happened". The article's author, Steven Levy, says
that "Marvin Minsky, the celebrated MIT computer scientist who
was one of Kubrick's gurus on the subject, had blurted to _Life_
magazine [sometime in the late 60's, presumably] that within a
few years, 'we will have a machine that will be able to read
Shakespeare, grease a car, play office politics, tell a joke,
have a fight.'" Levy then goes on to say, "More recently, to
author David Stork, [Minsky] has called the quote a joke, and
says that he has always believed we'll have HAL-like computers
'in between four and 400 years'". Minsky means calendar years,

Let's see -- in terms of "years at the current (Y2K) rate of
progress" (blending Kurzweil's exponential math and Minsky's
revised timeline for AI) we should expect HAL-like computers
after anywhere between about 4.6 years and 54 trillion years
of continued technological progress (at the current year 2000 rate).

That sounds about right! ;-> ;-> ;->

Jim F.

Antonin said...

Transhumanists = need to read moar Peter Watts.

True Sci-fi ain't all hugs and kisses.

(Link at sig.)

jimf said...

> True Sci-fi ain't all hugs and kisses.

The kind that ain't, ain't read by folks into
Dynamic Optimism (TM).

I even saw the term "entropic science fiction", someplace on
the Web, for that kind of thing (e.g., Ray Bradbury's
_The Martian Chronicles_) which, I have to admit, constitutes
some of my favorite sci-fi, if I'm in the mood for it.

William Gibson (_Neuromancer_ et seq.) has always been on
the transhumanists' shit list (as has Bruce Sterling), but
some of the (more intelligent) best-known SF authors have now publicly
renounced them -- not only Sterling (and S. M. Stirling!)
and Charlie Stross, but people they used to admire -- like Greg
Egan (now **that** must've stung).

Now J. G. Ballard (_The Drowned World_, the Vermilion Sands
stories [ ])
I would never have expected the Extropians to like (he was
hated by the ray-guns-'n-rocket-ships crowd back in the
60's when he helped usher in sci-fi's "New Wave").

Even Arthur C. Clarke is held to be suspect by some
up-up-and-away types when he gets into his more lyrical,
lugubriously elegiac moods (_The City and the Stars_,
story "The Road to the Sea", and even _2001: A Space Odyssey_).

Olaf Stapledon (the **prototypical** "transhumanist" author,
right up there with George Bernard Shaw) is almost completely
ignored by >Hists, as far as I can tell. Curious.

Hard-nosed, hard-edged Australian author (the late) George Turner
(_Brain Child_) is somebody else who would, no doubt (as somebody on
the Extropians' list who should know once said) have laughed
the more unthinking optimists "to scorn".

No, the SF author who seems to set Extropian hearts a-flutter
these days is John C. Wright.

jimf said...

> . . .why my 1998 computer crashes less than my 2006 one. . .

OK, putting on my geek hat -- this really should not be.
(I assume we're talking about Windows here, not Mac or Linux).

Windows XP et seq. (including Vista) is **vastly** more stable
than Windows 98 was (for perfectly good reasons -- the NT kernel
is less susceptible to getting frozen by user-mode processes
than the old Win95/Win98 kernel was).

Now, device drivers can still cause havoc (which is why Microsoft
has that certification program -- you click "install anyway"
at your own risk, though of course everybody does just that).

Also, if you've got bargain-basement hardware, that can cause
system crashes. I have one (admittedly bargain basement --
I bought it on eBay) system which I had to underclock a bit
in order for it to be stable enough to use.

But no -- computers really are way better than they were in