One way to track scientific and technological progress is to compare outcomes to predictions that were made by futurists. So I pulled out my copy of Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines, written 20 years ago, which has predictions for 2009 and every decade thereafter. Are there predictions that he made for 2019 that came true sooner? Are there predictions that he made for 2009 that came true much later?
I will get into some specifics below, but some general points that occur to me from re-examining these predictions are the following.
1. Relative to his predictions, I can think of few “upsides” (something that appeared sooner or turned out better than predicted) and many “downsides.” Most of his predictions for 2009 have come to pass only in the past few years, and some are still remote. But to offer a more positive take, the fact that most of his milestones for 2009 have been hit as of 2017 is probably a better outcome than most other prognosticators would have been willing to bet on in 1999.
Roughly 50 percent of his predictions for 2019 now appear likely to be realized between 2025 and 2030, and the remaining 50 percent ought to be pushed back even farther.
2. I sense that a lot of progress that he expected has been held back by ergonomic issues. For example, language translation software may be effective, but people find ear buds and microphones to be uncomfortable. Similarly, augmented reality has been held back by the poor ergonomics of what goes over your eyes and ears. Collaboration across distance is not nearly as effortless as Kurzweil anticipated, even though software firms have put a lot of resources into “collaboration tools.”
Maybe more venture capital resources ought to be focused on finding breakthroughs in ergonomics.
3. Progress also has been slow in developing applications that react to the emotional state of human users. This is particularly important if computers are going to contribute outstanding value in education.
4. There is considerable cultural drag. Kurzweil predicted that by 2019 there would be parts of the road system dedicated exclusively to self-driving cars. One can argue that the technology is here to do that, but the culture is not ready to accept the idea.
I think that this cultural drag is becoming increasingly important. William Gibson’s saying that “The future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed” is even more apt than when he said it.
For 2009, Kurzweil predicted that we would have “at least a dozen computers on and around our bodies.” This seems wrong, but if you look at the functions that he expected these computers to perform, they are embedded in smart phones. Some of these capabilities matured after 2009, though, so I think Kurzweil was somewhat optimistic.
Also for 2009, he wrote,
The majority of text is created using continuous speech recognition (CSR) dictation software. . .
That prospect seems remote as I write this in 2017, so I have to count that as a really big miss. The software for speech recognition on my phone works quite well, but the ergonomics for, say, blogging, using speech recognition are not there.
Kurzweil saw distance learning becoming commonplace by 2009. I think that distance learning started to take off a few years after that, and even now it is not comfortable for most teachers and students.
Kurzweil foresaw translating telephone technology by 2009, but it only now seems to be emerging. He foresaw telemedicine in wide use in 2009, but in fact it is just starting to penetrate the health care industry.
About the only “upside” I can come up with is the Kindle reader, which appeared in 2007 and resembles something he predicted for 2009.
For 2019, Kurzweil predicted virtual reality glasses being in “routine” use. That does not look like it will happen.
For 2019, he thought that virtual teachers would have replaced real teachers. Maybe if you count YouTube videos as virtual teachers, but otherwise I think that this has not happened.
You can do virtually anything with anyone regardless of physical proximity. The technology to accomplish this is easy to use and ever present.
“Phone” calls routinely include high-resolution three-dimensional images projected through the direct-eye displays and auditory lenses. . .users feel as if they are physically near the other person.
Relative to where we were when Kurzweil wrote this, FaceTime and Google Hangouts have taken us part of the way toward his vision, but we do not seem close to getting all the way there.