Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Not Everything is Exponential

To begin this post, I present a list of predictions for the year 2019 made by the famed futurist and Google director of engineering Ray Kurzweil, from his 1999 book The Age of Spiritual Machines

  1. The computational capacity of a $4,000 computing device (in 1999 dollars) is approximately equal to the computational capability of the human brain (20 quadrillion calculations per second).
  2. The summed computational powers of all computers is comparable to the total brainpower of the human race.
  3. Computers are embedded everywhere in the environment (inside of furniture, jewelry, walls, clothing, etc.).
  4. People experience 3-D virtual reality through glasses and contact lenses that beam images directly to their retinas (retinal display). Coupled with an auditory source (headphones), users can remotely communicate with other people and access the Internet.
  5. These special glasses and contact lenses can deliver "augmented reality" and "virtual reality" in three different ways. First, they can project "heads-up-displays" (HUDs) across the user's field of vision, superimposing images that stay in place in the environment regardless of the user's perspective or orientation. Second, virtual objects or people could be rendered in fixed locations by the glasses, so when the user's eyes look elsewhere, the objects appear to stay in their places. Third, the devices could block out the "real" world entirely and fully immerse the user in a virtual reality environment.
  6. People communicate with their computers via two-way speech and gestures instead of with keyboards. Furthermore, most of this interaction occurs through computerized assistants with different personalities that the user can select or customize. Dealing with computers thus becomes more and more like dealing with a human being.
  7. Most business transactions or information inquiries involve dealing with a simulated person.
  8. Most people own more than one PC, though the concept of what a "computer" is has changed considerably: Computers are no longer limited in design to laptops or CPUs contained in a large box connected to a monitor. Instead, devices with computer capabilities come in all sorts of unexpected shapes and sizes.
  9. Cables connecting computers and peripherals have almost completely disappeared.
  10. Rotating computer hard drives are no longer used.
  11. Three-dimensional nanotube lattices are the dominant computing substrate.
  12. Massively parallel neural nets and genetic algorithms are in wide use.
  13. Destructive scans of the brain and noninvasive brain scans have allowed scientists to understand the brain much better. The algorithms that allow the relatively small genetic code of the brain to construct a much more complex organ are being transferred into computer neural nets.
  14. Pinhead-sized cameras are everywhere.
  15. Nanotechnology is more capable and is in use for specialized applications, yet it has not yet made it into the mainstream. "Nanoengineered machines" begin to be used in manufacturing.
  16. Thin, lightweight, handheld displays with very high resolutions are the preferred means for viewing documents. The aforementioned computer eyeglasses and contact lenses are also used for this same purpose, and all download the information wirelessly.
  17. Computers have made paper books and documents almost completely obsolete.
  18. Most learning is accomplished through intelligent, adaptive courseware presented by computer-simulated teachers. In the learning process, human adults fill the counselor and mentor roles instead of being academic instructors. These assistants are often not physically present, and help students remotely.
  19. Students still learn together and socialize, though this is often done remotely via computers.
  20. All students have access to computers.
  21. Most human workers spend the majority of their time acquiring new skills and knowledge.
  22. Blind people wear special glasses that interpret the real world for them through speech. Sighted people also use these glasses to amplify their own abilities.
  23. Retinal and neural implants also exist, but are in limited use because they are less useful.
  24. Deaf people use special glasses that convert speech into text or signs, and music into images or tactile sensations. Cochlear and other implants are also widely used.
  25. People with spinal cord injuries can walk and climb steps using computer-controlled nerve stimulation and exoskeletal robotic walkers.
  26. Computers are also found inside of some humans in the form of cybernetic implants. These are most commonly used by disabled people to regain normal physical faculties (i.e. - Retinal implants allow the blind to see and spinal implants coupled with mechanical legs allow the paralyzed to walk).
  27. Language translating machines are of much higher quality, and are routinely used in conversations.
  28. Effective language technologies (natural language processing, speech recognition, speech synthesis) exist.
  29. Access to the Internet is completely wireless and provided by wearable or implanted computers.
  30. People are able to wirelessly access the Internet at all times from almost anywhere
  31. Devices that deliver sensations to the skin surface of their users (i.e.--tight body suits and gloves) are also sometimes used in virtual reality to complete the experience. "Virtual sex"—in which two people are able to have sex with each other through virtual reality, or in which a human can have sex with a "simulated" partner that only exists on a computer—becomes a reality.
  32. Just as visual- and auditory virtual reality have come of age, haptic technology has fully matured and is completely convincing, yet requires the user to enter a V.R. booth. It is commonly used for computer sex and remote medical examinations. It is the preferred sexual medium since it is safe and enhances the experience.
  33. Worldwide economic growth has continued. There has not been a global economic collapse.
  34. The vast majority of business interactions occur between humans and simulated retailers, or between a human's virtual personal assistant and a simulated retailer.
  35. Household robots are ubiquitous and reliable.
  36. Computers do most of the vehicle driving—-humans are in fact prohibited from driving on highways unassisted. Furthermore, when humans do take over the wheel, the onboard computer system constantly monitors their actions and takes control whenever the human drives recklessly. As a result, there are very few transportation accidents.
  37. Most roads now have automated driving systems—networks of monitoring and communication devices that allow computer-controlled automobiles to safely navigate.
  38. Prototype personal flying vehicles using microflaps exist. They are also primarily computer-controlled.
  39. Humans are beginning to have deep relationships with automated personalities, which hold some advantages over human partners. The depth of some computer personalities convinces some people that they should be accorded more rights.
  40. While a growing number of humans believe that their computers and the simulated personalities they interact with are intelligent to the point of human-level consciousness, experts dismiss the possibility that any could pass the Turing Test.
  41. Human-robot relationships begin as simulated personalities become more convincing.
  42. Interaction with virtual personalities becomes a primary interface.
  43. Public places and workplaces are ubiquitously monitored to prevent violence and all actions are recorded permanently. Personal privacy is a major political issue, and some people protect themselves with unbreakable computer codes.
  44. The basic needs of the underclass are met. (Not specified if this pertains only to the developed world or to all countries)
  45. Virtual artists—creative computers capable of making their own art and music—emerge in all fields of the arts.

            For a bunch of predictions made in 1999, Kurzweil has done remarkably well, with almost all of the technological advancements he foresaw either already here or on pace for development by 2019. As the years have gone by, the evidence for continued exponential technological progress has mounted up--Moore's law has continued more or less unabated. As an economist, and not a computer scientist, I can't speak to exactly how Moore's law will continue--transistor density on silicone chips is approaching a theoretical maximum--but there are enough potential advancements in computing technology such as adopting a new medium, like graphene or silicene, developing 3-D transistor architecture, quantum computing, etc. that to say it won't continue is basically to guess that not one of these things will work they way they seem to have the potential to. I apologize if that was a bit rambly--the point is that I accept the premise that Moore's law will continue into the foreseeable future.
            Conversely, the ever accelerating pace of technological progress has proved extremely challenging for humanity to handle on a social level. A big example--here we are as a species in 2015, fully aware of the existential threat posed by climate change, and yet more or less we're doing an awful, awful job changing our behavior to accommodate this fact. It's one thing to predict a technology being invented--predicting the human response to this technology, especially the broader social response, is much more difficult.
          That isn't to say there isn't some happy interplay here, like the invention of the internet allowing the rapid dissemination of a massive amount of information, greater access to education, news, etc. which support social progress and doubtlessly increase the speed at which society embraces beneficial technologies and behaviors. But despite all this, in a similar vein to our failing response to climate change, irrational behavior (defined broadly in this case as behavior that doesn't even look like utility maximization when you squint) is still dominant in our societies.

    There is no real reason to believe point 46, "Worldwide economic growth has continued. There has not been a global economic collapse."

          Social sciences at this point are, to phrase it kindly, not sciences. For a plethora of reasons, the same kind of idea sorting that occurs in sciences like chemistry and physics, where good ideas get proved and bad ideas disproved, does not occur in the social sciences. Even now, immensely powerful bankers and politicians around the world make bad economic policies and support bad economic research, either out of a profound conflict of interest, ignorance, or some combination thereof. Even if economic knowledge was developed enough to provide policy ideas that would prevent collapse (and I don't think it's that far off), that's pretty far from that knowledge being easily identified (there are many contradictory schools of thoughts within economics as a discipline) and implemented by world governments.
          Progress in technological capability rests on a set of much more stable conditions, and we should not extend this same certainty to social progress. It's certainly possible to take technological advancements and use them to help create a better global economy, but it is much less inevitable than Mr. Kurzweil predicts.