Since I had the effrontery to critize futurism and especially Ray Kurzweil, here’s a repost of something I wrote on the subject a while back…and I’ll expand on it at the end.
(Another try: here’s a cleaner scan of the chart.)
You see, Kurzweil is predicting that the accelerating pace of technological development is going to lead to a revolutionary event called the Singularity in our lifetimes. Drum has extended his graph (the pink areas) to show that, if it were correct, these changes ought to be occurring at a still faster rate now…something we aren’t seeing. There’s something wrong in this.
I peered at that graph myself, and the flaws go even deeper. It’s bogus through and through.
Kurzweil cheats. The most obvious flaw is the way he lumps multiple events together as one to keep the distribution linear. For example, one “event” is “Genus Homo, Homo erectus, specialized stone tools”, and another is “Printing, experimental method” and “Writing, wheel”. If those were treated as separate events, they would have inserted major downward deflections in his chart a million years ago, and about 500 to a few thousand years ago.
The biology is fudged, too. Other “events” are “Class Mammalia“, “Superfamily Hominoidea“, “Family Hominidae“, the species “Homo sapiens“, and the subspecies “Homo sapiens sapiens“. Think about it. If the formation of a species, let alone a subspecies, is a major event about a million years ago, why isn’t each species back to the Cambrian awarded equivalent significance? Because it wouldn’t fit his line, of course. As he goes back farther in time, he’s using larger and larger artificial taxonomic distinctions to inflate the time between taxa.
It’s also simplifying the complex. “Spoken language” is treated as a discrete event, one little dot with a specific point of origin, as if it just poofed into existence. However, it was almost certainly a long-drawn-out, gradual process stretched out over hundreds of thousands of years. Primates communicate with vocalizations; why not smear that “spoken language” point into a fuzzy blur stretching back another million years or so?
Here’s another problem: cows. If you’re going to use basic biology as milestones in the countdown to singularity, we can find similar taxonomic divisions in the cow lineage, so they were tracking along with us primates all through the first few billion years of this chart. Were they on course to the Singularity? Are they still? If not, why has the cow curve flattened out, and doesn’t that suggest that the continued linearity of the human curve is not an ineluctable trend? This objection also applies to every single species on the planet—ants, monkeys, and banana plants all exhibit a “trend” if you look backwards on it (a phenomenon Gould called “retrospective coronation”), and you can even pretend it is an accelerating trend if you gin it up by using larger and larger taxonomic divisions the farther back you go.
Even the technologies are selectively presented. Don’t the Oldowan, Acheulian, and Mousterian stone tool technologies represent major advances? Why isn’t the Levallois flake in the chart as a major event, comparable to agriculture or the Industrial Revolution? Copper and iron smelting? How about hygiene or vaccination?
I’ll tell you why. Because not only is the chart an artificial and perhaps even conscious attempt to fit the data to a predetermined conclusion, but what it actually represents is the proximity of the familiar. We are much more aware of innovations in our current time and environment, and the farther back we look, the blurrier the distinctions get. We may think it’s a grand step forward to have these fancy cell phones that don’t tie you to a cord coming from the wall, but there was also a time when people thought it was radical to be using this new bow & arrow thingie, instead of the good ol’ atlatl. We just lump that prior event into a “flinging pointy things” category and don’t think much of it. When Kurzweil reifies biases that way, he gets garbage, like this graph, out.
Now I do think that human culture has allowed and encouraged greater rates of change than are possible without active, intelligent engagement—but this techno-mystical crap is just kookery, plain and simple, and the rationale is disgracefully bad. One thing I will say for Kurzweil, though, is that he seems to be a first-rate bullshit artist.
I don’t think he’ll be sending me a copy of his book to review.
I got one thing wrong in my original article: he did send me a copy of his book, The Singularity is Near! I even read it. It was horrible.
Most of it was exactly like the example above: Kurzweil tosses a bunch of things into a graph, shows a curve that goes upward, and gets all misty-eyed and spiritual over our Bold Future. Some places it’s OK, when he’s actually looking at something measurable, like processor speed over time. In other places, where he puts bacteria and monkeys on the Y-axis and pontificates about the future of evolution, it’s absurd. I am completely baffled by Kurzweil’s popularity, and in particular the respect he gets in some circles, since his claims simply do not hold up to even casually critical examination.
I actually am optimistic about technological progress, and I think some of the things he talks about (nanotechnology, AI, etc.) will come to pass. But I do not believe in the Singularity at all.
Nanotech is overhyped, though. They seem to be aspiring to build little machines that do exactly what bacteria and viruses do right now…and don’t seem to appreciate the compromises and restrictions that are a natural consequence of multifunctional systems. I also don’t believe in the gray goo nightmare scenario: we’re already surrounded by a cloud of miniscule replicating machines that want to break our bodies down into their constituent molecules. We seem to cope, usually.
I think we will develop amazing new technologies, and they will affect human evolution, but it will be nothing like what Kurzweil imagines. We have already experienced a ‘singularity’ — the combination of agriculture, urbanization, and literacy transformed our species, but did not result in a speciation event, nor did it have quite the abrupt change an Iron Age Kurzweil might have predicted. Probably the most radical evolutionary changes would be found in our immune systems as we adapted to new diets and pathogens, but people are still people, and we can find cultures living a neolithic life style and an information age lifestyle, and they can still communicate and even interbreed. Maybe this information age will have as dramatic and as important an effect on humanity as the invention of writing, but even if it does, don’t expect a nerd rapture to come of it. Just more cool stuff, and a bigger, shinier, fancier playground for humanity to gambol about in.