In his book The Singularity is Near, Ray Kurzweil predicts that by the third decade of this century, people will be able to upload their brains onto computers. Functionally, immortality. By 2045, he goes on, we'll have reached the Singularity; a huge paradigm shift wherein artificial intelligence becomes more capable than human intelligence, and we're more or less relegated to second place. It'll be a brave new world, and so on, and so forth.
The problem with this is that it's bullshit. Some things that by Ray Kurzweil's predictions should already have happened include fully-immersive virtual reality, the disappearance of computers as distinct objects, computer-driven cars being commonplace, telephones that translate between languages on the fly, and drugs being tested entirely on simulations of humans. Not having an AI chauffeur myself, I take a somewhat skeptical approach. Not that he hasn't been accurate at times; he predicted the likes of the Kindle, although it's a gulf between that and 'by 2009, most books are read on screen'. Likewise, he was correct about computers taking on a new importance in the classroom, even if students aren't interrogating a virtual Ben Franklin in history class.
But it's time to stop being charitable. Kurzweil trades in, and has made a career on, a type of bullshit that's thoroughly familiar to me. People have been pulling the same act for years, no more accurately; the 1950s view of 2011 had flying cars but no internet. More than that, it's playing off of the same gullibility and cognitive biases as 'psychics' do. Whether it's making predictions so vague and open-ended they're not even wrong, or riding the coat-tails of trends that seem obvious (Education would make more use of computers? Who knew?), it's the same method. It exploits the tendency people have to remember hits and forget misses - if you make nine predictions that are utterly wrong, and one that's accurate by happenstance, guess which one people remember - as well as the benefit of time; no-one in 2045 is going to go back and check up on all that stuff Ray Kurzweil said would happen, are they?
You might well say, 'But Montag, what's the harm? Kurzweil and his ilk are just making harmless predictions about interesting technology'. To which I reply, no. To a man, they're either charlatans or deluded, and their predictions - not hopes for the future, mind, concrete predictions that Amazing Thing X will happen by Date Y - are very harmful indeed in terms of the way in which we approach technology and the scientific processes that drive it. This kind of futurism clings like a remora to perfectly legitimate science, and tries to use it to justify a worldview absent of any evidence. You might be a researcher working on more efficient prosthetic limbs, say, and the likes of Kurzweil will parachute in and explain to the world that your work means that in six months' time we'll all be wearing rocket boots. Science doesn't work that way, and if we want to have the important discussions about how technology will change our society - whether it's the ethical stuff around cloning or stem cells, or the practical applications of things like military UAVs - then I feel we have a responsibility to be realistic about the scientific progress, a responsibility these futurists are neglecting.
Make no mistake, I'm not saying these aren't discussions that we'll need to have as a society sooner or later. But looking to things that are very distant from the bleeding edge of current research as if they're only years away helps nothing. Quite the contrary. For one, it distracts from very real issues in science and medicine that are relevant and happening today. It's all very well to talk about augmented vision and hearing, say, but not so much when a presidential candidate can publicly link a vaccine designed to prevent young women getting cancer to mental retardation, with no evidence whatsoever. Or when a sizeable proportion of Americans don't believe in the veracity of evolution.
That's the lesser of my objections, though, and the greater one is this; to get really excited about this sort of thing - to believe that in twenty years you'll be able to live forever - requires an astonishingly narrow, exclusive view of the world. VR glasses by the end of the decade? That's great. Just over half the population of Africa have no reliable access to safe drinking water. That is happening now, today, and will continue until someone sees fit to fix it. If you want to sit there with your frappuccino and tell me that in thirty years, people will lack a fixed, corporeal form, I will listen very carefully and then point out that in the two minutes it took you to breathlessly explain that, four children under the age of five died of malaria.
Not that I'm anti-technology. Quite the opposite. In many cases, it's going to have to be an integral part of solving these problems the world faces. But to do that, we have to be willing to both talk about it, and implement it, with a greater sense of perspective. Likewise, I don't think Ray Kurzweil is a charlatan. I think he's mad. When you're taking 150 pills a day because you're afraid you won't live long enough to live forever, that's not an ideal situation. The average life expectancy in the US is 78.7 years old. And with the tiniest bit of perspective, perhaps he'd realise just quite how long that is, by historical standards, and focus on trying to enjoy it.
In any case, Kurzweil could confront how technology will affect the breathtaking level of inequality in the world, but he doesn't. He just blithely throws out estimates. 2030s, human immortality. What happens when the 1.3 billion people living on less than $1.25 a day can't afford it, and object? Don't tell me we'll have fixed world poverty by then, because we've been trying for decades and barely made a dent in it. The fact is, the same policies and the same governments that allow you to sit in a safe warm house and pontificate about how technology will solve our problems, have been an undeniable factor in keeping those people in poverty. You, me, and everyone else living in what we so richly call the developed world, have blood on our hands. Maybe not enough that we can't ignore it most of the time, but enough. So forgive me for laughing when you expect me to be impressed by how thin your computer is.