Is Ray Kurzweil Out To Lunch? | Vol. 3 / No. 39.3

Ray Kurweil, Futurist | Photo: Ed Schipul, CC BY-SA 2.0

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Elle sent me this article yesterday by Matt Novak over at Gizmodo’s Paleofuture blog. It’s called “Ray Kurzweil Is Talking Bullshit Again,” and it argues that, at least in one example, Ray Kurzweil is completely out to lunch. Here’s the bit of a recent speech he took issue with:

People think the world’s getting worse, and we see that on the left and the right, and we see that in other countries. People think the world is getting worse. … That’s the perception. What’s actually happening is our information about what’s wrong in the world is getting better. A century ago, there would be a battle that wiped out the next village, you’d never even hear about it. Now there’s an incident halfway around the globe and we not only hear about it, we experience it.

Novak argues that the world was always really connected, and that Kurzweil doesn’t understand history. He seizes on the fact that “a century ago” was 1916, the middle of World War One, and that the statement about “the next village” being wiped out and you not knowing is patently absurd. These are, in fact, both accurate assessments. But I posit that it’s more a matter of Kurzweil being kind of old and hyperbolic, and not Kurzweil being an idiot, as the assumption seems to be.

You see, there’s this weird thing where, when we talk about time in relation to ourselves, we often fixate on a certain year. Remember ET phoning home? That was 1982. How long ago was 1982? If you answered “about twenty years” you’re wrong, because like me you’ve probably gotten stuck mentally in your “how you relate to the past” year. I find that for a lot of people it’s about when they turn twenty. Twenty years ago was 1996, and the people born that year are in college now. Much to my horror, 1982 was nearly 35 years ago. I think maybe Ray Kurzweil’s done something similar.

Kurzweil was born in 1948. He turned twenty in 1968. If that’s his reference date, then his statement’s a hell of a lot closer to true. In 1868 they still hadn’t finished the first transcontinental railroad in the US (that was the next year). The telephone wouldn’t be patented until 1876. Sending the equivalent of a text message had only been possible since the previous decade, and was done over a cable that had been stretched across the continent. Not that the speed didn’t improve quickly — by 1887 newspapers were able to report the explosion of Krakatoa (Krakatau?) within days, thanks to undersea telegraph cables that had been laid about much of the world. Sending signals across the airwaves would come later, but it would come, and eventually transatlantic telephone conversations and satellites and the internet and real-time video streaming of live events from your cellphone or whatever the cool kids are doing these days.

But even in 1916, we didn’t have the graphic representations of the war front the way we do today. In World War I, sure, there were cameras — but they also sent painters to the front lines to capture it. In the first Gulf War it was a thing of amazement to watch Christiane Amanpour standing and reporting live(!) in video(!) from the top of the roofs in an actual war zone(!!). Today we get fifteen cellphone camera videos of an attack before a single reporter can even get there. He’s not wrong that our information about the bad things in the world is getting faster, better, cheaper — and more vivid.

He’s also not wrong that the world is actually getting better. Objectively better, by many, many measurements. Global poverty is falling. Global hunger is down, too, from 18.6% in 1990-2 to 10.9% in 2014-6. Global average life expectancy went up by five years from 2000-2015. Hell, even the pay gap between men and women in the US has gone from 59% in 1974 to 79% today (even if progress has slowed in the past decade). It’s not all sunshine and roses all the time, but zoom out and you get a really nice trend.

The two main things Kurzweil was saying — that (a) we have a greater capacity now than ever before to not only hear about bad news around the world but to experience it; and that (b) actually things are improving — are both true. He was wrong about the timing (and let’s be frank, he’s never been good with timing), and his predictions have been rather vague, but in this instance he’s not really that wrong.

Now I’m not going to advocate paying him (or for that matter anybody) $50,000 for a speech. I swear if I ever get famous I’ll still think earning more than the average worker’s yearly wage for an evening’s work is ridiculous. But is what he’s saying in this case “dog excrement” as Novak claims? I don’t think so. It’s not perfectly accurate, but it’s not that far off, either.

And you know what? Come to think of it, that’s just like most of his predictions, too.

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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.

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