Postscript Re: Ray Kurzweil

July 30, 2001 by Jaron Lanier

This postscript to his One Half of a Manifesto is a further discussion and criticism of exponential trends. Do these trends exist as predictive models, or are we playing connect-the-dots based upon an arbitrary selection of milestones and paradigm shifts?

Read Ray Kurzweil’s response here. “One Half of a Manifesto” can be read here. Originally published November 20, 2000 at Edge. Published on July 30, 2001.

Much to my surprise, Ray Kurzweil and I spoke in succession (in Atlanta, at one of Vanguard’s events) just as I was writing these responses. We see the world quite differently. He would certainly reject my last claim above, that fundamental intellectual achievement isn’t inexorably speeding up.

I see punctuated equilibria in the history of science. Right now we’re in the midst of an explosion of new biology. Around the turn of the last century there was an explosion of data and insight about physics. Physics is now searching for its next explosion but hasn’t found it yet.

I also see a distinction between quantity and quality that Ray doesn’t. I see computers getting bigger and faster, but it doesn’t directly follow that computer science is also improving exponentially.

Ray sees everything as speeding up, including the speed of the speedup. In Atlanta, he collected varied graphic portrayals of exponential historical processes in a slide show, and labeled these a “countdown” to the singularity he predicts will arrive about a quarter of the way into the new century.

His exponential histories blend what others might think of as varied phenomena together into categories without differentiation. For instance, he showed a slide about Moore’s Law, but with the timeframe not limited to the era of the silicon chip. Instead, he defines chips as just one of five technological phases that have upheld the exponential speedup of computation that started with the earliest mechanical calculation devices. He infers that the curve will be continued with nanotechnological or other devices once the limits of chip technology are reached, in perhaps twelve years. Likewise he showed a grand exponential account of the history of life on Earth that started with items like the Cambrian Explosion at the foot of the curve and soared to modern technological marvels at its heights, as if these were all of a kind.

I hope I can avoid being cast as the person who precisely disagrees with Ray, since I think we agree on many things. There are exponential phenomena at work, of course, but I feel they have robust contrarian company. I believe our human story is not best defined by a smooth curve, even at a large scale (although I try to make one exception, which I’ll describe below). If there was ever a complex, chaotic phenomenon, we are it.

One question I have about Ray’s exponential theory of history is whether he is stacking the deck by choosing points that fit the curves he wants to find. A technological pessimist could demonstrate a slow-down in space exploration, for instance, by starting with sputnik, and then proceeding to the Apollo and the space shuttle programs and then to the recent bad luck with Mars missions. Projecting this curve into the future could serve as a basis for arguing that space exploration will inexorably wind down. I’ve actually heard such reasoning put forward by antagonists of NASA’s budget. I don’t think it’s a meaningful extrapolation, but it’s essentially similar to Ray’s arguments for technological hyper-optimism.

It’s also possible that evolutionary processes might display local exponential features at only some scales. Evolution might be a grand scale “configuration space search” that periodically exhibits exponential growth as it finds an insulated cul-de-sac of the space that can be quickly explored. These are regions of the configuration space where the vanguard of evolutionary mutation experimentation comes upon a limited theater within which it can play out exponential games like arms races and population explosions. I suspect you can always find exponential sub processes in the history of evolution, but they don’t give form to the biggest picture.

Here’s one example: The dinosaurs were apparently “scaled” (maybe in both the traditional and Silicon Valley senses of the word!) by an “arms race”, leading to larger and larger animals. Dinosaurs were not the only creatures at the time that relied on gigantism as a strategy. Much of the animal kingdom was becoming huger at once. I doubt the size competition proceeded at a linear rate. Arms races rarely do.

If we were dinosaurs debating this question, the Kurzweilosaurus might argue that our descendants would soon be big enough to stand on their toes and touch the moon, and not long after that become as big as the universe. (Tribute is due, as always, to Mark Twain and his erectile Mississippi.)

The race to bigness came to a halt, perhaps because of a spaceborne cataclysm. Whatever the reason for the dinosaurs’ disappearance, they could not have become bigger without bounds. Furthermore, the race to bigness did not inexorably reappear, but was replaced by other races. The mere appearance of an exponential sequence does not mean that it will not encounter an impassable boundary, or become untraceable as other processes exert their influences.

I see a scattered distribution of local, bounded exponential processes in the history of life, while Ray sees these processes all focusing like a coherent laser on a point in time we will likely live to see.

Smart people can be fooled by trends. For instance, in 1666, when technological optimism was perhaps even more pronounced than it is today (when space exploration seemed to be progressing exponentially, for instance), Time Magazine presented what it thought was a sober prediction: That by the year 2000 technology would have advanced to the point that no one in America would work for a living. Automation would take the drudgery out of life. Each American citizen would receive a healthy middle class stipend in the mail every month simply for being American. A specific dollar amount ($30-$40,000 in 1966 dollars) was even projected for the stipend. (Thanks to GBN’s Eamonn Kelly for pointing out this example.)

Time Magazine was making what it saw as a perfectly reasonable extrapolation based on legitimate data. What went wrong with Time’s prediction? There’s no doubt that technology continued to improve in the second half of the twentieth century, and by most interpretations it did so at an exponential clip. Productivity faithfully increased on an exponential curve as well.

Here are a few candidate failings: Public rejection of key predicted technologies such as nuclear energy; “lock in” of such things as cars and freeways, which did not scale cheaply or elegantly; population explosions; increasingly unequal distributions of wealth; entrenchment in law and habit of the work ethic; and perhaps even the beginning of the “planet of helpdesks” scenario that made a cameo appearance in the .5 manifesto. This last possibility provides an alternate way to think about the growing “knowledge economy”.

Note that some of these countervailing elements are exponential in their own right. Population growth is a classic example of an exponential process that can absorb an exponential increase in available resources. This is what has happened with high yield agriculture in India.

What’s really tricky is figuring out when one process will outrun its surroundings for a while in a meaningful way, as the Internet has grown at a faster rate than the population or the larger economy.

I have to admit that I want to believe in one particular large scale, smooth, ascending curve as a governor of mankind’s history. Specifically, I want to believe that moral progress has been real, and continues today. This is not an easy thing to believe in. I formed my desire to believe in it at about the same that Time Magazine made it’s prediction about the end of work.

I remember being a child in the 1960s, and there was a giddy feeling in the air of accelerating social change. While the language was different, the idea wasn’t that different from today’s digital eschatology. It felt like the world was on an exponential course of change, approaching a singularity.

The evidence was there. You could have plotted the points on a graph and seen one of Ray’s curves, but no one thought to do it explicitly at the time. 1776, Civil War, Women’s Suffrage, Civil Rights Struggle, Anti-war movement, Women’s lib, Gay Rights, Animal rights–You could plot all these on a graph and see an exponential rate of expansion of the “Circle of Empathy” I wrote about in the .5 Manifesto. This process seemed to be destined to zoom into a singularity around 1969 or so, when I was nine years old. People were quite depressed when the singularity did not happen. Younger people today might not realize how deeply that singularity’s no-show marked the lives of a vast number of Baby Boomers.

Dinosaurs did not become as large as the universe, work did not disappear in 2000 (at least not by November, 2000, as I write this), and love did not conquer all in 1969. All the trends were real, but were either interrupted, outran their own internal logics, ran out of world to expand into, or were balanced or consumed by other processes.

Copyright © 2000 by Edge Foundation, Inc.