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"2020 Vision" - A lesson in progress, nostalgia, and unpredictability

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As some of you know, I'm a former member of the now-defunct Kurzweilai.net forum. I was just looking through its saved archives and found this gem from 17 years ago: http://www.kurzweila....php?rootID=475


In the thread, the users discuss whether Ray Kurzweil's beliefs about "exponentially improving technology" are valid, and whether he's right that as much advancement will happen between 2001 and 2020 as happened between 1900 and 2000. 


Here are a few interesting bits: 



The look-and-feel of daily life in this country hasn't changed all that much since my teens, in the 1970's, and we are still struggling with the same problems, like the supplies of fossil fuels.

Real oil prices have barely increased since then, in spite of sharp growth in demand thanks to China, and fracking and the growth of alternative energy have caused fears of "Peak Oil" to almost vanish. Today, the prospect of rich countries being able to transition from fossil fuels to clean(er) energy sources without bankrupting themselves is taken seriously by mainstream analysts and leaders. 



I remember when the family TV was a SINGLE TV and BLACK AND WHITE (and I grew up in a family with a net worth and annual income both in the top 1% and a father who is a TV freak, so I don't imagine you had color TV to watch Mr. Roger's Neighborhood or whatever on, did you?). 

Today, people have TV's in most every room in the house - the kitchen, the master bathroom, heck, I have a COLOR TV over my laundry machines purely for watching while doing laundry. 

They never would have assumed it, but the number of TVs per American household has been declining since 2009. People watch more content on their computing devices (smartphones, tablets, laptop screens). 



I bet this trend will continue. Furthermore, I think if we had "2040 Vision," we'd likely see people in that year watching most of their video content on AR/VR glasses. 



And while cars were around when you and I were born, I bet some when you were born lacked seatbelts, let alone airbags to protect most every body part other than your tush in some models today. And there were no automatic sunroofs - we had to have two people get the top off the Corvette (the hard top, anyway; the white fabric top would easily enough fold into the back of the car). There were also no automatic locks, automatic seat adjusters, automatic windows, and on and on feature wise when I was a kid. 

And of course now we have self-driving cars. They're rapidly improving and will be even better and more widespread by 2020. 



Considering all the meretricious nonsense on television these days, I don't consider people's ability to watch television all the time to constitute "progress." The same goes for the obnoxious proliferation of cellphones, since most people can't possibly have that much of importance to say to one another that can't wait until they meet in person. I could see keeping a cellphone for emergencies, of course. 

This is funny. Today, we bemoan the popularity of social media and texting, and think nostalgically about the times when we actually spoke to each other on our phones. 



Ha, you have me there, Mark! I often think we'd be better off as a society without TV, and watch rather little myself, even with all the sets around the house. The TV by the laundry machines is also a radio and I usually listen to the radio when doing laundry.

He kind of got his wish in the form of network TV and cable TV declining as viewers switched to streaming services like Netflix and Hulu. Most would agree that the new options provide better content, but at lower cost and fewer annoying commercials. 


Standalone radios have also been obsoleted by smartphones. It's kind of retro to have a radio in one room of your house that you listen to when doing chores. 




I agree again. I don't use my cell phone most months. It is there for emergencies and if I am stuck in traffic and running late or the like (and then, I am not driving and chatting at the same time).  

Again, it's funny to see how what constitutes a "baseline" or "ideal" level of personal technology changes over time and is contingent. In 2001, old timers argued that cell phones were not really necessary, and people only really needed landlines. In 2018, old timers argue that smartphones are not really necessary, and people only really need the sorts of "dumb" cell phones we had in 2001, but fewer and fewer of them will also say landlines are necessary. 


In fact, most American households DON'T have landlines anymore. 




Did I note here before how computers can also be viewed as a step back in some ways because where people used to meet face to face or hear the voice of the other on the phone or receive handwritten and to me more personal mail, now most communication seems to be done by computer if it can be done this way? 

And this problem has only gotten worse since the rise of social media. We now have society-wide problems with internet addiction and mental illness caused by the use of the technology. 



I feel that the fundamental "red-tape" that limits this theory is because of corporations and political giants who attempt to detour new technologies in an effort to stay in business. 

An example would be Oil Companies and other complementary business models who aren't keen on alternative fuel sources as it removes them from the supreme power of having control over an inelastic good. 
It's a hard concept to spot and prove as well, happening behind closed-doors, board rooms and areas where us common folk don't have access to such viable information. 
Hence, I feel the exponential growth that could be happening right now in the realms of technology are held back by the monopolies of certain industries and the international conflicts between countries over whose interests are more important.

Today, even big oil companies are investing in clean energy. 




It depends on where you look. If you're looking at the Internet, molecular biology, chaos and complexity, and the effect of quantum mechanics on physics, things are moving along quite nicely. The average family car is also becoming quite intelligent. It wasn't too long ago that fossil fuels were predicted to run out and plunge us all into darkness and put us on bicycles. Computers have made finding new sources so easy that we now seem to have as much or more than ten years ago. When my mother died, she had seen the beginning of manned flight take place with something little better than a kite with a motor and lived to see men walk on the moon. I don't know what all we'll see in the next 20 years, but it probably won't take over the world in that time. People still live on food we grow but small farmers are being driven out of agribusiness by large corporations. Globalization is replacing nationalism and we've just about run out of unexplored territory on this planet.

He was right that, though technology significantly advanced over the next ~20 years, it didn't "exponentially improve," and daily life remained recognizable. 9/11, the Iraq War, the Great Recession, illegal immigration, and other traumas of course slowly led to a resurgence of nationalism across the world.



I think too that we've grown accustomed to expect a "Moore's Law of progress" from all computing devices. I know my computer will be obsolete as soon as I buy it, and that 2 years later it will be a dinosaur, but the average person takes that in stride, like it's no big deal. 

There are dozens of products that are coming in the near future that I do think will make people sit up and take notice: Internet2, fuel cells, most biotech breakthroughs, e-ink, tablet PCs, Anoto paper, wearable computing devices, Moller Skycar, early robots, etc. All of these devices will arrive within the next ten years, some are just a few years away.  

This person was just plain too optimistic! I don't build my own PCs, but people I know who do say that progress has really slowed down, and you can keep a computer for 10 years now before it truly gets obsolete. 


"Internet 2.0," e-ink (mostly in the form of e-readers), and tablet computers did become widespread by his ten-year deadline. Depending on what you classify as a "wearable computing device," that prediction may have also come true. Certainly, smart watches count, and the Apple Watch was introduced in 2015. 


In summary, it's interesting to look at this discussion from 2001--which is not much different from speculative discussions we have on this forum today--and to see how the futurists didn't think that some basic technologies that they took for granted--like standalone radios and TVs--might be headed for obsolescence by 2020. I wonder if we're doing the same thing today. Their general insight that "technology will get better, but not as fast as Ray Kurzweil says" is probably as true today as it was then. 



    2020 is here; I still suck

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Mental illness caused by the use of technology? I have to say I have not seen the statistics nor the causal proposition behind said correlation. 


Also I don't know what you mean when you say that technology did not "exponentially improve" as by most quantifiable measures this exponential improvement is evident. I've had my PC for a couple of years now and what I can say is that obsolesce is at this point dependent on the particular application. If you wish to game in VR at high resolutions then a modern PC is a must. If you're doing intense video editing/graphic work or are otherwise using intensive applications then a modern multi-core system is still a prerequisite. Actually if you look at a PC from 10 years ago then it is quite evident that even modern websites tax a system of that age. 


Although I do agree as to the unpredictability of progress as I think that we may be surprised in a few years time as more minds are added to the to the global system, including artificial ones. 

The growth of computation is doubly exponential growth.

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