Saturday, April 19, 2008

Interesting, but Vague

Ray Kurzweil is a fascinating guy - the kind of person I'd love to spend a week with so I could just pick his brain and learn what he thinks about, well, everything. Inventor and Futurist are the two titles most often associated with his name, and with titles like that he's gotta have some interesting stuff to say! I just read an article of his, you can see it here, that has knocked him down a couple of pegs in my book.

The piece linked above is essentially a statement of faith in the ability of technology to solve all of humanity's problems, primarily due to the exponential nature of technological improvements. I certainly take no issue with his evidence of past exponential improvement. After all, the proof is in the pudding, as it were. I am mildly uncomfortable with his predictions of continuing exponential improvements, but my discomfort stems more from the headfirst, wholly undoubting way in which he tends to present these predictions. It comes across as something akin to uncritical faith or belief. You could say he's just an optimist, and you'd be right, but that still is not quite enough to convince me of our future technological path to the same degree as Kurzweil seems to be.

This is a relatively minor detail, though, in comparison to this next point. Fixing the major world problems of today and days to come will be hard. Simply having access to the computing power (and that is the crux of his argument for future improvement - greater computational capacity leads to a better world) to fix a problem by no means implies the problem will be fixed. There are plenty of problems throughout the world that we know how to fix already (or, at least, think we do). These problems remain unsolved largely due to societal influences.

For a contemporary example, let's look at global climate change. With an admittedly significant investment in R&D and infrastructure, we could build enough alternative energy power plants to provide electricity for the world over. Solar thermal panels in the desert areas, wind and tidal power by the coasts, geothermal power wherever appropriate, and so on. The reason we aren't already undertaking this massive infrastructure-overhaul is because of societal inertia and the prevalence of Radical Skepticism. It is far easier to let things continue puttering along as they are, especially when the issue at hand will likely have no negative repercussions for decades.

Kurzweil hails improved solar panel technology as the power source of the future, but appears to have missed a particularly elementary detail (or he decided to skip over it, given the length of the article). Here's what he said:

The tipping point at which energy from solar panels will actually be less expensive than fossil fuels is only a few years away. The power we are generating from solar is doubling every two years; at that rate, it will be able to meet all energy needs within 20 years.

It's not entirely clear what he means by this. If he means that we are continually installing more solar panels every year, and by sheer numbers we are continually generating greater amounts of electricity, then this statement has no bearing on his central point. If he means that the efficiency of solar panels is doubling every two years, well then he's simply wrong. A bit more than a year ago a new prototype solar panel with a 40.7% efficiency was created. Since then there has been no improvement beyond the low 40% range, and all of these panels are experimental (read as "not ready for market use").

Wikipedia claims that "Photovoltaic production has been doubling every two years, increasing by an average of 48 percent each year since 2002, making it the world’s fastest-growing energy technology." I suppose that would imply Kurzweil's statement having the first meaning discussed above, making it confusing as to why he would bother to include the information at all.

I think that's enough of delving into this particular example. Pulling back to my central theme, Ray Kurzweil seems to have an overly rosy view of the future that needs to be tempered somewhat by the non-computational facets of reality.

1 comment:

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