Irrational Certainty: Is Predicting the End of the World Different from Predicting the Singularity is Near?

by Hans Elde on May 21, 2011

I have to admit that I was excited when I woke up this morning, after all, how many times do you get to wake up at the start of the end of the world?

It was May 21 2011, the day of Rapture, according to a Harold Camping; it was the day when true Christians would be whisked away to heaven while us heathens got 5 months to ourselves (admittedly it would be 6 months of ‘chaos’) before the world ended in October.

Harold Camping's Judgment Day Poster

I was pumped.

I checked the page on Facebook for “Post Rapture Looting” (“when everyone is gone and god’s not looking, we need to pick up some sweet stereo equipment and maybe some new furniture for the mansion we’re going to squat in”), an event that has over 2 million invited guests but unfortunately only about 800,000 attending. I then rocked out in the shower to “How Far We’ve Come”, by Matchbox Twenty. As the hours went by, I’ve realized that I’m less and less likely to be getting some sweet stereo equipment, and my prospects for mansion squatting are looking increasingly dim.

All kidding aside, I’m sure I’m not the only one wondering and a bit unnerved by how readily some people will advertise blatantly ridiculous predictions, and how easily others will believe it to be flawless gospel. Who would honestly believe they were going to be spirited away to heaven on May 21, 2011 just based off the words of an old man?

That’s when I drew some uncomfortable connections between this event and my own movement of Transhumanism.

Transhumanism and the concept of the Singularity have had a difficult time getting most people to accept them as rational and viable concepts, and this is a difficulty which has been heavily exacerbated by irrationality, and more specifically, the irrational certainty that many self-proclaimed Transhumanists ascribe to. Perhaps the most prominent example of this irrational certainty is the man who in many eyes epitomizes Transhumanism: Ray Kurzweil.

A few weeks ago I watched a TED talk featuring Kurzweil speaking “on how technology will transform us”, which is an idea that I completely agree with; towards the end of the talk, however, I began to feel uneasy by what he was saying. Why is that? Let me quote a bit:

“So let me just end with a couple of scenarios. By 2010 computers will disappear. They’ll be so small, they’ll be embedded in our clothing, in our environment. Images will be written directly to our retina, providing full-immersion virtual reality, augmented real reality. We’ll be interacting with virtual personalities.” (see video timeline starting at 19:50)

YouTube Preview Image

If you’re like me, then at this point you were looking around in alarm, wondering “Where’s my computer clothing? Why don’t I have images written into my retina? Have I missed out on something?”

Ray Kurzweil made blatant predictions in 2006 about how the world would be in 2010; it’s 2011 and we can obviously see he was wrong. This wasn’t the first time Kurzweil has done this and it definitely wouldn’t be the last; and this is where I have a problem. Most ideas propagated by Ray Kurzweil, the most prominent Transhumanist and Singularitarian, are not prefaced with disclaimers; they are all thrown out as “this is how it is GOING to be, there WILL be this, this WILL happen at THIS time.” And then it doesn’t.

I was introduced to Mr. Kurzweil’s ideas in an article I read on Time magazine’s website entitled 2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal, and it is rife with these predictions. I’ve encountered Transhumanists and Singularitarians online who market their own personal opinions with religious zeal, shouting down all opposite viewpoints, reason, and logic in favor of their own predictions, and they often end up coming across as a bit unstable.

Now, there would be no problem with this if it was just an isolated individual, but it isn’t. These predictions are put forward by a host of bloggers and speakers, and for each one that doesn’t come true, Transhumanism and the Singularity lose credibility in the eyes of the world. After all, how different are Harold Camping foretelling the end of the world and a Singularitarian spouting the idea that complete global utopia – heaven on earth – is inevitable and just around the bend?

About the Author:

Hans Elde is going to be a freshman at the University of Washington in Fall, 2011 where he hopes to study bioengineering and mechanical engineering and eventually get involved in biomechatronics.

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  • Alexanderxerxes

    I think comparing the rapture to the Singularity is really quite a stretch. One uses ancient philosophies and one uses modern science. Ray Kurzweil is not a Transhumanist. He is a Singularitarian. You’ve isolated a few instances where Kurzweil was incorrect where as the vast majority of his predictions are correct. But more importantly the raft of his predictions point in a direction that can not be ignored. Furthermore, he has not suggested that the future is a utopia. On the contrary, he discusses the deeply intertwined promise and peril of these new technologies. He says, that we will overcome all of the challenges we face TODAY. He never says we won’t create new challenges going forward. He never suggests in any way that we’ll have any kind of heaven on earth as your piece asserts. Finally some of the predictions you state are incorrect are actually correct. Like, computers so small they start to become wearable. Look at the new iPod Nano. It clips on like a broach. People loose them all the time they are so small. And they can clearly do more than computers could do say 40 years ago that took up half a room. We already have 10,000′s of cyborgs walking around today with computers in their brains. That’s even more than wearable.

  • Think!

    It is again the case that someone takes two predicitions of Kurzweil, “looks around”, doesn’t think further and decides it’s wrong. I will not go into his predictions as he makes a pretty good point in his paper, how you can look upon them. ( )
    I’m not against being critical, but I’m against stating things without explanation and background knowledge. For this I also recommend this article:

    As a short answer to the question in the title: Yes, there is a profound difference.
    The “Singularity” (I don’t really like the term as it’s really unspecific, but here we go..) or more the understanding, of how information technology is evolving, is something you can understand with a basis in facts and straight extrapolation.
    Judgement Days or any religious views (as the “Singularity” is often called a religion-replacement) have no basis at all, you just have to believe them (or in fact you extrapolate towards a judgement day out of facts, you BELIEVE are true without prove - believing again..).

    I’d like to close with this picture:
    It shows you not to look at some (maybe too) specific predictions but to get the whole picture.

  • Hans-Erik Elde

    Hey Alexanderxerxes,

    I would definitely consider Ray Kurzweil to be a Transhumanist, while not perhaps explicitly stated then at least in his ideas; Transhumanism is simply the support of “fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.”  I think this describes most of what Kurzweil endorses very accurately.

    Also, yeah, we’ve got iPod nanos and whatnot, but those have definitely not begun to shove out of the way large computers, and we’re also missing the retinal HUDs and completely immersive virtual reality.  Moreover, this article isn’t meant to just focus on Kurzweil, and I apologize if it seems like that.  I wasn’t implying that Kurzweil was the one making claims of Singularity-based utopia; the two were separate.  I was more raising the question of whether it’s right to make broad predictions that can’t be backed up, because if they turn out to be false they harm the image of a movement as a whole.

  • Hans-Erik Elde

    Hey Think!,

    I definitely agree that the whole picture is more important, but my
    article is more just raising the question about whether it is a good
    idea to make these predictions at all.  I didn’t mean to bash Kurzweil’s
    points as a whole, and I actually agree with a lot of what he says and I’m quite familiar with a lot of his work; I
    was simply pointing out that often he makes assumptions about the
    future, markets them to the mainstream media, and then if they don’t
    turn out to be true right away, people get doubtful.  I was talking
    about the potential harm of any predictions, because in the end others interpret them as false promises and lies.

    Also, the article was meant to address those who, without basis in
    facts, claim that there WILL be utopia through technology and more
    specifically the Singularity, I did not mean to imply that Kurzweil was
    the one who believed this, I was referencing a large number of people
    I’ve interacted with online.

    Also, that picture is crazy; makes me remember that only 11 years ago I was using those big clunky computers in elementary school.  I don’t doubt Moore’s Law or the advancing of technology, I’m simply cautioning against moving from the big picture to specific and easily fallacious predictions.

  • Think!

     Hey Hans-Erik Elde,

    I think there is the problem that one has to be cautious in both ways. For one people tend to hear something and be satisfied with the half-knowledge they have. So they hear Kurzweil say something about the future which sounds incredible and start arguing - often to people with their own half knowledge (it seldom merges to one whole piece…).
    On the other hand, as people often don’t understand these predictions due to lack of background knowledge they also readily accept that these are wrong if someone says so because of the same reason (the “I don’t see it, ergo it’s wrong”-argument). That’s why I got a bit irritated when you wrote:
    >> If you’re like me, then at this point you were looking around in alarm, wondering “Where’s my computer clothing? Why don’t I have images written into my retina? Have I missed out on something?” <<

    I agree that predictions are dangerous as they always state a fact again lacking the whole picture, so people dismiss them. (This guy is a good example not understanding that the uploaded one will actually be himself: ) And you're absolutely right that people believing in the "Singularity" straight forward without hesitation are just the same as those believing in the day of "Rapture".

    The only solution WE can offer: explain! Make people read, make people watch!

    Make them Think! :)

  • sogol

    The important thing to remember is that all this “technological utopia” scenarios are perfectly viable. None of this ideas violate the known laws of physics or posit supernatural entities. Barring a global catastrophic event, or something equally unlikely, we WILL reach a point where computers are small enough to be embedded in our clothing, and where we have fully immersive VR. Predicting when exactly can be difficult, but I don’t think Kurzweil’s predictions were too far off. We do have computers embedded in clothes now, they’re just not in the marketplace yet. (They’re getting there though We could also have fully immersive VR in the present decade. 
    There is a big difference between making predictions about what kind of technological developments we can reasonably expect within the next few years, based on data like price-performance ratios, and wildly interpreting ancient mythological books.

    I think we ought to be very careful about the kind of predictions we make and never take the future for granted, but as long as something is theoretically possible, we need to defend the fact that it is theoretically possible. Take life extension for example. It is theoretically possible to extend human life indefinitely, therefore it is a technical problem to be solved. Its possible that none of us living today will live to see the day when we finally solve this problem, but that doesn’t changes the fact that the problem can be solved and that we should be trying as hard as we can to solve it. 

  • Anonymous

    Hello, young ‘uns. Age, if you’ve paid attention to things, can give you perspective, if not wisdom.

    I’ve lived long enough to remember both the rapture hysteria in the 1970′s caused by Hal Lindsey’s book, The Late Great Planet Earth; and the predictions by “futurists” around 30 years ago that we would have become “immortal” by now:

    I also find it sad to see guys now in their 80′s like Lindsey, Camping, Jack Chick and Tim LaHaye, who have wasted their lives waiting for the rapture. The actuarial tables have a better chance of predicting their futures than bible prophecy. 

    Unfortunately the “life extension” obsessives like Ray Kurzweil probably won’t beat the actuarial tables, either. We just don’t know enough yet about the aging process to come up with testable interventions.But we can make substantial progress in the here and now in brain vitrification to give cryonics a better chance of working. 

  • Hans Elde

    Hi advancedatheist,

    It’s good to have an older perspective, one that can bring up things that I never even lived through.  Very interesting and sobering articles on the predictions of the past, and definitely what I was cautioning against with my writing here.  I find it pretty sad too to see people who waste their entire lives just expecting a sudden change; I think our best bet is to work as well as we can and use what technology is currently feasible to make what advances are possible in our lifetimes - I know a bunch of devout Christians, Muslims and people from other religions who believe in this too, which gives me a bit more hope in humanity.

  • Singularity Utopia

    The answer is no. There is absolutely no connection between predicting the Singularity is near and predicting the end of the world. IBM predict they will create sugar-cube-sized supercomputers running at speeds of 1 quintillion FLOPS sometime around years 2022, 2025. That prediction
    by IBM is not irrational or religious. IBM are certain about their capabilities but their certainty is not irrational certainty. In addition to predictions made by IBM there are various other science-tech organizations predicting where they will be in 10 or 15 years from now. Considering all these predictions made by reputable science-tech organizations it is extremely rational to predict these
    marvellous inventions will have the power to create utopia. Even the Whitehouse recognizes the power of technological convergence (Polishing the Golden Triangle).

    Already we live in a world where technology via WikiLeaks is changing the world. People use Facebook and Twitter to start revolutions thereby overthrowing oppressive regimes.On a personal level regarding our health, we can already see many examples of how Stem Cells are used in regenerative medicine to cure blindness of regrow body parts (from their own Stem Cells) thereby averting the need for transplant recipients to take anti rejection drugs. How far do you think regenerative Stem Cell therapies will progress in 10 or 15 years? It is not unreasonable to expect futurist Stem Cell technologies in the year 2045 to be able to completely regenerate all parts of our bodies. We already know enough about our bodies and Stem Cells to predict safely our knowledge and expertise will increase to a point where we create immortality.There is nothing irrational about the Singularity.

  • Rolle56

     I stumbled upon the the singularity 8 years ago When I wondered how any new technology can come to broader public in ever shorter time. By investigating this phenomenon the concept of the technological singularity crossed my eyes with its outrageous predictions. I started to follow science news in several ares via RSS. After seeing so many news about gene therapy, nanomedicine, labs on chips, stem cells I am convinced we will soon (20 - 30 years) reach what Aubrey de Grey calls longevity escape velocity.

    I am also .seeing so many news on HW development for computers as well as advances in AI like autonomous cars, augmented reality that I also find it plausible that in a few decades we will reach the technological singularity. Ray Kurzweil has a talent to articulate those thoughts and he has spend a lot of time in determining a schedule. He may be off by some years or even a decade in either direction. However that is not really essential.

    To compare predicting the technological singularity with all those crazy doomsday predictions is not really very thoughtful. I understand the next doom day will be next year 12th December based on Mayan calendar.

  • CMStewart

    One is science, the other is anti-science. 

  • Nikki Olson

    “Ray Kurzweil is not a Transhumanist. He is a Singularitarian”
    -interesting assertion. While many of his beliefs are consistent with Transhumanism, it is important to recognize that he doesn’t self identify as a Transhumanist. Back in September I encountered a passage from him (that I can’t locate at the moment) saying that he didn’t like the word ‘Transhuman’ because it implied ‘moving beyond’ humanity. Ray very much likes to focus on how we will retain our humaness in the Singularity era. For Ray, it’s about transcending limitations while retaining a human core, whereas Transhumanists can end up focusing more on leaving something behind. The two views are compatible and almost identical, with the main difference being a difference in emphasis.

  • Socrates

    Great point Nikki!

  • Dan Vasii

    There is a lot of irrationality about Singularity.
    First, about the end of the world. Just searching the Bible - the Oriental religions have the idea of circular time, meaning that the end of the world is a periodic event, ofcourse occuring at extremely large intervals; the linear time gives a different perspective. However, after the Deluge, God promised to Noah that He will never punish the mankind as a whole. That means that the end of the world will never occur as a sudden and unexpected catastrophy. What are mentioned in the Bible is the end of times - or, with other words, but the same meaning, the times of the end, i. e. the end of an epoch, as it was the case with Abraham, Moses and Jesus, not the end of the world.
    Now speaking of Singularity.
    Just like Artificial Intelligence, there is no clear definition of Singularity. So a lot of people are feeling entitled to make whatever assumptions they consider fit. Unless and until such a clear definition will emerge, irrationality will be unavoidable - since rational explaining is not to be found. There are a lot of surprises in Universe, even if we started to poke at it. There are lots of unknown things in our image about it, and if some of these are about what really means to think and not what we believe thinking is, we might be forced to drastically review our opinion about Singularity, Artificial Intelligence, et caetera.

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