"It really belies the common wisdom that you can't predict the future," he said as he gazed at the graphs.
Thanks to the law of accelerating returns, he said, technology will continue to leap forward and astonish us. "Thirty linear steps take you to 30," he said. "Thirty exponential steps take you to a billion."
One way to judge whether Kurzweil is right about the future is to see how well he has done in the past. In the realm of computer science he has done pretty well. In 1990 he predicted the world chess champion would be a computer by 1998. (IBM's Deep Blue computer beat Garry Kasparov in 1997.) In 1999 Kurzweil predicted that in 10 years computers wirelessly communicating with one another and the World Wide Web would be commonplace. It's already becoming hard to recall when computers were lashed to modems.
But many of Kurzweil's predictions have failed. In 1999 he predicted that by 2009 "bioengineered treatments for cancer and heart disease will have greatly reduced the mortality from these diseases." A decade later, medicine had not lived up to his prophecy. In 2006—the most recent year for which statistics are available—829,072 people died in the United States of heart disease. Its true that the death rate from heart disease is somewhat lower now than in 1950, but that drop is due mainly to low-tech measures such as getting people to stop smoking. Deaths from cancer, meanwhile, only dropped ten percent between 1975 and 2010. Cancer claimed 562,875 lives in the United States in 2007.
These failed predictions reveal a weakness at the heart of Kurzweil's forecasts: scientific understanding doesn't advance in lockstep with increases in technological horsepower. It was funny, in a morbid way, to watch Kurzweil make his case inside the 92nd Street Y just as a surge of swine-flu viruses was sweeping the city. There was a time when sequencing the entire genome of a single flu virus was a colossal, budget-busting project; now it costs a few hundred dollars. As of October 2009 the U.S. Influenza Genome Sequencing Project has collected the complete genomes of 4,087 viruses from around the world, and that number is rising close to exponentially.
All that raw genetic information has certainly allowed scientists to learn important things about the flu, but it has not given New York any fancy new way to stop it in its tracks. New Yorkers could only wash their hands as they waited for the delivery of new vaccines and hoped their hospitals didn't get overwhelmed by people in need of respirators. Fortunately, the flu turned out to be no worse than the typical seasonal flu. But that's little comfort for the families of the 12,470 people in the United States who died of the new flu strain in 2009 and 2010.
Even as flu viruses multiplied through the city, Kurzweil happily continued his talk, mocking the skeptics who scoffed when scientists were trying to sequence all 3.5 billion "letters" of DNA in the human genome. For a long time it seemed as if they'd never finish, and then in the early 2000s they were done.
Years later, we still have many open questions about how the genome actually works. Scientists used to think it contained 100,000 protein-coding genes, but it turns out to have just 20,000, and researchers don't actually know the function of many of them. What's more, the genome also has tens of thousands of genes our cells use to make single-strand versions of DNA called rNA. Many play vital roles in the cell, but a lot probably don't do anything, and scientists are just starting to figure out what does what. Sequencing the human genome was promised by some to yield cures to most diseases. Scientists are now searching the genome for genes that increase your risk of high blood pressure, diabetes and other diseases. In most cases they have found lots of genes that raise your risk by only a barely measurable amount. Sequencing the human genome has revealed to scientists that they know less than they thought they did.