The Singularity of Confirmation Bias

January 24, 2014

“The Singularity” – that supposed future event when computers achieve sentience – came up at lunch the other day, and I rolled me eyes. Ray Kurzweil’s ideas about the future of machines and society are, in my opinion, far-fetched, but he has some believers. The thing is he’s so often correct in his predictions.

Or is he?

Confirmation bias is the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses, according to Wikipedia. People tend to ignore facts that don’t back up their beliefs.

Let me quote again from Wikipedia:

Daniel Lyons, writing in Newsweek, criticized Kurzweil for some of his predictions that turned out to be wrong, such as the economy continuing to boom from the 1998 dot-com through 2009, a US company having a market capitalization of more than $1 trillion, a supercomputer achieving 20 petaflops, speech recognition being in widespread use and cars that would drive themselves using sensors installed in highways; all by 2009.

… and none of that happened. Turns out.

To the charge that a 20 petaflop supercomputer was not produced in the time he predicted, Kurzweil responded that he considers Google a giant supercomputer, and that it is indeed capable of 20 petaflops.

The thing with “theorists” like Kurzweil is that no data can ever prove them wrong, in their eyes. It’s so frustrating to evidence-based practioners like myself.

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