Why 2020 is a rare window in time that's hard to see beyond

Commentary: Never mind seeing beyond the fabled singularity of 2045. It's really hard to predict where we're going from the here and now.

Eric Mack Contributing Editor
Eric Mack has been a CNET contributor since 2011. Eric and his family live 100% energy and water independent on his off-grid compound in the New Mexico desert. Eric uses his passion for writing about energy, renewables, science and climate to bring educational content to life on topics around the solar panel and deregulated energy industries. Eric helps consumers by demystifying solar, battery, renewable energy, energy choice concepts, and also reviews solar installers. Previously, Eric covered space, science, climate change and all things futuristic. His encrypted email for tips is ericcmack@protonmail.com.
Expertise Solar, solar storage, space, science, climate change, deregulated energy, DIY solar panels, DIY off-grid life projects. CNET's "Living off the Grid" series. https://www.cnet.com/feature/home/energy-and-utilities/living-off-the-grid/ Credentials
  • Finalist for the Nesta Tipping Point prize and a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia.
Eric Mack
7 min read

A trip from the mall to another time in 1985's Back to the Future.

Universal Pictures

In 1995, I was in high school in Colorado, reading a fledgling media venture called CNET via my family's dialup AOL account and an ancient desktop PC clone running on a 486 processor. Twenty-five years later, I can now read, hear and watch CNET on an array of devices, from phones and watches to smart speakers, tablets and even the monitors at my local gas pumps.

In another 25 years, if the predictions of some of Silicon Valley's smartest people come true, we may have the latest CNET news and reviews transmitted directly into our brains, skipping screens altogether. Or we may test the latest products in an immersive VR environment set up by CNET's experts. Or those immersive experiences may become the products themselves, as some of us chose to completely disconnect our consciousness from our biological bodies and upload into the cloud to live forever as software. 


Ray Kurzweil is ready to join the Borg.

Singularity Videos/YouTube screenshot by CNET

That last vision comes from the mind of Google's chief futurist and noted author Ray Kurzweil, who has been predicting for many years now that we'll reach a technological singularity by the year 2045, when CNET will hopefully be turning 50. 

The singularity is a concept that Kurzweil has popularized over the past couple of decades; the basic idea is that computers and artificial intelligence will become so powerful and so smart that they'll be able to begin improving themselves without the help of humans. Kurzweil says it then becomes difficult to predict what happens next. 

"By 2045, we'll have expanded the intelligence of our human machine civilization by a billionfold," he said in the below Big Think interview from 2009. "That will be singularity, and we borrow this metaphor from physics to talk about an event horizon: It's hard to see beyond."

Even before we reach the singularity, Kurzweil predicts we'll have the ability to live much longer or perhaps forever with the help of nanobots that swim around our bloodstreams repairing our organs and vanquishing disease. If our physical bodies can't be prevented from failing, there's no reason to worry, because all those worries and cares and everything else that's ever passed through your mind can be digitized and uploaded into some sort of Utopian Matrix.

I haven't been thinking about the future as long as Kurzweil has, but I have been following folks like him for two decades now, and the reality that we get is often much messier than what we're promised.

Truly groundbreaking innovation (I'm talking about the big stuff, like driverless cars, not choosing an Uber over a taxi) often comes on slowly because it takes time for the masses to catch up to the early adopters. Many humans tend to be stubborn, and annoyed by big changes. 

Right now I'm less interested in extrapolating the technological gains of the last 25 years and more concerned about fixing the future, and that starts with how we think about it here in the present.

Forget flying cars forever, please

Ray Kurzweil thought that by 2020, driverless cars would dominate the roads and that paper books and documents would be nearly extinct. But midway through the year, no fully autonomous car is for sale, and paper books still vastly outsell ebooks.

Brett Pearce/CNET

While we might be on the path toward those predictions coming true, Kurzweil's timeline underestimates the power of forces that most of us would rather not acknowledge -- pesky things like inertia, bureaucracy and the basic complexity of the world (oxymoron intentional) that stand in the way.

Beyond self-driving cars, The Jetsons, Blade Runner and countless other pop culture franchises promised us flying cars by now. Sadly, you're probably not going to get the flying car of your sci-fi dreams by 2045. The technology isn't the problem with this long-delayed tech trope. It's here already with backers including no less than Uber and Google co-founder Larry Page. But the infrastructure, systems, training and norms to have millions flying around cities safely aren't ready. It's been slow going just to get delivery drones off the ground, even with support from some of the largest companies in human history.

I'm also not that bullish on the idea that our brains will be physically connected to computers by 2045, either. There are major non-technological issues to overcome for anything in this vein to gain widespread acceptance, particularly a little concept we call trust.

What institution on this planet today has enough universal goodwill that millions would entrust their brain to it? Yes, I know we all entrust the government, Google and others with scads of our personal data already, but that trust is fraying, and my credit report is a much different thing from MY BRAIN. And do we really want to become part of the Borg so soon? Have we learned nothing from Capt. Jean-Luc Picard?

How readily available and affordable will cancer-quashing, life-saving nanobots really be to the masses that need them the most, given the ingrained inequities and inefficiencies in our systems? 

Transportation is just one area ripe for not only disruption, but a full reckoning. Traffic-clogged roads and air travel are a pain, and they contribute mightily to a global environmental mess we're confronting in new ways with each passing week. 

When enough people are convinced that self-driving cars are safe, and as they become more affordable -- perhaps with an after-market solution like Openpilot -- it makes sense that we'll begin to see them dominate roads as Kurzweil foresaw for today. 

8 sci-fi ideas that might become science fact pretty soon (pictures)

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But such fun future tech fantasies are all moot if we don't address other predictions for tomorrow that are rarely mentioned in the same articles with flying cars. 

These foretell of a worsening environmental crisis and rising inequality, not to mention political polarization, corruption, abuses of power and unrest that seem unlikely to abate without some historic shifts.

A 2017 study predicted that by 2045 rising sea levels could lead to flooding in Washington DC once every three days on average. New Mexico, where I live, is expected at that point to be in the grips of a megadrought along with much of the rest of the southwestern United States. 

Of course, there are more optimistic predictions. California could meet goals of becoming completely carbon neutral by 2045, helping to mitigate the likelihood that the above scenarios come to pass. 

The pathway to meeting those goals is tougher to see because it raises questions of politics, economics and justice that are hard to predict. These areas are closely tied to the actions of people, who can be notoriously unpredictable. 

But some would argue that's not true. Human behavior and our reaction to different stimuli have been studied in so many ways, it's often good for a laugh. (How about the study that says holding a crocodile isn't good for people with gambling problems?)

We know we tend to act in our own self-interest, but we can also be altruistic, and -- perhaps most germane -- we really aren't as great at reckoning with the future as we are with the here and now. 

Take 2020, for example: Faced with the imminent danger of COVID-19 and the potential collapse of our health care system, officials around the world took unprecedented steps to shut down daily life and the global economy. These sacrifices surely saved thousands, perhaps even millions of lives. 

And yet for decades, as a species we've been unable to rally that same will to address problems threatening our more distant future like climate change, inequality and other forms of injustice. That is, perhaps, until now.

A rare wrinkle in time

So 2020 doesn't look as I imagined it would in 1995. Not even close. The hoverboards we got are terrible compared to what Marty McFly had

While the online revolution that was just taking root back then has given me a Utopian lifestyle, allowing me to telecommute from an off-grid home in the New Mexico desert, it's also amplified some of our worst human impulses, dividing us as it connects us more than ever. 

Those impulses and the ugliness they birth were around in 1995, but they've been pushed from beneath the surface to float on the mainstream. A global pandemic, a shattered economy and unrest in the streets have us now confronting our past as I ponder what 2045 might look like. 

Scenes from a future where everything is online (pictures)

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What's interesting is that 2020 now seems like a rare window in time when the things that most prognosticators overlook -- the inertia and bureaucracy I mentioned earlier -- are suddenly less entrenched, and when rapid change and historic shifts become possible. History teaches of such moments: Japan transforming itself into a tech powerhouse after World War II, for example, or the New Deal pulling millions out of poverty amid the Great Depression. 

But it's unclear to me right now if this unprecedented moment will be seized or not. And if it is, will it be to put us on a path toward ecological balance, a more level playing field for all and true justice? Or will just the most privileged among us get the flying cars they were promised but don't really need?

I don't know, but I wonder now if Ray Kurzweil was off about that future moment that's hard to see beyond. Maybe it's not in 2045. Maybe the singularity is right now.