[extropy-chat] Inside Vs. Outside Forecasts

Hal Finney hal at finney.org
Tue Oct 11 18:48:17 UTC 2005

Robin writes:
> The application to our forecasts about the future should be obvious:
> Do we overestimate technical change because we tend to take an inside
> view, imagining the particular process that produces some innovation,
> instead of an outside view, looking at how long similar innovations have
> taken in the past?

I am inclined to think that this is not the reason.  I may not fully
understand this distinction, but it sounds like the "inside view" is based
on analysis from a position of some expertise and detailed knowledge of
the problem domain.  Scenarios and extrapolations are constructed based
on this detailed knowledge.

I don't think our predictions rely on such detailed knowledge.  Instead,
we tend to be generalists, polymaths, people with strong opinions on
topics that we don't know much about.  Take cryonics, for example.
Most optimism there comes from people who know nothing of the details.
The more you know, the less optimistic you are.  AI is another area
where, with a few exceptions, most of our more grandiose predictions come
from people who have never worked in the field.  Drexlerian nanotech,
likewise, is mostly supported by software engineers (in fact when I
finally found Nanosystems in the bookstore, it was in the software
section).  There's not a chemist in the world who believes in this stuff.

I think our errors are fundamentally from the outside view.  So why
do we do so badly, given that this article claims that outside-view
predictions are better?  Well, there's no guarantee that just because
you're a no-nothing, you'll be right!  You can make just as many mistakes
as an outsider as an insider, they're just different mistakes.

We once discussed predictions by science writer G. Harry Stein,
who writing in the 1960s made a series of very extropian-sounding,
grandiose predictions, based on outside-view reasoning.  For example,
he fitted a curve to the fastest a man had travelled, and found that
people should be going at the speed of light by the 1980s.  Most of his
other predictions were equally over-optimistic.

Or look at Kurzweil or Moravec, who engage in similar curve fitting
exercises and find us on the cusp of stupendous change.  These are not
inside-view predictions, they are very broad-based attempts to generalize
from the past into the future.

Why do these predictions fail?  I will suggest that the fault is not in
us, it is in the world.  Our predictions were reasonable.  It was the
world that failed.

I suspect that the world has changed, that it has fallen off the
exponential curve.  The real shape is an S curve, the logistic curve
of yeast growth.  It is hard to tell the two apart as you move through
the inflection point.  We were using a reasonable methodology in making
predictions, but it assumed continued exponential or even hyperbolic
growth.  That was in fact a fair reading of the history of humanity up
through the early 20th century.

The world changed, and it did not continue to grow as fast as it
should have, as we predicted it would.  Whether due to social friction,
diminishing returns, complicated economic limitations, or the presence
of whatever ideology you want to cast as a villain, technological and
scientific progress has slowed.  As a result, with a few exceptions the
world of today is not much different from the world of decades past.

Who could have predicted that, after centuries of accelerating change?
I don't think anyone could reasonably do so, certainly not from the
outside view.  If anything, I suspect that inside-view analysis would
have been more likely to anticipate the change, by looking at details
of what the prospects would be for growth in different areas.


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