Published 20 May, 2015; last updated 10 December, 2020
The Maes-Garreau law posits that people tend to predict exciting future technologies toward the end of their lifetimes. It probably does not hold for predictions of human-level AI.
The Maes–Garreau law is the statement that “most favorable predictions about future technology will fall within the Maes–Garreau point”, defined as “the latest possible date a prediction can come true and still remain in the lifetime of the person making it”. Specifically, it relates to predictions of a technological singularity or other radical future technologies.
The law was posited by Kevin Kelly, here.
In the MIRI dataset, age and predicted time to AI are very weakly anti-correlated, with a correlation of -0.017. That is, older people expect AI very slightly sooner than others. This suggests that if the Maes-Garreau law applies to human-level AI predictions, it is very weak, or is being masked by some other effect. Armstrong and Sotala also interpret an earlier version of the same dataset as evidence against the Maes-Garreau law substantially applying, using a different method of analysis.
Earlier, smaller, informal analyses find evidence of the law, but in different settings. According to Rodney Brooks (according to Kevin Kelly), Pattie Maes observed this effect strongly in a survey of public predictions of human uploading:
[Maes] took as many people as she could find who had publicly predicted downloading of consciousness into silicon, and plotted the dates of their predictions, along with when they themselves would turn seventy years old. Not too surprisingly, the years matched up for each of them. Three score and ten years from their individual births, technology would be ripe for them to download their consciousnesses into a computer. Just in the nick of time! They were each, in their own minds, going to be remarkably lucky, to be in just the right place at the right time.
However, according to Kelly, the data was not kept.
Kelly did another small search for predictions of the singularity, which appears to only support a very weakened version of the law: many people predict AI within their lifetime.
The hypothesized reason for this relationship is that people would like to believe they will personally avoid death. If this is true, we might expect the relation to apply much more strongly to predictions of events which might fairly directly save a person from death. Human uploading and the singularity are such events, while human-level AI does not appear to be. Thus it is plausible that this law does apply to some technological predictions, but not human-level AI.
Evidence about wishful thinking: the Maes-Garreau law is a relatively easy to check instance of a larger class of hypotheses to do with AI predictions being directed by wishful thinking. If wishful thinking were a large factor in AI predictions, this would undermine accuracy because it is not related to when human-level AI will appear. That the Maes-Garreau law doesn’t seem to hold is evidence against wishful thinking being a strong determinant of AI predictions. Further evidence might be obtained by observing the correlation between belief that human-level AI will be positive for society and belief that it will come soon.