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Peter Xu

Jeannette K. Watson Fellow, Jeannette K. Watson Fellowship

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How does one predict the date when an entire nation would fall?

Ray Kurzweil is an inventor and futurist. He has been known for his highly accurate predictions such as when computers would be able to beat the best human chess players (Deep Blue IBM). His current primary prediction is the time of the coming singularity, the point where man and machine merge. But what has puzzled me was how he was able to predict something like the fall of the Soviet Union? If one is to predict the time when this would happen to a certain accuracy, there must be some mathematical analysis involved. What factors would one consider in determining when the Soviet Union would fall, and how would one put that into a mathematical model that would estimate the date of this event?

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  • Mar 6 2012: Difficult to say. You could look at the debt to earnings ratio or even decline in GDP. But then how would you factor in the possibility that the government, and its controlling bodies, could simply print more money or raise the debt ceiling as happened in 2011.

    For a nation on the verge of economic collapse there is always someone willing to offer a bail out or buy up some of the debt. Remeber the difference between a country and a company is that a country does not have the option to declare themselved bankrupt.
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    Feb 29 2012: Hi thanks for your responses. I don't know of any exact source proving that he did so aside from his book and his own personal testimonials. Given his grand reputation though, I'm inclined to believe he did.

    It was my understanding that at the time, the SU's economy was expected to grow much bigger than the U.S.'s much like how we viewed Japan's economy about two decades ago. http://www.becker-posner-blog.com/2012/02/is-chinas-economic-future-a-rosy-one-becker.html " In 1956, Khrushchev proclaimed that the Soviet Union would bury the US, not militarily but economically. One might at the time have dismissed this as the exaggerations of a loud and belligerent leader, but similar predictions were common among mainstream economists."

    Finally, given that Kurzweil is more of a technologist, I do not think that his prediction was based on politics or studying their financial records. I saw on wikipedia that he made his prediction by studying the increased access to electronic communication that removed power from the authoritarian government.

    "Kurzweil gained notoriety as a futurist[citation needed] with his first book The Age of Intelligent Machines. Written from 1986 to 1989 and published in 1990, it forecast the demise of the Soviet Union due to new technologies such as cellular phones and fax machines disempowering authoritarian governments by removing state control over the flow of information. In 2005, Mikhail Gorbachev told Kurzweil that emerging decentralized electronic communication "was a big factor" for fostering democracy in the Soviet Union"
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    Feb 28 2012: No brainer. Look at their debt-to-earnings ratio.
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    Feb 28 2012: I don't think one could've cast a probability model for the middle east uprisings.
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    Feb 28 2012: can you provide a reliable proof that he did?

    mises predicted the fall of SU in 1920, but he didn't even try to establish any timeframe or exact series of events.
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    Feb 28 2012: I think it's all based on some kind of probability. Maths is indeed powerfull in this respect. Take the poisson distribution for example, and how accurately it reflected the bombing sites in London during the II WW.

    I don't know if you can apply maths to political predictions, but in the case of Soviet Union it didn't really take a visionary to figure out that their economy had been choking for quite some time and that preserving this mummy would soon be impossible. Still, my hat goes off to Kurzwell for being as accurate as he was.
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      Feb 29 2012: Can you tell us more about how a Poisson Distribution relates to bombing sites during WWII? That sounds very interesting
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        Mar 2 2012: I can only tell you what I heard from my teacher. I was curious if the Poisson Distribution can have any application in real life and I learned that in fact it can. There are apparently many random developments in the world which can be accurately described by means of the Poisson Distribution. One of them was the bombardment of London during the II WW. Of course this has been discovered only ex-post and even if it had not been I doubt if anyone would have been brave enough to trust the Poisson distribution that the bomb would not hit their house (hey maybe only Poisson himself? :) but it turned out to work! If according to the poisson distrubution there were little or close to none chances that your house would be hit by a bomb you could sleep peacefully, because the Poisson Distribution predicted the sites of bombing very accurately.

        Such is the power of math! :)