Future Perfect

The presenter of the morning early breakfast show on Cape Talk radio was commenting about the predictions made by Isaac Asimov on the occasion of the World’s Fair in New York in 1964. Asimov was musing on what the World’s Fair of 2014–fifty years later–would look like. “He really is incredibly accurate!” enthused the host, “It’s uncanny how he could have known then what our world looks like now!”

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I hadn’t read Asimov’s predictions, so I looked them up to see for myself just how prescient he really was. Not, it turns out, as much as the breathless radio presenter would have us believe. I enumerated 24 specific predictions made in the article, and found that 10 were accurate within reasonable bounds, 12 were inaccurate, 2 were partially accurate.

Some of the predictions that were right on the money were:–

Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence.

Well, they are quite common in industrial settings; but I think Asimov was referring to the domestic android ‘Jeeves,’ who would bring your gin and tonic to you on a silver tray.

It will be such computers, much miniaturized, that will serve as the ‘brains’ of robots.

Quite, but he didn’t go far enough. If he had waited a year, until Moore published his famous law, he may have been even more optimistic.

Communications will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the person you telephone. The screen can be used not only to see the people you call but also for studying documents and photographs and reading passages from books.

Almost perfect. He just didn’t predict that the telephone would be carried about in your pocket.

However, by 2014, only unmanned ships will have landed on Mars.

Just so.

As for television, wall screens will have replaced the ordinary set.

In most places.

World population will be 6,500,000,000 and the population of the United States will be 350,000,000.

Only off by about 600,000,000, but we won’t split hairs.

A larger portion [of the population] than today will be deprived and although they may be better off, materially, than today, they will be further behind when compared with the advanced portions of the world. They will have moved backward, relatively.

This is, unfortunately, so. It should be a goal for the next 50 years to reduce the gap between rich and poor within communities, and also to reduce the wealth gap between nations. Free trade, anyone?

And some of the things he got wrong:–

Windows need be no more than an archaic touch

If he were referring to computer operating systems, this would be spot-on, but he meant the transparent panes that afford us a view through walls. He imagined that land pressure would be such that people would be forced to live underground, or even under the ocean, and the place of windows would be supplied by flat-screen TVs displaying images of tranquil mountains, forests or seascapes.

Kitchen units will be devised that will prepare “automeals”

Nope. This is one of the futurists’ staples, like flying cars, that always seem to be a decade or two away.

The appliances of 2014 will have no electric cords, of course, for they will be powered by long-lived batteries running on radioisotopes.

…fission-power plants which, by 2014, will be supplying well over half the power needs of humanity.

Not now, and not ever unless we can overcome our irrational fear of ‘nucular.’

Ground travel will increasingly take to the air a foot or two off the ground.

No, and why did he think this would be worth while?

You will be able to reach someone at the moon colonies.

When Asimov wrote this no one had been to the moon yet, although plans were well under way. It was entirely reasonable for him to think that once we had gone there, we would continue to go, and eventually establish a permanent presence there. That we didn’t is bizarre to a degree.

Processed yeast and algae products will be available in a variety of flavors

We’re not that hungry yet. Asimov failed to anticipate the advances in agriculture that have meant that the global food supply has kept up with–even exceeded–population growth.

the most somber speculation I can make about A.D. 2014 is that in a society of enforced leisure, the most glorious single word in the vocabulary will have become work!

Way off beam here, Isaac! People work harder and for longer hours now than they did 50 years ago, and their leisure time has, since the invention of the cursed cell phone, been of a far lower quality than was previously the case.

It is strange that Asimov did not accurately predict the widespread use of fibre-optics, because the idea was not a new one in 1964, even if the technology had not been perfected.

He did mention that there would be “an experimental fusion power plant or two,” but left out the fact that they do not work.

What will the world look like 50 years hence? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t be surprised if humans grew stupider through constantly yapping into cell phones.

I don’t really care, either, because the one prediction I can make with some certainty is that I shall be dead in 2063.

Creative Commons License
Grumpy Old Man by Mark Widdicombe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 License.

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2 Responses to Future Perfect

  1. Con-Tester says:

    Interesting blog entry. I didn’t hear the programme but the description suggests that the radio presenter was guilty of counting the hits and ignoring the misses, as is usual when people contemplate another’s prognostications.

    Mark wonders:

    “No, and why did he think [levitating vehicles] would be worth while?”

    Because by far the biggest energy losses occur in a self-propelled vehicle’s drive train and adhesion between tyres and road, both essentially frictional losses. Asimov likely assumed that an efficient low-energy levitating technology would be available by 2014. In theory, keeping an object at a constant height above the ground requires no energy input to remain there (think of a vase on a table) even if the object moves around horizontally.

    Mark observes:

    “That we didn’t [establish Moon bases] is bizarre to a degree.”

    The cost of transporting construction materials and personnel to the Moon is prohibitive. An Asimov contemporary, Robert Heinlein, once remarked that if you can get yourself into low Earth orbit, you’re halfway to anywhere in the universe because getting into low Earth orbit is hugely expensive in energy (and financial) terms. A look at the Saturn rockets or the Space Shuttle, noting the ratio of fuel weight to payload, makes the point. Also, there’s the question of what economic, political, scientific and/or other advantage/benefit a country or company would enjoy by having Moon bases.

  2. Beechmount says:

    He did not predict the climate change that is taking place and the horrendous effects it will have on human survivability, perhaps sooner than even the best science can predict..

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