Isaac Asimov

How Isaac Asimov correctly predicted 2014 tech in 1964

Isaac Asimov was a pretty cool guy. He’s famous for his science fiction (I, Robot, the Foundation series), but he wrote or edited more than 500 books, fiction and non-fiction alike. And in 1964, he wrote an astounding piece for the New York Times envisioning the World’s Fair of 2014.

Here’s the thing about science fiction: It’s often more about the present than the future. Unencumbered by the details of today’s world, science fiction can make audiences think about modern issues without getting bogged down with the details and prejudices that might make them less open-minded. It’s also really hard to predict the future, so if science fiction was truly just a genre designed to let readers place bets on future events, it would’ve been outlawed years ago.

But Asimov’s predictions of next year from the perspective of 49 years ago? They’re not perfect, but they’re pretty good. In fact, I might go so far as to say they’re the best I’ve seen. So let's take a look at what a visionary science-fiction writer from the last century envisioned for the world we live in today.

Glow lights and underground apartments

One thought that occurs to me is that men will continue to withdraw from nature in order to create an environment that will suit them better. By 2014, electroluminescent panels will be in common use. Ceilings and walls will glow softly, and in a variety of colors that will change at the touch of a push button.

In 2013 the concept of the man cave is with us, but humans haven’t yet moved underground (one of Asimov’s less successful predictions). Our light bulbs have moved from incandescent to fluorescent to LED, and the Philips Hue bulb is a Wi-Fi controlled LED that can change colors on demand.

Underwater housing will have its attractions to those who like water sports, and will undoubtedly encourage the more efficient exploitation of ocean resources, both food and mineral.

I know some surfers. I’m pretty sure they don’t live near Sebastian the Crab. Also, Isaac, what’s with all the dreams of people living in windowless caves of steel? It makes us SAD.

I, robot owner

Gadgetry will continue to relieve mankind of tedious jobs. Kitchen units will be devised that will prepare “automeals,” heating water and converting it to coffee… Complete lunches and dinners, with the food semiprepared, will be stored in the freezer until ready for processing.

We haven’t stopped cooking, and I’m not sure predicting the TV dinner is much of a feat since it had been in existence for a decade when Asimov wrote his story. But the coffee machine sounds like a Keurig to me. I can’t believe he missed out on predicting Sodastream, though.

Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence…. It will be such computers, much miniaturized, that will serve as the “brains” of robots. In fact, the I.B.M. building at the 2014 World’s Fair may have, as one of its prime exhibits, a robot housemaid*large, clumsy, slow- moving but capable of general picking-up, arranging, cleaning and manipulation of various appliances.

Outside of factories, robots aren’t very common. We’ve got telepresence robots, sure, but most importantly we’ve got the Roomba—”a robot housemaid” from a company actually named iRobot! How Asimovian. Roomba doesn’t pick up junk and arrange pillows, but it vacuums!

3-D movies

General Electric at the 2014 World’s Fair will be showing 3-D movies of its “Robot of the Future,” neat and streamlined, its cleaning appliances built in and performing all tasks briskly. (There will be a three-hour wait in line to see the film, for some things never change.)

Although 3-D movies were already around before Asimov wrote this, they went away for a long time. Unfortunately, they’re back. Isaac failed to imagine the arrival of the cinema multiplex, which reduces the need for long lines.

As for television, wall screens will have replaced the ordinary set; but transparent cubes will be making their appearance in which three-dimensional viewing will be possible.

Wall screens we’ve got; old-style tube TVs have finally faded away from most homes. I’m less sanguine about the possibility of transparent cubes that show me Transformers 2 in my home, given the abandonment of 3D TV by such giants as ESPN and the BBC.

Nuclear batteries and solar arrays

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

Nuclear batteries! A cool idea, but one with a lot of environmental repercussions. My appliances still have plugs.

And experimental fusion-power plant or two will already exist in 2014. (Even today, a small but genuine fusion explosion is demonstrated at frequent intervals in the G.E. exhibit at the 1964 fair.) Large solar-power stations will also be in operation in a number of desert and semi-desert areas—Arizona, the Negev, Kazakhstan. In the more crowded, but cloudy and smoggy areas, solar power will be less practical. An exhibit at the 2014 fair will show models of power stations in space, collecting sunlight by means of huge parabolic focusing devices and radiating the energy thus collected down to earth.

Finding nontraditional sources of energy has definitely been a major story over the past couple of decades. While fusion remains perpetually 30 years away, solar and wind power increasingly contribute to the grid, and a recent study suggested that they might be competitive with natural gas prices before too long. Unfortunately, satellite mirrors reflecting solar energy to earth remain an untapped resource.

Self-driving hovercraft

There is every likelihood that highways—at least in the more advanced sections of the world—will have passed their peak in 2014; there will be increasing emphasis on transportation that makes the least possible contact with the surface. There will be aircraft, of course, but even ground travel will increasingly take to the air—a foot or two off the ground…. Bridges will also be of less importance, since cars will be capable of crossing water on their jets, though local ordinances will discourage the practice.

Oh, Isaac. You’ve succumbed to the eternal dream of jet packs and flying cars. The highway endures. And bridges? Still important.

Much effort will be put into the designing of vehicles with “Robot-brains”—vehicles that can be set for particular destinations and that will then proceed there without interference by the slow reflexes of a human driver.

Nailed it! Even a few years ago, the self-driving car seemed like nothing more than a piece of science fiction, but today several states have approved autonomous vehicles for roadways and it’s not unreasonable to think that in a few years luxury cars will begin to offer a “full auto-drive” mode.

For short-range travel, moving sidewalks will be making their appearance in downtown sections… Compressed air tubes will carry goods and materials over local stretches.

Didn’t nail it! There are moving sidewalks at airports, and Elon Musk (himself a character right out of an Asimov story) has his Hyperloop. But we do not live in a society of moving carpets and pneumatic tubes.

Skype from the moon

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. Synchronous satellites, hovering in space will make it possible for you to direct-dial any spot on earth, including the weather stations in Antarctica (shown in chill splendor as part of the ’64 General Motors exhibit).

As with the self-driving cars, the prospect of video telephones was more science fictional than real for years. Turns out that Ma Bell wasn’t ever going to transform our old voice phones into videophones. Instead, we got Skype and FaceTime and Google Hangouts and suddenly we’re living in the future. And satellites (and the Internet!) make it possible for us to direct-dial pretty much anywhere on Earth.

For that matter, you will be able to reach someone at the moon colonies.

I said anywhere on Earth, Asimov.

By 2014, only unmanned ships will have landed on Mars, though a manned expedition will be in the works.

Moon colonies, no. Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity? Yes.

"Make room, make room!"

In 2014, there is every likelihood that the world population will be 6,500,000,000 and the population of the United States will be 350,000,000. Boston-to-Washington, the most crowded area of its size on the earth, will have become a single city with a population of over 40,000,000.

In fact, it’s worse than Asimov thought. Our planetary population sits at 7.1 billion today, though the U.S. population is only 316 million. Boston, New York, Washington, and all spots in between—not to mention Atlanta—remain independent cities served by a speedy train.

It's made of people

Ordinary agriculture will keep up with great difficulty and there will be “farms” turning to the more efficient micro-organisms. Processed yeast and algae products will be available in a variety of flavors. The 2014 fair will feature an Algae Bar at which “mock-turkey” and “pseudosteak” will be served. It won’t be bad at all (if you can dig up those premium prices), but there will be considerable psychological resistance to such an innovation.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Soylent and the $330,000 vat-grown hamburger.

Distributing the future

Not all the world’s population will enjoy the gadgety world of the future to the full. A larger portion 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.

Of course he’s right. Though cellphones have increased connectivity in the developing world and some billionaires are working on bringing the Internet to everyone by radio or wire or balloon, the present is very much as Asimov described it 49 years ago. Or as writer William Gibson put it, “The future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed.”

The increasing use of mechanical devices to replace failing hearts and kidneys, and repair stiffening arteries and breaking nerves will have cut the death rate still further and have lifted the life expectancy in some parts of the world to age 85.

The average life expectancy in Japan and Switzerland is 83.

Educated in binary

The world of A.D. 2014 will have few routine jobs that cannot be done better by some machine than by any human being. Mankind will therefore have become largely a race of machine tenders. Schools will have to be oriented in this direction… All the high-school students will be taught the fundamentals of computer technology will become proficient in binary arithmetic and will be trained to perfection in the use of the computer languages that will have developed out of those like the contemporary “Fortran” (from “formula translation”).

Today’s world is definitely in the middle of a transition, and the information economy is growing. I don’t think our high-school students need to be taught binary arithmetic, but teaching them how to write apps or perform good database queries might not be such a bad idea. And why wait for high school?

The lucky few who can be involved in creative work of any sort will be the true elite of mankind, for they alone will do more than serve a machine.

I’m sorry, this article is over. I have to finish writing it on my laptop and post it to a web server where it can be indexed by Google. Take that, machines!

[Hat tip to Kontra for the link. Photo by José Luis Peñarredonda/Flickr.]

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