Writing for the New York Times in 1964, renowned scientist and author Isaac Asimov laid out a number of predictions for what life would be like in 50 years, or the year we find ourselves in now. So, how did Asimov do? About as well as you’d hope for a genius scientist and futurist.
What Asimov Got Right:
“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; toasting bread; frying, poaching or scrambling eggs, grilling bacon, and so on.”
You might not think of coffee and toast as “automeal,” but from a 1964 perspective, it absolutely is. Not everything is quite so automated, but we have rice makers, pressure cookers, juicers, food processers…food prep in 2014 involves as much button pressing as it does chopping.
“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.”
Not sure if GE ever made that specific movie, but 3-D movies are ubiquitous, we already have robots that can vacuum our floors, and more are surely on the way. In case you think Asimov was just a permanently optimistic futurist, he also said that, “robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence.”
This is where Asimov starts to get a little scary:
“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.”
Current U.S. population: 317 million. Current world population: 7,137,989,650. So, Asimov was a little high on the U.S. and low on the world, but that’s still incredibly close, given that the U.S. population was 192 million when Asimov was writing, and the world population was 3.26 billion.
Given how close he was on those, what he says next is frightening: “All earth will be a single choked Manhattan by A.D. 2450 and society will collapse long before that!”
Asimov does allow for the possibility that we will ward off this crisis, but so far we haven’t.
Back to the fun stuff, Asimov predicted smart phones and the internet:
“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.”
What Asimov got wrong:
Asimov didn’t bat 1.000, however. He predicted that walls would be replaced with glowing panels that would change color at a touch. He thought that algae farms would start to crowd out traditional farms. The most interesting miss that Asimov made is something on which he was half right: the relationship between man and machine:
“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.”
That part is basically accurate. Where Asimov goes astray is in his assumption that there is more or less a set amount of work, and once the machines are doing it for us, people won’t have much else to do:
“Even so, mankind will suffer badly from the disease of boredom, a disease spreading more widely each year and growing in intensity….
Indeed, 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!”
Oh, if only. Humans don’t know how to stop working, and they really don’t know how to have an economy based around more leisure time. What Asimov did not anticipate was growth for growth’s sake, and how the cold war would give way to a droning quest to make more money. Indeed, Asimov’s grim prediction is something most of us would like to try.