The World According to Isaac Asimov
If you’re anything like the average employee at eNotes headquarters, you’re probably still drooling over the forthcoming generation of Apple iPhones. So allow me to ease you out of your reverie with a fun retrospect of how our bright future was predicted near perfectly almost 50 years ago.
Back in 1964, the Jetsons were on television, the lava lamp had just been invented, and the Moon was as yet uncharted territory. Isaac Asimov was also a popular science fiction writer of the time, though it was still six years before he would write his most famous short story “I, Robot.” Instead, he wrote an essay for the New York Times in which he imagined a trip to the World’s Fair of 2014, five decades into the future. On the brink of that very event and in the middle of a whirlwind of technological advancement, let’s take a look at five of the astounding predictions Asimov made for the 21st century:
The brave new world would apparently be designed without windows in mind.
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.
Windows need be no more than an archaic touch, and even when present will be polarized to block out the harsh sunlight. The degree of opacity of the glass may even be made to alter automatically in accordance with the intensity of the light falling upon it.
Sorry Asimov, but for the most part we still look to good old window dressings to block out the sunlight. We do, however, have polarized transition lenses in our eyewear. Though I believe science is still trying to work out a way that won’t leave one with permanently halfway-tinted glasses in your averagely lit room…
There is an underground house at the fair which is a sign of the future. if its windows are not polarized, they can nevertheless alter the “scenery” by changes in lighting. Suburban houses underground, with easily controlled temperature, free from the vicissitudes of weather, with air cleaned and light controlled, should be fairly common.
Once again we’ve wasted one of Asimov’s completely practical ideas by employing it for needlessly decadent purposes, like having a casino in Vegas that’s lit to make you feel like you’re walking the streets of Paris… but hey, it’s something.
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. Breakfasts will be “ordered” the night before to be ready by a specified hour the next morning. Complete lunches and dinners, with the food semiprepared, will be stored in the freezer until ready for processing.
Viva the frozen dinner! It’s like he had a crystal ball that stared directly into my life!
I suspect, though, that even in 2014 it will still be advisable to have a small corner in the kitchen unit where the more individual meals can be prepared by hand, especially when company is coming.
Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence. The I.B.M. exhibit at the present fair has no robots but it is dedicated to computers, which are shown in all their amazing complexity, notably in the task of translating Russian into English. If machines are that smart today, what may not be in the works 50 years hence? 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. It will undoubtedly amuse the fairgoers to scatter debris over the floor in order to see the robot lumberingly remove it and classify it into “throw away” and “set aside.” (Robots for gardening work will also have made their appearance.)
Actually Isaac, no need for a ticket to the World Fair to see the latest housecleaning robot; your local Bed, Bath, and Beyond will let you play with a Roomba for free.
As a side note, I was pleasantly surprised that the author strayed from the cliche expectations that the world would be run by robots by this time. In fact, it actually seems like we’ve ever so slightly surpassed his visions for technology in this area, for I I have practically all the makings of a robot in a device that fits in the palm of my hand. Although, I’m pretty sure we’re all still using it to translate Russian into English.
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.)
… 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. In fact, one popular exhibit at the 2014 World’s Fair will be such a 3-D TV, built life-size, in which ballet performances will be seen.
The first point may as well be true. As Asimov correctly predicted, both the movie and TV viewers of the early 21st century are bored of 2 meager dimensions, though I still hold out hope that 3D TVs never catch on. Nobody needs to see Bill O’Reilly in high-def and 3D.
GPS and the Google Car
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. I suspect one of the major attractions of the 2014 fair will be rides on small roboticized cars which will maneuver in crowds at the two-foot level, neatly and automatically avoiding each other.
These days, most of us can’t walk, ride, or drive anywhere without turning to GPS. I myself am lost without my smart phone and Google maps. Literally. On top of that, the Google driveless car is almost a reality. If you live in Nevada, Florida, or California, you may just see these autonomous cars out and about on public roads.
But then Asimov took it a little far thinking we’d all be commuting on hovercrafts by now.
Jets of compressed air will also lift land vehicles off the highways, which, among other things, will minimize paving problems. Smooth earth or level lawns will do as well as pavements. 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.
Alas, we’re still made to suffer the pitfalls and potholes of state roads.
To see more of the advancements Asimov so expertly predicted, you can read his amusing article for the New York Times here.
I couldn’t even touch on his ideas for video phone calls, tofurkey, or moon colonies, or indeed his terrifying idea of a vastly over-populated “World-Manhattan.” Even with what was at most a speculation of life five decades into the future, the writer really pegged us surprisingly well. For while his dark vision of an over-populated society has not come to pass, his closing lines show a somber knowledge of exactly where we’re headed:
Mankind will suffer badly from the disease of boredom, a disease spreading more widely each year and growing in intensity. This will have serious mental, emotional and sociological consequences, and I dare say that psychiatry will be far and away the most important medical specialty in 2014.
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.
Hope you enjoyed this look back as much as I did. Cheers to a brave new world!