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We Live in the Future Nobody Predicted

Flash back to the 1964 World’s Fair. One of the greatest science fiction writers of your generation, someone who is also a well-respected science writer with a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Columbia University, makes a series of relatively modest predictions about the year 2014. If there were, say, a Mysterious Universe radio show covering the fair, Isaac Asimov’s predictions would be among the top stories, and for good reason.

Now, with the benefit of hindsight, we look back on the article…and most of us agree that Isaac Asimov did incredibly well, because we’ve gotten so accustomed to off-the-wall predictions that Asimov’s stand out as reasonable.

Consider:

  • His population estimates were stunningly accurate. He predicted that in 2014, the world population would be 6.5 billion and the U.S. population 350 million; the world population is 7.05 billion and the U.S population is 313.9 million. That’s not bad.
  • He accurately predicted that driverless cars would be under development, but not in widespread use.
  • He accurately predicted that we would be able to communicate with the Moon via laser beams.
  • He accurately predicted that “only unmanned ships will have landed on Mars, though a manned expedition will be in the works…”
  • He accurately predicted that “[r]obots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence.”

He also predicted this:

“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…”

That’s pretty amazing.

But the world he envisioned for 2014 was still fundamentally different in most important ways from the one we ended up with. For example, he writes that…

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 …

…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.

In reality, the opposite is happening: Australia and the industrialized West are shifting away from an industrial economy and towards a service economy. Laborers of our generation are far more likely to interact with other humans for a living than laborers of Asimov’s generation were. Why the discrepancy? Asimov didn’t foresee—and couldn’t have foreseen—that the industrial economy was about to globalize to such a degree as to make the idea of a few computerized, super-industrial states impracticable.

He also dramatically underestimated the degree to which we would rely on outdated infrastructure. Asimov predicted a world powered by fission power reactors, that electronic devices would charge cordlessly, that people would get what they consider to be natural light from electroluminescent panels and windows would become “no more than an archaic touch,” that we would all be eating “automeals” prepared for us by kitchen computers, that our cars would hover around on streams of compressed air, that the major cities of the northeastern United States would merge into a single city of 40 million people, and that there would be a 2014 World’s Fair where one could get a glimpse of upcoming technology for the next 50 years.

My point is not that I think I’m smarter than Asimov. My point is that I think Asimov was significantly smarter and better-educated than I am, he predicted the world of 2014 better than anyone else of his generation, and he was still way off the mark. So how accurate are our 2064 predictions likely to be? Not very—we have no idea what’s coming. And this is both scary and exhilarating.

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Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.
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