Asimov was not only one of the greatest science fiction writers of his generation; he was a prolific author of popular science books (e.g. Guide to Science, Understanding Physics and Asimov’s Chronology of Science and Discovery) and one of the most thoughtful scientific historians of the last century. A professor of biochemistry at Boston University, Asimov served as vice president of Mensa International, at which he was a long time member, and like a 20th Century Leonardo, he held deep understanding of scores of subjects.
Let’s look at a few of his more relevant prognostications.
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 lumbering remove it and classify it into “throw away” and “set aside.” (Robots for gardening work will also have made their appearance.)
I think it is fair to say that in the 1964 view of what a “robot” was, this is fairly accurate. More generalized service robots exist but are hardly up to sci-fi standards. The great progress in robotics is found in specialty functions, specific to the manufacturing industry.
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.)
The appliances of 2014 will have no electric cords, of course, for they will be powered by long- lived batteries running on radioisotopes. The isotopes will not be expensive for they will be by- products of the fission-power plants which, by 2014, will be supplying well over half the power needs of humanity. But once the isotype batteries are used up they will be disposed of only through authorized agents of the manufacturer.
Asimov certainly understood the need for mobile energy sources, and while the isotope technology he describes was not the path forward, battery life for our devices, consumer to industrial, remain a challenge.
Much effort will be put into the designing of vehicles with “Robot-brain” 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.
GPS has revolutionized how we get around in cars and on foot, and video conferencing has become mainstream from Skype to Apple’s FaceTime and a variety of other applications.
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).
Conversations with the moon will be a trifle uncomfortable, but the way, in that 2.5 seconds must elapse between statement and answer (it takes light that long to make the round trip). Similar conversations with Mars will experience a 3.5-minute delay even when Mars is at its closest. However, by 2014, only unmanned ships will have landed on Mars, though a manned expedition will be in the works and in the 2014 Futurama will show a model of an elaborate Martian colony.
NASA’s post-Apollo program dedication to the Space Shuttle program removed the possibility of moon colonization by 2014, but as explored in my previous post title="Fly Me To The Moon: The Next Emerging Market">Fly Me To The Moon: The Next Emerging Market, the moon is very much back on humanity’s radar. And as for Mars, Asimov was spot on. The rovers have landed beaming incredible photos of the Red Planet and as if on cue, Mars One began soliciting applicants for a one-way trip in 2025. Over 200,000 people applied and the first cut was just announced last week as 1,058 people were chosen to continue in the selection process.
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.
Although the means in which Asimov predicted we would get to synthetic foods is off, we are already at a point where synthetically produced meats can be developed. More on this in a future post.
The situation will have been made the more serious by the advances of automation. 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. Part of the General Electric exhibit today consists of a school of the future in which such present realities as closed-circuit TV and programmed tapes aid the teaching process. It is not only the techniques of teaching that will advance, however, but also the subject matter that will change. 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”).
Although I would take umbrage with the tone of ‘race of machine tenders’ clearly robotics in the manufacturing industries have made the above statement largely true. But as for education, much must be done to educate our children, and fundamentally prepare them in computer technology. This is not as much a point about what is needed to advance technology but more so for students to find better jobs when they leave school. America is lagging the world in math and science and it needs to catch up.
Indeed, 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.
Although we fall slightly short of the life expectancy of 85, no doubt we are inching closer. I will speak more of the advances in neuroscience in an upcoming post.
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 semi-prepared, will be stored in the freezer until ready for processing. 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.
While the first sentence is absolutely true, and certainly examples of many of the above can certainly be found, I’m not sure anyone in 1964 could have predicted the slow-food movement!
And on the shoulders of giants we prepare to look forward, as it always helps to know where you came from to better understand where we are going and how we may get there.
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