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How Isaac Asimov got both so right and so wrong


In , the med writer shared his vision of our time. Some predictions were spot-on, while others were wildly off base. Craves Eric Mack thinks he knows why.

In , legendary writer of science fiction and science ct Isaac Asimov visited the Worlds Fair, where a General Electric pavilion chronicling advances in electric appliances inspired him to imagine how that progress might continue into the future. So Asimov sat down and penned his vision of life in the year , years in the future at that point.

Asimov has awed me since I was a small child reading a pop-up book inspired by his work in robotics, but I read this particular essay of his for the first time on my way to the International Consumer Electronics Show this year. There, much like Asimov years ago, I was inspired by all the tech on display to look both back toward Asimovs heyday and further into .

Its scinating to note how some of Asimovs predictions from are dead-on, while others still seem like absolute ntasies we may not even see by . One of the things I concluded after rereading Asimovs essay post-CES is that predictions tell us more about the time in which they were made than anything else.

As evidence, heres a quick rundown of things Asimov envisioned for our lives today:

. Windows and natural sunlight have been traded for walls and ceilings that glow in different colors, partly because we all live underground now to make room on the suce for huge rms, ranches, and parks.

. Food preparation is largely (but not completely) automated and frozen meals are hugely popular.

. We have robots, but they are not very common and not very good. Instead we watch D movies about amazing robots still to come in the future.

. We get most of our electricity from nuclear power plants, and even use nuclear-powered batteries in many of our appliances. We are also starting to experiment seriously with fusion power and operate large solar power stations in a few desert areas while thinking seriously about putting such a power station in space.

. Hovercars traveling on a cushion of air a foot or two above ground or water are the best way to get around.

. Self-driving roboticized vehicles are an up-and-coming technology.

. In cities, moving sidewalks are big for moving people, while goods travel short distances by compressed-air tubes.

. Satellites and laser beams make it possible for us to conduct video calls and conferences with people anywhere in the world -- or on the moon colonies. No one will call Mars because we are still working on our first manned mission there, though weve landed unmanned ships already.

. We live on a planet of . billion people, with the area ween Boston and Washington being the largest city in the world. The deserts and polar regions are becoming populated. Global inequality is just as bad as if not worse than in , plus now were all very freaked out about overpopulation.

. Finally, the world is so dominated by robots that we are all taught programming in high school to prepare for an inevitable career as a machine tender. Creative work is rare and boredom is a global psychological epidemic.

Whats amazing here is that where Asimov is right, hes totally dead-on. Lousy that sweep the floor and not much else ( not withstanding)? Check. hype? Check. Nuclear and solar power? A sometimes-controversial check. ? Check. Unmanned missions to ? Check. Rapidly developing cities in the worlds deserts for . billion of us? Well, its actually more than billion, and before the recession, developing desert megacities were definitely a check.

Some of this prognostication is math, and since Asimov was one of the most important thinkers ever when it comes to certain things like robotics, it makes sense that hed make solid calls in that department.

And yet, while he absolutely nails our progress in getting to Mars, he completely misses with his prediction about colonies on the moon. And who really wants to live underground with glowing walls?

Vision from a different time

I think the key to why Asimovs predictions were so uneven is actually pretty , and it has to do with the world he was living in back in the early s.

In , years prior to his forward-looking column, the world was still largely agrarian and colonial, to say nothing of the economic devastation visited by the Great Depression in the s, and an awful war that was kicking off.

But by , we had split atoms, created apocalyptic weapons, sent men into space, built a modern highway system, entered the Digital Age, begun microwaving our dinners and using all manner of personal electric home appliances, started regularly jetting around the country on commercial airlines, switched from radio to television-dominated media, and moved to the suburbs to raise milies in spacious, modern splendor unknown to the generations that came before.

When I look back years from today, to , I certainly see a revolution in how we communicate, access, use, and share information, but many other changes in daily life seem more iterative and incremental. Whereas the advances in the years leading up to Asimovs predictions were nothing short of game-changing in a completely existential sense.

Five years after writing, Asimov would see the United States meet a goal of putting men on the moon. Given the pace of technological advance in , why not extrapolate forward to a moon colony years later?

Asimov also seems extremely concerned about overpopulation, which was a hot topic in the s and s (even Star Trek tackled the issue) and he clearly thought it would continue to drive the directions technology was being used to steer society -- underground, underwater, into the deserts and polar regions; so why not also onto the suce of the moon?

But as it turns out, there was no mass starvation of hundreds of millions of people in the s, and technology actually helped to dramatically increase yields of food crops.

Fifty years later were more concerned as a planet about the potential consequences of climate change, which are arguably linked to the planets population, but probably not so easily solved by moving some people to the moon or underground.

In other words, Asimovs predictions make perfect sense if youre living in a country that has been having a major population boom while being utterly transformed at a breathtaking rate. At least thats the only way I can imagine that miles of moving sidewalks and sending stuff via those compressed-air tubes youd see in the drive-up bank lane would make any sense to a person.

I definitely still want the hovercars Asimov describes though. Can we get a Kickstarter together for that, like, yesterday?

The futures so bright, we all LOL

Hovercars aside, I think Asimov also underestimated basic human resilience and creativity in his predictions, perhaps because he was such a robot nerd.

Why use our technology to build an underground society withdrawn from our natural environment, when we can design new ways to ter and blend in with that environment? We clearly prefer rooftop gardens to underground lairs.

And as for the idea that we would all become robot tenders suffering from epidemic cases of mass boredom? This clearly only makes sense in a mind not yet exposed to the ungraspable depths of serotonin-milking videos, apps, and status updates that is the Internet.

Really sorry you couldnt make it to see , Dr. Asimov. Its only about half of what you hoped for, but I guarantee that you would have loved it here.

Crave freelancer Eric Mack is a writer, radio producer, and podcaster based in Taos, N.M., but he lives in Google+. Hes also managing editor of Crowdsourcing

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