Thursday, January 2, 2014

mazel tov, it's Asimov

Today (Thursday), which happens to be the 94th birthday anniversary of the late Isaac Asimov, also happens to be the day that a number of writers have arisen and dusted off an Asimov column from 1964 predicting the civilization of 50 years in the future, i.e. this very new year.

Surprisingly, he doesn't say anything about the Internet, even though the Multivac, the all-knowledge-storing computer in some of his fiction stories, behaves rather like Siri. And he's decidedly off in several ways: flying cars, abundant fission power, moon colonies, etc. But a number of his predictions are pretty much right on, as the authors linked to above note.

A few comments of my own:

Asimov: So let the missiles slumber eternally on their pads
They did that. Not many people in 1964 were willing to assume confidently that there wouldn't be a thermonuclear war. The rule had always been: new weapons, no matter how ugly, always get used. But this one was frightening enough that we didn't dare. The original a-bomb was used, but for nearly 70 years since then we've all refrained. To continue to do so will require dedication and luck, but not "I'm falling past the second floor and I'm still OK" kind of luck.

Asimov: 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.
You can do that sort of thing, but one thing that's changed since 1964 is that Scandinavian modern design is no longer so much in fashion.

Asimov: Kitchen units will be devised that will prepare "automeals" ... Complete lunches and dinners, with the food semiprepared, will be stored in the freezer until ready for processing.
We have that, with only a slight difference in emphasis. Frozen and refrigerated food, meet microwave oven. Not so good for a cholesterol-heavy breakfast as Asimov imagines, but bring on the stunningly sophisticated (by 1964 standards: I remember those days) pre-made dinners, exactly as he describes.

Asimov: Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence.
This is far more accurate than the advanced but clumsy robot science he was depicting for our time in his 1940s robot stories. And it's exactly right: they're rare and unsophisticated, but they work. There's the Roomba, which has been around for about a decade, for instance. On my last visit to a hospital, a few weeks ago, I was a bit startled but not at all surprised to encounter a wheeled robot trundling down a corridor carrying supplies. I wasn't rude enough to stand in its way to see what would happen, but it did clearly have an eye to help it avoid obstacles.
What Asimov hasn't been able to get away from, with his image of a robot housemaid, is his 1940s idea of robots as human-shaped for maximum versatility. Specialized robots designed to fit their particular function turns out to be the way we've gone.

Asimov: computers, which are shown in all their amazing complexity, notably in the task of translating Russian into English.
Translation programs, though still clumsy, are a vast improvement on where they were even a decade ago.

Asimov: 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.
This is most impressive prediction in the entire story, because that's exactly where we are with this: we're working on it, and it functions in an experimental way.

Asimov: For short-range travel, moving sidewalks will be making their appearance in downtown sections.
What's wrong with this is that the sidewalks would be too restrictive in destination. Instead, we have the Segway, which, while it may never become common, at least it allows riders to pick their own directions.

Asimov: Communications will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the person you telephone.
For decades, this was promised, but nobody seemed to want it. Now it's become practical and apparently some people do want it, at least some of the time.

Asimov: Synchronous satellites, hovering in space will make it possible for you to direct-dial any spot on earth
This falls in the category of being so everyday that it's hard to remember that we didn't use to be able to do that.

Asimov spends several paragraphs discussing population pressure. This was his principal alarmist issue, one which he continued to sound the bell on for the rest of his life. In fact, he somewhat underestimated world population. What's strange is that hardly anyone seems alarmed by this any more. The predictions I've seen all say that world population will stop rising so fast and then gradually level off, but they don't explain why that's likely to happen.

Instead, the danger we face is climate change, something known about in 1964 but it didn't seem to concern anybody.

One more item.

Asimov: 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, indeed. It's the continuing intensification of an economic trend that's been going on for decades. The one thing all the futurologists who extolled our glorious leisure-filled future failed to ask is one which Asimov, with his ominous view of this possibility, seems to guess at. And that is: If we're not going to be working, what made us think that that we were still going to be paid?

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