Isaac Asimov’s crystal ball

When I was in my early teens, I was an avid science fiction reader – I still dabble in the genre today. My two favorite authors were Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. Asimov was an incredibly prolific author, publishing well over 300 books in his lifetime on a variety of subjects. He actually wrote more science fact books than science fiction. His writing style and very clear way of explaining complex ideas was a fine example.

Asimov also fancied himself as a futurologist …

In 1964, Isaac Asimov wrote about what he thought the world would be like in another 50 years – in 2014. Now we know what the world was like then and it is very interesting to take a look at how accurate his predictions turned out to be.

Here are some of them:

“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.”

This one is pretty much spot-on. Although perhaps we do not [yet] use video calling routinely, Facetime and Skype are extremely popular, particularly among families who are geographically distributed across the world. I guess the enabling technology was something the Asimov did not really predict – the Internet – but I think that he would recognize the devices that we all use on a daily basis. I wonder why you might want to call a weather station in Antarctica?

“Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence.”

A surprise here from a man who wrote so extensively about robots, but again he was very accurate. As a kid, I confidently expected advanced [humanoid] robotics by now, but clearly I need to wait another few years. Incidentally, my favorite Robin Williams film is Bicentennial Man.

“The appliances of 2014 will have no electric cords, of course, for they will be powered by long-lived batteries running on radioisotopes.”

Asimov was half right and half wrong here. We do, of course, make extensive use of portable devices and we have batteries that are much, much more efficient than what was available in 1964. Even so, we [or at least I] complain about battery life all the time. Of course, he was mistaken about the technology that would be deployed to make efficient batteries. In the 1960s, atomic power was seen as the answer to all the world’s problems [and the cause of a few too!]. I recall seeing an article the confidently anticipated the use of small nuclear bombs in mining and civil engineering applications. That is not going to happen any time soon, any more than any of us having pockets full of radioactive batteries.

“Vehicles with ‘Robot-brains” … can be set for particular destinations … that will then proceed there without interference by the slow reflexes of a human driver.”

We are almost there! I, for one, look forward to having an autonomous car and being able to sit back and read while it whisks me to my destination. If Google and others have their way, this will soon be a possibility. When I use the GPS in my car, I often feel like it is science fiction. The good Professor would have been impressed with this technology for sure.

“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…. 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.”

I believe that this is the direction that we are going. Computers and [my own area of interest] embedded systems are everywhere. Interestingly, in the UK at least, there is a strong, government-led push for kids to learn about how computers work and how to program them, instead of just learning the basics of using the technology. I am sure that Asimov would be astounded to hear that Fortran is still in use, even if not quite so mainstream as it was in the 1960s. Current programming languages – C, C++, Java, Python … – all trace their routes back to the Algol language, which was developed in the 1960s.

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