Isaac Asimov's view of the future of 2019, and the fight of man vs robot
January 1, 2019 3:13 PM   Subscribe

35 years ago, Isaac Asimov was asked by the Toronto Star to predict the world of 2019. Here is what he wrote (The Star, Dec. 27, 2018) Here's what he got right (and wrong). -- Some of them were surprisingly astute. (Stephen Johnson for Big Think). Spoilers: accurate predictions about computerization, optimistic about education, environment, and space utilization. Also, his views of an automated workplace were both forward-looking and dated; see: Lordstown Syndrome, a term coined in 1972. Lordstown: Man vs. machine -- and GM was the big loser, recapped as "worker rebellion, including sabotage of products" by Harry Stoffer for Auto News in 2008. Except GM still hasn't learned: GM’s decline truly began with its quest to turn people into machines (Gwynn Guilford for Quartz, Dec. 30, 2018)
posted by filthy light thief (21 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
Bracketing this by seven years on either side, the July 1976 National Geographic contained an article by Asimov speculating on the world in 2026. I noted once before on the blue that this was one of the illustrations for an orbital habitat, but to anyone in southern Ontario, it is instantly reminiscent of the downtown mall the Toronto Eaton Centre, which opened in 1977.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 3:39 PM on January 1 [7 favorites]


For instance, he predicted that technology will revolutionize education (correct), but that traditional schooling will become outdated as kids become able to learn everything they need to know from computers at home. That might technically be possible, but it also assumes that kids wouldn't spend all that time using technology to, say, play Fortnite.
Well, I don't know what the actual numbers are, but the Internet has made homeschooling feasible for a lot of families in ways it simply wasn't before. And more people are doing postsecondary education online all the time.
But Asimov was a bit optimistic about future societies' space endeavors, predicting that humans would be "back on the moon in force" with mining operations, factories that "use of the special properties of space," observatories and even a solar power station that would beam microwaves back to Earth.
Man, I miss the old EPCOT Center future.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:07 PM on January 1 [6 favorites]


Malthusian nonsense and solar power satellites. I note the handsy old goat didn't predict the #MeToo movement.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 7:12 PM on January 1 [10 favorites]


But he is being shilled on a site that right below him has an article by Jordan Peterson (and below that an article about how women are the REAL slut-shamers). Gross link, filthy. You could have built a better FPP without it.
posted by rikschell at 7:35 PM on January 1 [4 favorites]


I always had my suspicious about Big Think. Ugh. The right really are masters at slipping in regressive ideologies in seemingly innocuous content.
posted by Yowser at 8:02 PM on January 1 [3 favorites]


It's possible to use observations such as Moore's law to predict the general kinds of technological advances we should see in one, two or even five years. But, as tech analyst Andy Oram of O'Reilly Media is quoted as saying in a Pew Research Center report on the future of the internet, "Beyond five years, everything is wide open."

That's mainly because it's impossible to predict the many innovative ways in which the next generation might make use of those major advances.


I thought that (Peterson etc aside, I didn’t scroll down) the site understates how well Asimov did overall. That’s partly because he framed a lot of his answers in a sensibly general fashion, like any good writer of horoscopes, and partly because he really did get a few things, especially as they related to computing, very right.

Predictions about the future are genuinely difficult; you need to understand a lot of fields, in depth, to make them accurately. And it’s clear that Gibson was right about the future being poorly distributed - so as well as “humanity’s achievements”, which tend to refer to those of the first world, what predictions are you making about overall levels of advancement for humanity as a whole? How many people will continue to live in poverty, lack access to clean water, be unvaccinated, be illiterate?

Yet even if you confine yourself to “someone rich, living somewhere rich, will have done X by year YYYY”, it’s still really tough. Why don’t we have moon bases, or flying cars, or space elevators? The reasons are partly tedious and statistical (they’re not economically viable, for Reasons, or would require materials / socioeconomic conditions / aspects of human nature that are effectively impossible, as conclusively demonstrated in a paper that you’ve never read), and partly cultural (we don’t really need either of them, and our societies are set up to value and provide certain things that we don’t need but not others, again for Reasons) and partly just accident (e.g. I did a post today about a revolutionary carbon fibre aircraft design from the inventor of the LearJet that was never successful and lost half a billion dollars in the early eighties, for Reasons). But, OTOH, why do we have Star Trek style tricorders in our pockets, at a fraction of the size predicted? Again, the reasons are partly tedious and statistical, partly cultural, partly accidental.

The difficulty is some combination of Jeff Goldblum explaining the passage of a water droplet down your hand, plus the difficulty of inventing something that’s obvious and simple in retrospect (one of my favourite ever previouslies on this site btw), plus the sheer amount of detail in reality (stolen from that very previously), plus this astute comic about how hard it is to identify hard problems, especially from outside the field, plus various other things that probably aren’t occurring to me.

And that’s part of the difficulty - what isn’t occurring to you? All kinds of things might happen, but very few of them will. Other things will happen that don’t make sense at all. Imagine, for example, making predictions about a business that uses a fleet of communal bicycles, unlocked by mobile, pocket-sized computers. Firstly, you’ve got to imagine that computers. Secondly, you’ve got to resist the temptation to assume that therefore everything is at pocket-computer level - and we’re back to Gibson’s famous quote again. The temptation is to say “hey, they’ve got these computers, so they’re unlocking hoverboards, not cheap heavy bicycles painted in primary colours”. Thirdly... I mean, it’s so arbitrary! The idea would have sounded kind of ridiculous in any alternate timeline in which all else was equal but someone didn’t come up with that idea, let alone a decade or two in the past. And fourthly, without being too glib... if you have the ability to make predictions like that, it isn’t really a prediction, it’s a patent. Why are you writing articles for the mocking amusement of future generations? Go and find some seed capital! Don’t settle for having geostationary satellite orbits named after you, Arthur C. Clarke - get in touch with some aerospace buddies, and invent satellite TV, then retire to your own private archipelago!

Anyway, I’ve sort of lost track of my original point, but suffice to say that predictions are tough, and that the future is merciless towards them.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 10:22 PM on January 1 [40 favorites]


He seemed to have predicted hipster mutton chops pretty spot on tho.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:54 PM on January 1 [8 favorites]


chappell, ambrose's comment really is an excellent explanation. Best of the web!
posted by The River Ivel at 2:06 AM on January 2


Aye yo Issac, less predicting and more adding a semblance of emotional depth to any character in the Foundation series.
posted by Damienmce at 5:47 AM on January 2 [6 favorites]


A fascinating piece.

Note that the *first* thing is nuclear war. Before anything else. Nuclear war dominated many futurists' thoughts into the 1990s.

Also, the concern about overpopulation. Seeing as heading towards a plateau in 2019 isn't too far off, actually.

"Those who can he retrained and re-educated will have been: those who can’t be will have been put to work at something useful, or where ruling groups are less wise, will have been supported by some sort of grudging welfare arrangement." And that's about where we stand. Grudging indeed.
posted by doctornemo at 7:07 AM on January 2


It doesn't strike me that this set of predictions would be any more or less applicable if it had been printed in 1963 or 2003, it's mostly very general and where it isn't, it's wrong. The rise of computers and automation was not a knive's edge issue in 1983, it was decades old at that point even if we restrict ourselves to "computers" rather than technology in general.

He was right to keep things as general as possible, it prevented him from saying that would look really dumb (although the idea that either orbiting solar-collectors beaming energy to earth via microwave energy or mineral mining of the moon would be anything close to cost-effective does seem quite naïve, and hard for me to see how that tech would seem plausible in 1983).

I liked the bit about not bothering to predict what would occur in the aftermath of nuclear war, it would be bad, and there's no use trying to be more precise than that). But for a prediction to be "good" I think it has to be something that, if a person had taken the prediction as true from the start, would have put that person in a better position than someone who did not. What does a believer in Asimov's prediction do that a non-believer wouldn't? Try to steer oneself toward computer competence as much as one's position would allow? That's maybe good advice but hardly noteworthy. Oh, and like Damienmce, my profound disappointment at the flatness of the Foundation series.

I'll admit that my overwhelming distaste for contemporary futurists like Ray Kurzweil is probably making my reading of this grumpier than it otherwise would have been. Oh, and like Damienmce, my profound disappointment with the flatness of the Foundation series.
posted by skewed at 7:48 AM on January 2 [1 favorite]


Its interesting that while lots of people predicted we would use computers more, and some even predicted that we would join them all together, practically no-one predicted anything like Twitter or Wikipedia or Facebook or how huge something like Google could become economically. I don't quite know how to label this 'thing'. You could call it social media, but that overstates the cheesiness of it. Its more the stuff Clay Shirky talks about - anyone can publish, and any group of people that want to get together and talk about something or do something can now do so, in a way that was unimaginable before.

And I mean literally unimaginable, I challenge you to find anyone in sci-fi that predicted anything vaguely like Twitter, or Reddit, or metafilter, or even the 90s newsgroups, or the concept of Crowdsourcing. I guess this was what they call a paradigm shift. Its fundamentally part of our world now, for better or for worse, but no-one predicted it.

Asimov, above, predicts the economic effect of computers will mostly come from robots, because he's thinking about manufacturing etc. But the real economic effect of computers was a whole new 'information' sector of the economy.

In the novelisation of 2001, Arthur C Clark has a passage where he describes some ideas about future media. The passage takes place when Dr Floyd is on his way to the Moon...
There was plenty to occupy his time, even if he did nothing but sit and read. When he tired of official reports and memoranda and minutes he would plug his foolscap-sized Newspad into the ship's information circuit and scan the latest news reports from Earth. One by one he would conjure up the world's major electronic papers; he knew the codes of the more important ones by heart, and had no need to consult the list on the back of his pad. Switching to the display unit's short-term memory, he would hold the front page while he quickly searched the headlines and noted the items that interested him. Each had its own two-digit reference; when he punched that, the postage-stamp-sized rectangle would expand until it neatly filled the screen, and he could read it with comfort. When he had finished he would flash back to the complete page and select a new subject for detailed examination.

Floyd sometimes wondered if the Newspad, and the fantastic technology behind it, was the last word in man's quest for perfect communications. Here he was, far out in space, speeding away from Earth at thousands of miles an hour, yet in a few milliseconds he could see the headlines of any newspaper he pleased. (That very word 'newspaper' of course, was an anachronistic hang-over into the age of electronics.) The text was updated automatically on every hour; even if one read only the English versions one could spend an entire lifetime doing nothing but absorbing the everchanging flow of information from the news satellites.

It was hard to imagine how the system could be improved or made more convenient. But sooner or later, Floyd guessed, it would pass away, to be replaced by something as unimaginable as the Newspad itself would have been to Caxton or Gutenberg.

There was another thought which a scanning of those tiny electronic headlines often invoked. The more wonderful the means of communication, the more trivial, tawdry or depressing its contents seemed to be. Accidents, crimes, natural and man-made disasters, threats of conflict, gloomy editorials - these still seemed to be the main concern of the millions of words being sprayed into the ether. Yet Floyd also wondered if this was altogether a bad thing; the newspapers of Utopia, he had long ago decided, would be terribly dull.
What Arthur C Clark is describing here is technologically pretty similar to our internet, but he imagines it being used to publish newspapers and apparently not much else, because thats how information worked in his time. We do have newspapers on the internet, but its a comparatively tiny part of what happens online. He (and everyone else) failed to imagine what happens if anyone can publish.
posted by memebake at 8:15 AM on January 2 [7 favorites]


memebake:

The Machine Stops (1909) did a pretty good job of predicting a lot about social media. It was reprinted occasionally, but no one took the prediction seriously enough to incorporate it into science fiction until social media pretty much happened in the real world.

rhamphorhynchus:

So far as I know, no one predicted anything like the metoo movement. Mefites, please let me know if I've missed something.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 9:16 AM on January 2 [4 favorites]


What Arthur C Clark is describing here is technologically pretty similar to our internet, but he imagines it being used to publish newspapers and apparently not much else, because thats how information worked in his time. We do have newspapers on the internet, but its a comparatively tiny part of what happens online. He (and everyone else) failed to imagine what happens if anyone can publish.

I dunno, this part seemed right on the money:

The more wonderful the means of communication, the more trivial, tawdry or depressing its contents seemed to be. Accidents, crimes, natural and man-made disasters, threats of conflict, gloomy editorials - these still seemed to be the main concern of the millions of words being sprayed into the ether.

Maybe he didn't imagine it trivial or tawdry enough...
posted by Zalzidrax at 10:31 AM on January 2 [4 favorites]


And I mean literally unimaginable, I challenge you to find anyone in sci-fi that predicted anything vaguely like Twitter, or Reddit, or metafilter, or even the 90s newsgroups, or the concept of Crowdsourcing.

FWIW Orson Scott Card (Yes, I know) made pretty good predictions about the internet in 1985 in Ender's Game, even if Ender's brother Peter gets elected ruler of Earth for basically having a really good blog.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 12:08 PM on January 2 [6 favorites]


WARNING: Autoplay video with sound on the Bigthink link. It's not playing in the article, or even the one below it on the page, but THREE ARTICLES BELOW.

Isaac Asimov didn't predict THAT, did he.
posted by chrominance at 1:53 PM on January 2 [2 favorites]


Metafilter: Isaac Asimov didn't predict THAT, did he.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:58 PM on January 2 [5 favorites]


"no-one predicted anything like Twitter or Wikipedia."

Arguably Asimov predicted this, inarguably Douglas Adams did. Weirdly, there is less snark in the real-world version; this I would not have predicted.

But that's Wikipedia, as for Twitter, no, no one predicted that; I would argue the creators of Twitter did not predict and could not predict Twitter (as we know it today).
posted by el io at 2:51 PM on January 2 [4 favorites]


Orson Scott Card (Yes, I know) made pretty good predictions about the internet in 1985 in Ender's Game, even if Ender's brother Peter gets elected ruler of Earth for basically having a really good blog.
The internet stuff in Ender's Game is mostly just a description of Usenet as it existed at the time isn't it? OTOH the blogger-becomes-president bit seemed a lot more laughable before the current White House occupant tweeted his way there.
posted by rhamphorhynchus at 5:42 PM on January 2


I haven't read Ender's Game in years but I think of the subplot about Ender's brother and sister taking over Politics via Posting and how implausible it once seemed to me every time I read about QAnon.
posted by atoxyl at 10:34 PM on January 2 [2 favorites]


el io: re: Wikipedia: Arguably Asimov predicted this, inarguably Douglas Adams did.

What's special about Wikipedia, and what no-one predicted, is that the open, crowd-sourced aspect of it would be successful, and so successful that conventionally written encyclopedias would be (arguably) left in the dust. Asimov's Encyclopedia Galactica is just envisaged as being like the encylopedias of his day - written by people whose specific job it was to write things.

Douglas Adams' HHGTTG is _supposed_ to be written by field researchers such as Ford Prefect like a conventional encyclopedia although as your link explains Adams' mentions "most of the actual work got done by any passing stranger who happened to wander into the empty offices of an afternoon and saw something worth doing." ... so here Adams is a bit closer to the concept of Wikipedia but only accidentally and for comedy effect, he's not suggesting that the results of that could approach could be anything other than haphazard.
posted by memebake at 3:42 AM on January 3


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