Writing in the New York Times in 1964, science fiction author and biochemistry professor Isaac Asimov predicted what the world would look like 50 years on in 2014. His reflections were inspired by the lack of visions of the future at the New York World Fair. As Open Culture has pointed out, his descriptions of life at this moment in time are uncannily recognisable now that 2014 has finally arrived. Here, Wired.co.uk takes a look at the ways in which Asimov's predictions about how technology would evolve are reflected in the world around us today.
ENVIRONMENT AND LIGHTING
"Men will continue to withdraw from nature in order to create an environment that will suit them better. By 2014, electroluminescent panels will be in common use. Ceilings and walls will glow softly, and in a variety of colours that will change at the touch of a push button," wrote Asimov.
This sounds almost like a premonition of the Philips Hue lighting range and its LED carpet development. But while Asimov was right about the developments in lighting technology, our relationship with nature continues to be a complex one and humans have been more reluctant to accept simulations of the natural world than Asimov predicted. While it is true that we can now use lighting technology to simulate sunrises, to treat seasonal affective disorder and to nurture newly born animals, we have not, as Asimov speculated, retreated to living underground in a world where windows to the outside world are "no more than an archaic touch". In fact, bountiful natural light is seen as more desirable than ever in the worlds of architecture and real estate.
"Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence. The IBM 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 miniaturised, that will serve as the 'brains' of robots."
No doubt Google's Translate tool would have blown Asimov's mind. But while he might be right about the prevalence of robots in our lives outside of industry, he surely would have been impressed by the quality of developments in robotics. From the terrifying robots built by Boston Dynamics, to adorable astronaut pal Kirobo, to Roomba the vacuum cleaner, 'droids have come a long way since the Sixties. Despite this, the role of robots in our world is as up for debate as it ever was, and the technology is constantly evolving still.
"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 semiprepared, will be stored in the freezer until ready for processing."
Asimov is mostly on the money here with his predictions of coffee machines, freezers and countertop microwave ovens, but his vision falls a little flat in its overestimation of the evolution in technology and underestimation of the changes in food culture, including the increased popularity of takeaway and processed convenience foods.
He does, however, spot one very unusual development in food culture, which seems absurd in the minds of many even today.
"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."
This sounds like a premonition of in-vitro meat creation, which became a reality only recently. In 2013, the world's first test-tube burger was cooked and eaten in London in front of an audience. Just as Asimov predicted, the idea turned the stomachs of many and the vast quantities of cash poured into the development and creation of the burger meant that there was only one of them to go around. Those who did in fact try it also pronounced that it was, to paraphrase, not bad at all.
THE COLONISATION OF SPACE
Asimov makes mention of Moon colonies, which he seems to presume would have been in existence by now. Obviously that's the not the case, but his predictions relating to human exploration of Mars are very close to the mark.
"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," he writes.
We have indeed sent unmanned spacecraft to the Red Planet, but manned missions and colonisation efforts are still, as yet, much talked-about but unrealised.
CONSUMER TECHNOLOGY AND COMMUNICATION
"The appliances of 2014 will have no electric cords, of course, for they will be powered by long-lived batteries," Asimov mused.
We don't yet live in a completely wireless world, but we do live in a mobile one, free of many of the cords that once bound appliance use solely to power points. Asimov also provides a startlingly accurate prediction of the mobile phone and tablet trend.
"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 splendour as part of the '64 General Motors exhibit)."
"As for television," he continues, "wall screens will have replaced the ordinary set; but transparent cubes will be making their appearance in which three-dimensional viewing will be possible."
This is almost bang on. He foresaw flatscreen TVs and even 3D TVs, even if he didn't quite grasp how exactly they would work.
MACHINES REPLACING HUMAN WORKERS
"The world of AD 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," Asimov wrote.
The idea of machines replacing human manual workers has been around since the dawn of the industrial revolution. Everything we now achieve by machine, we once had to do by hand, and Asimov recognised that this was only set to continue with the development of increasingly sophisticated and capable technology. While he doesn't make specific mention of Amazon delivery drones, he takes a fine stab at visualising how robotic vehicles might affect logistics and hints at the driverless car.
"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."
Asimov goes on to say: "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 […] 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')."
A SUITABLE EDUCATION
It is painfully ironic that the importance of teaching coding in schools was recognised all the way back in 1964 and yet has only just started to be taken seriously by those responsible for drawing up education policy. Asimov saw that with the increasing use of technology and machines replacing humans in various workplaces, we would need a suitably adjusted academic curriculum that reflected skillsets demanded by industry. What he failed to predict was our failure to take this seriously until this frankly inexcusably late stage.
"Although technology will still keep up with population through 2014, it will be only through a supreme effort and with but partial success. Not all the world's population will enjoy the gadgetry world of the future to the full. A larger portion than today will be deprived and although they may be better off, materially, than today, they will be further behind when compared with the advanced portions of the world. They will have moved backward, relatively."
It is true that price and availability of internet access is still preventing much of the developing world from enjoying "the world of the future" to the full, but Asimov had no way of knowing about the ultra-budget phone and tablet trend and did not perhaps give credit to technology for its transformative power. Technology has not closed the gap between the developing and developed worlds, but it has not set the former back, even relatively.
SCIENCE FICTION VS REALITY
Many of Asimov's predictions for 2014 have become a reality — some only in the nick of time. Others he got only partially right, and some not at all.
While he foresaw that advances in medicine would increase average life expectancy, causing population sizes to swell, he also imagined a dramatic propaganda campaign relating to birth control that would have taken its grip on society.
Downtown urban areas he thought would be decked out with "moving sidewalks (with benches on either side, standing room in the centre)". He also thought that: "compressed air tubes will carry goods and materials over local stretches, and the switching devices that will place specific shipments in specific destinations will be one of the city's marvels."
At the time Asimov mulled these ideas, there was the possibility that thermonuclear war would make them all irrelevant. As it happens, the war did not take place and what has come to pass is almost, if not quite, the future that Asimov imagined "with buoyant hope" would become a reality.