Friday, January 10, 2014

Futures Past

Isaac Asimov
Recently, I came across a post at Open Culture that referred to an article Isaac Asimov had written for the New York Times in 1964. Asimov, a prolific writer (he published over 500 books and 90,000 letters) is best remembered for his science-fiction. His Times article was motivated by his visit to General Electric's pavilion at the New York's World Fair. If we had made so much progress in the last fifty years, what would the world be like in fifty more - in 2014? So how well did Dr. Asimov predict our lives today?

Some highlights from his article:

  • We should be living mostly underground to both stabilize our living environment and leave the surface mostly available to feed the exploding population which has grown to 6.5 billion people (our current population is actually 7.1 billion people).  (Score: Close on the population, off on the root cellars.)
  • Further population growth is being controlled mostly by limiting births (Score: Check, see link above.)
  • We are living with more gadgetry to do our mundane tasks (Score: Check).
  • We are still waiting for the robots that will simplify our lives (Score: Check). 
  • Some needs, like language translation by machine, are now commonplace (Check).
  • Our appliances are cordless and run on atomic power (Score: Only partly right. Some cordless gear but nada to atomic power).
  • Conventional highway transportation is past its peak and new levitation roads are making an appearance (Score: no points for this one).
  • Some vehicles can now get to their destinations without a driver at the controls (Score: Check. Think Google's autonomous driving vehicles).
  • We can now talk on our phones and see the person at the same time (Score: Check. Think Skype, FaceTime.)
  • Unmanned exploration vehicles have landed on Mars (Score: Check. Curiosity anyone?).
  • Our televisions are now flat screens hung on our walls (Score: Check).
  • Our routine jobs are now done better by a machine in almost every case. We are now mostly a race of machine tenders. (Score: Check. Think ATMs, scanners at checkouts).
  • All high school students are being taught computer languages and binary arithmetic. (Score: Only partly right. Certainly, students know their smart phones and Google).
  • We are suffering from a gigantic case of boredom and psychiatry is the largest medical specialty. (Score: Partial credit for this one. Most people are probably more anxious than bored. Psychiatrists are busy but no more than usual).  

Asimov concludes his article by stating:

"The lucky few who can be involved in creative work of any sort will be the true elite of mankind, for they will do more than serve a machine. 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!"

My spin might be that he was partially right about the Creative Class. Some of the most creative activity has been financial - mortgage-backed securities and collateralized debt obligations to name just two.  Unfortunately, this type of creativity managed to create a Great Recession which almost brought the world's economy to the brink of collapse.

As for the world of leisure, as he was thinking of the people of 2014 who no longer worked, perhaps he mistook enforced leisure for long-term unemployment? Work is a glorious word for those who have been able to find it after being laid off for six months or more.

I suspect that if Asimov were alive today, he would be reticent to prognosticate about 2064. The rate of technical change continues to accelerate. Predictions of our future just ten years down the road are getting more difficult.  But for all the technical change, the real drivers of our future will be the social and political issues which will reshape our landscape.  And not all change is for the better.

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