In 1964, sci-fi legend Isaac Asimov penned a piece for the New York Times with his predictions for the world of 2014. Looking at the World's Fair of 50 years hence, Asimov imagined 3D TV, underground cities, and colonies on the moon. Many people online have hailed this as an incredible example of prescient thinking, but what sticks out to me is just how shockingly restrained—unoriginal, even—his predictions were for the time.
There was nothing Asimov proposed in that article that hadn't already been promised by popular futurism of the 1950s and early '60s. In fact, you can pretty much find every single one of Asimov's 1964 predictions in the 1962-63 TV show "The Jetsons" — a show that existed to parody the future as much as embrace it. This isn't a slight to Asimov, but rather an indication that popular visions of the future evolve like any other idea: Slowly and in a sort of invisible collaboration with the culture at large.
Below I've pulled out a few of Asimov's predictions and put them within the context of other futurist visions from the 1950s and '60s. You can read his article in its entirety at the New York Times.
Asimov: Population pressure will force increasing penetration of desert and polar areas. Most surprising and, in some ways, heartening, 2014 will see a good beginning made in the colonization of the continental shelves. Underwater housing will have its attractions to those who like water sports, and will undoubtedly encourage the more efficient exploitation of ocean resources, both food and mineral.
The idea of building cities on the ocean floor (and even pushing into the desert) was an incredibly popular one in the late 1950s. You could find predictions for the underwater cities of tomorrow in everything from science fiction magazines to popular TV programs like "Disneyland," which aired the legendary retrofuture episode Magic Highway, USA in May of 1958. Thanks to the transportation advances of the late 20th century (viewers were told) there would be no stopping the urban sprawl into deserts, oceans, and beyond.
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. I suspect one of the major attractions of the 2014 fair will be rides on small roboticized cars which will maneuver in crowds at the two-foot level, neatly and automatically avoiding each other.
Visions of driverless cars were nothing new in 1964. In fact, they're at least as old as the 1939 New York World's Fair, when the superhighways of tomorrow in GM's Futurama exhibit were shown to have fully automated capabilities. The 1957 print ad above showed how the family of tomorrow would soon enjoy a relaxing board game, rather than have to keep their eyes on the road. The driverless cars of tomorrow (with their "robot brains") were a certainty. Car companies and popular futurists of the 1950s were banking on it.
Asimov: 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.
In the Jetsons universe they had the foodarackacycle, a kind of magic microwave that maybe incorporates elements of 3D food printing. But as early as the 1940s, Americans were told that frozen dinners were coming to the kitchen table of tomorrow.
The image above comes from the September 1955 issue of Scientific American magazine and shows off the automatic push-button kitchen of tomorrow. The food of the future would travel straight from the deep freeze to the table in a matter of seconds thanks to the wonders of science and technology that were invading the postwar home.
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.
Well, this prediction actually has its roots in the 1930s, when people saw colored ambient lights projected on walls as a fantastically futuristic idea. The image above comes from the June 1931 issue of Modern Mechanics magazine, and shows that tomorrow's wall decorations will be little more than colorful lights, adjusted however you desire. These ideas were expanded upon and later became an incredibly popular prediction for houses of the future in the 1950s.
The strange part about the 1950s predictions, however, was that people thought we'd need those glowing walls because we'd be living in windowless bomb-proof houses. Asimov even seems to hint at this—though with a gentler touch—describing underground houses as being "free from the vicissitudes of weather, with air cleaned and light controlled..." and not screaming OMGCOLDWAR quite so blatantly as others.
Asimov: Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence.
At first blush, this is the most surprising prediction given the fact that personal household robots would remain a promise of the near-future for so very long. But when you get a few paragraphs further you see just how wildly optimistic the early 1960s was when it came to technology:
"In fact, the I.B.M. building at the 2014 World's Fair may have, as one of its prime exhibits, a robot housemaid large, clumsy, slow-moving but capable of general picking-up, arranging, cleaning and manipulation of various appliances."
This was Asimov's hedge, which turned out to be right on the nose. We do have humanoid robots like Honda's Asimo, but they're largely still the stuff of novelty and find themselves doing little more than circus acts on stages at Disneyland or CES. Above we see the "robot housemaid" of 1959 from the Sunday comic strip Closer Than We Think by Arthur Radebaugh.
Asimov: For that matter, you will be able to reach someone at the moon colonies, concerning which General Motors puts on a display of impressive vehicles (in model form) with large soft tires intended to negotiate the uneven terrain that may exist on our natural satellite.
Of course, Asimov and his predictions for the New York Times were partially inspired by what was on display at the 1964 New York World's Fair. This was the ostensible purpose of his article, looking forward into the World's Fair of tomorrow. So it's natural that he'd take the swirling futures buzzing around in New York at the time (like colonies on the moon) and tout them as a given. The moon colonies he references were on display in miniature, as he describes, and are shown off in the photograph above.
Asimov: At the 1964 fair, the G.M. exhibit depicts, among other things, "road-building factories" in the tropics and, closer to home, crowded highways along which long buses move on special central lanes. There is every likelihood that highways at least in the more advanced sections of the world will have passed their peak in 2014; there will be increasing emphasis on transportation that makes the least possible contact with the surface.
Again, Asimov is actually dialing back the more wild predictions of the 1960s here. Everybody then knew that flying cars were a certainty. Asimov stunningly hedges and banks simply on a mode of transportation that sounds closer to the hovercar. The "flying carpet car" above comes again from a 1958 edition of Arthur Radebaugh's "Closer Than We Think" comic strip which ran from 1958 until 1963 — what some consider a golden age of techno-futurism and fertile ground for people like Asimov to not only inspire but be inspired by the changes around them.
Asimov: 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. It is not only the techniques of teaching that will advance, however, but also the subject matter that will change. 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").
Asimov assured people that the classroom of the future would include so many of the postwar technologies (driven by miniaturization in electronics) then being developed to help kids succeed. Above we see the "automated schoolmarm" that was featured at the 1964 New York World's Fair which gave visitors a peek at the classroom of tomorrow.
Even things that today are frowned upon by educators were still being embraced at midcentury and even earlier. Television was seen by many as a wonderful technology to introduce into the classroom, even at the dawn of the medium. In 1938, when few people knew what television even was, students from NYU assembled in the RCA building for a demonstration of the futuristic classroom — with 15 TV sets! By the 1960s, the automation that was promised actually scared so many people that the National Education Association issued a statement assuring nervous parents that robot teachers would not be taking over classrooms anytime soon.
Asimov: 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.
The concern about robots taking over the workforce were nothing new. This worry was kicked into high gear during the early 1960s and always finds its most ardent defenders during times of economic strife. For instance, when the talkies emerged in the late 1920s musicians were concerned about being put out of work in America's movie theaters. But it wasn't until 1930, after the stock market crash, that the Music Defense League was formed (and spent over $500,000 in 1930 dollars) in a futile attempt to stop the progression of sound motion pictures. Who would symbolize the encroaching force of cold technology in music? The robot, of course.
These fears of automation in the workplace—creating a "race of machine tenders"—weren't just relegated to the tough economic times or the more dystopian minded among us. No, Parade magazine even got in on the act, worried that when every job is taken over by robots, humans will find themselves so bored as to become suicidal.
In the end, Asimov's predictions come across as quite conservative. Or at the very least, very much of their time. He got a lot about the early 21st century right! But what's amazing is that his high percentage comes from dialing back the more techno-utopian ideas of his time.
In retrospect, the most amusing prediction from Asimov? It might just be that the people of the 21st century would still care about the World's Fair.