10 predictions that Isaac Asimov got right 50 years ago (and 5 that he botched)

Back in 1964, amid all the hustle and bustle of the World’s Fair in New York, renowned science-fiction author and futurist Isaac Asimov took a moment to ponder what the world would look like 50 years from then, in 2014. His wide-ranging predictions cover everything from the capabilities of technology to the state of human society, and while some of his guesses have proven to be stunningly accurate, a handful of them were way off. 

What he got right

“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.”

Although not all of this statement is true, it’s mostly correct. Automatic coffeemakers have existed for decades now, and lately things like kettles have become Web-connected and simple to automate. Although they’re not common yet, 3D food printers have been developed that can print out pasta, chocolates, and even pizza. We do not, however, have automatic scrambled egg makers. Somebody should get on that. That’s a Kickstarter I’d definitely be willing to back. 

“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.”

Homeboy hit the nail on the head with this one. Video calls and VoIP services like Skype and Facetime are fairly ubiquitous these days, and the same devices we use to make calls are also used to read books, look at photos, and launch disgruntled winged animals at poorly-built structures. Satellite phones aren’t as common as regular cellphones, but they’re definitely the best way to keep in touch with your homies in Antartica. Good call, Isaac.

iKettle Asimov

“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 colors that will change at the touch of a push button.”

This one is mostly true, but also somewhat debatable. On the one hand, the rise of HDTVs, virtual-reality headsets, and immersive video games make this prediction pretty accurate. If you so desire, you can escape to a massive, interactive, and oftentimes photorealistic virtual environment like Second Life or any recent MMORPG. On the other hand, however, advances in materials engineering and have made outdoor recreation more accessible, and hi-tech gear allows us to explore nature in ways never before possible. Still, Asimov got the bulk of this prediction right.

“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.”

Not only do we have cars that drive around on their own – we enlist them as our slaves to create a photographic map of every road on Earth. They can parallel park on their own, and based on the incredibly small number of accidents they cause, are arguably much safer drivers compared to us humans. That being said, we’re still waaay better at skilled driving.

“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.”

He didn’t get this one 100 percent right, but to his credit, 2013 did see the creation of the first lab-grown hamburger, and it cost $300,000. We also figured out a way to make edible meat out of human sh*t. Didn’t see that one coming, did ya Mr. Brainiac?

Oculus 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. 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.”

Nothing but net on this one. Routine manufacturing jobs have been largely overtaken by automated robotic systems, some food and grocery store clerks are slowly being replaced by touchscreens, and soon drones will likely replace delivery drivers. Technical skills like programming are in higher demand than they ever have been, and schools across the globe have begun to teach courses on coding.

“Wall screens will have replaced the ordinary set; but transparent cubes will be making their appearance in which three-dimensional viewing will be possible.”

No transparent cubes, but gigantic, wall-sized TVs definitely exist, and many of them can put out 3D images. Oddly enough, 3D TVs still aren’t all that popular though.

“Ordinary agriculture will keep up with great difficulty and there will be ‘farms’ turning to the more efficient micro-organisms. Processed yeast and algae products will be available in a variety of flavors.”

Modern agriculture has indeed been stretched to its limits, which has led scientists and designers to dream up crazy new ways to cultivate food in densely-populated areas where arable land is hard to come by. The use of algae to create biofuel is viable and promising, but isn’t very widespread at this point, nor is algae-based food.

IAC Prysm Asimov

“An experimental fusion-power plant or two will already exist in 2014. Large solar-power stations will also be in operation in a number of desert and semi-desert areas”

Yup. Totally true. And we even took it a step further and figured out how to do it cold, without melting everything down in the process. Also, solar power has made huge gains in the past decade, and we’ve devised ways to generate power with them long after the sun goes down.

“… 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.”

This prediction isn’t so impressive because of its accuracy, but more because of its timeliness. We’ve landed a handful of rovers on Mars (starting with the Viking landers in 1976, and most recently the Curiosity rover in 2011) but it wasn’t until recently that planning for manned missions to the Red Planet began in earnest. Just few days ago the Mars One project announced it had chosen the first 1,058 finalists for its mission planned for 2025.

The ones he got wrong

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

For a guy who wrote science fiction novels about robots, he sure underestimated their advancement. In 2014 we’ve already got robots in our houses, doing stuff like vacuuming, cleaning the gutters, and even mowing our lawns. We also use them to clean up hazardous waste, defuse explosives, and put together Ikea furniture for us. Hell, we even have a “robot olympics” these days. Not very good? I bet ol’ Isaac would eat those words if he could see the bots that Boston Dynamics is working on.

WildCat Asimov

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

Yeah, unfortunately no. Lots of things are wireless these days, but our stuff doesn’t run on radioisotope batteries. However, recent advances in wireless charging give promise to the future, as we will soon be able to wirelessly beam power to electronic devices, even through materials like wood and metal.

“Jets of compressed air will also lift land vehicles off the highways, which, among other things, will minimize paving problems. Smooth earth or level lawns will do as well as pavements. Bridges will also be of less importance, since cars will be capable of crossing water on their jets, though local ordinances will discourage the practice.”

As much as it pains us to admit it, flying cars still aren’t a thing in 2014. It’s not likely that they’ll be common in the future either. They’re just not very practical, and the few working models we’ve created are dangerous and prohibitively expensive.

Rezence Asimov

“The world population will be 6,500,000,000 and the population of the United States will be 350,000,000.” And later he warns that if the population growth continues unchecked, “All earth will be a single choked Manhattan by A.D. 2450 and society will collapse long before that!” 

Wrong! We hit 7 billion back in 2010, and are already well on our way to 7.5 by now! Mr. Asimov clearly underestimated how much people like to bang. That last part, however, is still a pretty safe assumption. 

”The most glorious single word in the vocabulary will have become work!” in our ”a society of enforced leisure.”

Okay, so in a lot of ways he got this one right, but he got it right for the wrong reasons, so we’re counting it against him. ‘Work” is such a glorious word in 2014 because so many people are unemployed – not because the leisure police are forcing us to skip work and go to pool parties all day. You’d think he would’ve seen the unemployment thing coming, what with the “robots are going to take our jobs” prediction he laid out earlier.

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