TECHNOLOGY JANUARY 3, 2014
Roughly 50 years ago, on August 16, 1964, science-fiction writer Isaac Asimov predicted in The New York Times what the world would be like fifty years hence. (He was inspired by the World’s Fair of 1964, to which my sister and I were taken by our parents.) It’s a longish piece, and concentrates on the problem of increasing population as well as on the ability of technology to deal with that pressure and to improve our lives.
I’ll highlight just three of his predictions, one mostly right, one partly right, and one wrong.
This is what he got mostly right:
In 2014, there is every likelihood that the world population will be 6,500,000,000 and the population of the United States will be 350,000,000. Boston-to-Washington, the most crowded area of its size on the earth, will have become a single city with a population of over 40,000,000.
He was accurate on most of these. In fact, he slightly underestimated the world’s population, which is now 7.1 billion (see the U.S. and world population clock here), while the population of the U.S. is 317,309,000 and that of the Northeast Corridor is about 9.6 million.
This one wasn’t quite right:
The situation will have been made the more serious by the advances of automation. 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. 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”).
That hasn’t quite come to pass, although MOOCs are making inroads into conventional teaching. But most high-school students don’t know computer programming, due largely to the increasing user-friendliness of computers, and we still have math, history, and English in schools.
The next one is mostly wrong, due largely to Asimov’s inability to foresee the rise of the Internet and its ability to dispel boredom:
Even so, mankind will suffer badly from the disease of boredom, a disease spreading more widely each year and growing in intensity. This will have serious mental, emotional and sociological consequences, and I dare say that psychiatry will be far and away the most important medical specialty in 2014. The lucky few who can be involved in creative work of any sort will be the true elite of mankind, for they alone will do more than serve a machine.
Yes, psychiatric drugs like antidepressants are pervasive (20% of Americans take them), but psychiatry is not our most important medical specialty, for most of its drugs are dispensed by general practitioners. And I doubt that most artists, composers, writers, or photographers see themselves as mankind’s “true elite”: what has happened is that computers have enormous expanded the ability of the average person to be creative.
For the world is becoming plugged in in a way Asimov simply couldn’t predict. When you walk down the street in an industrialized country, or ride in a plane or train, notice how many people are using their cellphones, iPads, iPods, or computers. Google Glass, the wearable computer, is next. This is the way the whole world will go. (My theory is that eventually the entire Earth will resemble New York City.) Connectivity has brought tremendous advantages: think of the ability to access information at your desk instead of a making a laborious trip to the library. And electronic journals and instant publication have markedly sped up the progress of science. Well, perhaps we won’t be as bored, but we may lose the skills of interpersonal communication.
Asimov made many other predictions. In general I think he did pretty well—certainly better than I would have—but it’s remarkable how many other people got stuff wrong, usually predicting a more technologically advanced or ideologically repressive society than we have now. Remember Nineteen Eighty Four (written in 1949), or The Jetsons cartoon series, which supposedly took place in 2062?
Jerry A. Coyne is a Professor of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago and author of Why Evolution is True, as well as the eponymous website. A version of this post first appeared on WhyEvolutionIsTrue.