Amongst the sci-fi greats of old, there were few authors, scientists and futurists more influential than Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. And as individuals who constantly had one eye to the world of their day, and one eye to the future, they had plenty to say about what the world would look like by the 21st century. And interestingly enough, 2014 just happens to be the year where much of what they predicted was meant to come true.
For example, 50 years ago, Asimov wrote an article for the New York Times that listed his predictions for what the world would be like in 2014. The article was titled “Visit to the World’s Fair of 2014”, and contained many accurate, and some not-so-accurate, guesses as to how people would be living today and what kinds of technology would be available to us.
Here are some of the accurate predictions:
1. “By 2014, electroluminescent panels will be in common use.”
In short, electroluminescent displays are thin, bright panels that are used in retail displays, signs, lighting and flat panel TVs. What’s more, personal devices are incorporating this technology, in the form of OLED and AMOLED displays, which are both paper-thin and flexible, giving rise to handheld devices you can bend and flex without fear of damaging them.
2. “Gadgetry will continue to relieve mankind of tedious jobs.”
Oh yes indeed! In the last thirty years, we’ve seen voicemail replace personal assistants, secretaries and message boards. We’ve seen fax machines replace couriers. We’ve seen personal devices and PDAs that are able to handle more and more in the way of tasks, making it unnecessary for people to consult a written sources of perform their own shorthand calculations. It’s a hallmark of our age that personal technology is doing more and more of the legwork, supposedly freeing us to do more with our time.
3. “Communications will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the person you telephone.”
This was a popular prediction in Asimov’s time, usually taking the form of a videophone or conversations that happened through display panels. And the rise of the social media and telepresence has certainly delivered on that. Services like Skype, Google Hangout, FaceTime and more have made video chatting very common, and a viable alternative to a phone line you need to pay for.
4. “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.”
Multitasking is one of the hallmarks of modern computers, handheld devices, and tablets, and has been the norm for operating systems for some time. By simply calling up new windows, new tabs, or opening up multiple apps simultaneously and simply switching between them, users are able to start multiple projects, or conduct work and view video, take pictures, play games, and generally behave like a kid with ADHD on crack if they so choose.
5. “Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence.”
If you define “robot” as a computer that looks and acts like a human, then this guess is definitely true. While we do not have robot servants or robot friends per se, we do have Roomba’s, robots capable of performing menial tasks, and even ones capable of imitating animal and even human movements and participating in hazardous duty exercises (Google the DARPA Robot Challenge to see what I mean).
Alas, he was off on several other fronts. For example, kitchens do not yet prepare “automeals” – meaning they prepare entire meals for us at the click of a button. What’s more, the vast majority of our education systems is not geared towards the creation and maintenance of robotics. All surfaces have not yet been converted into display screens, though we could if we wanted to. And the world population is actually higher than he predicted (6,500,000,000 was his estimate).
As for what he got wrong, well… our appliances are not powered by radioactive isotopes, and thereby able to be entirely wireless (though wireless recharging is becoming a reality). Only a fraction of students are currently proficient in computer language, contrary to his expectation that all would be. And last, society is not a place of “enforced leisure”, where work is considered a privilege and not a burden. Too bad too!
And when it comes to the future, there are few authors whose predictions are more trusted than Arthur C. Clarke. In addition to being a prolific science fiction writer, he wrote nearly three dozen nonfiction books and countless articles about the future of space travel, undersea exploration and daily life in the 21st century.
And in a recently released clip from a 1974 ABC News program filmed in Australia, Clarke is shown talking to a reporter next to a massive bank of computers. With his son in tow, the reporter asks Clarke to talk about what computers will be like when his son is an adult. In response, Clarke offers some eerily prophetic, if not quite spot-on, predictions:
The big difference when he grows up, in fact it won’t even wait until the year 2001, is that he will have, in his own house, not a computer as big as this, but at least a console through which he can talk to his friendly local computer and get all the information he needs for his everyday life, like his bank statements, his theater reservations, all the information you need in the course of living in a complex modern society. This will be in a compact form in his own house.
In short, Clarke predicted not only the rise of the personal computer, but also online banking, shopping and a slew of internet services. Clarke was then asked about the possible danger of becoming a “computer-dependent” society, and while he acknowledged that in the future humanity would rely on computers “in some ways,” computers would also open up the world:
It’ll make it possible for us to live really anywhere we like. Any businessman, any executive, could live almost anywhere on Earth and still do his business through his device like this. And this is a wonderful thing.
Clarke certainly had a point about computers giving us the ability to communicate from almost anywhere on the globe, also known as telecommunication, telecommuting and telepresence. But as to whether or not our dependence on this level of technology is a good or bad thing, the jury is still out on that one. The point is, his predictions proved to be highly accurate, forty years in advance.
Granted, Clarke’s predictions were not summoned out of thin air. Ever since their use in World War II as a means of cracking Germany’s cyphers, miniaturization has been the trend in computing. By the 1970’s, they were still immense and clunky, but punch cards and vacuum tubes had already given way to transistors, ones which were getting smaller all the time.
And in 1969, the first operational packet network to implement a Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) was established. Known as a Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (or ARPANET), this U.S. Department of Defense network was set up to connect the DOD’s various research projects at universities and laboratories all across the US, and was the precursor to the modern internet.
In being a man who was so on top of things technologically, Clarke accurately predicted that these two trends would continue into the foreseeable future, giving rise to computers small enough to fit on our desks (rather than taking up an entire room) and networked with other computers all around the world via a TCP/IP network that enabled real-time data sharing and communications.
And in the meantime, be sure to check out the Clarke interview below: