The Bulletin

Mass communication, mass automation: Isaac Asimov's vision of 2014, written in 1964

Posting in Technology
In 1964, at the time of the New York World's Fair, science and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov took a look 50 years down the road in a New York Times article to visualize what technology and social marvels will be budding in the year 2014. Some of his predictions were extremely prescient, others still have a science fiction feel to them.

Irving Wladawsky-Berger recently surfaced Asimov's writing, noting that technology advances in 50-year cycles, providing a context for Asimov's predictions. He notes the difficulties in forecasting trends that are still underway: "Our experience with long-cycle waves is mostly based on the waves from the industrial age of the past two hundred years. The digital technology wave is still playing out; we are likely at the beginning of the information communication technology installation period. It’s not clear if the waves in our ICT age will be similar to those of the industrial age or if they will start a whole new pattern. This makes predictions of our long term future even harder."

Still, while Asimov did a great job of documenting advances in big science and big tech, he -- and many other futurists -- missed one essential element that is shaping progress more than anything else. That is, the role of entrepreneurial thinking and opportunity. Our age is not being shaped by big technology -- underwater cities and the like -- but, rather, thousands upon thousands of innovations driven at the grassroots level, by startups and innovators within larger organizations alike. The rise of personal computing, the Internet and cloud are all being created and driven by companies that originally began in startup mode, such as Microsoft, Apple and Google.

Many of the grassroots innovations that are defining progress are being documented here at SmartPlanet -- from new energy sources to new types of cars to incredibly smart and useful mobile apps. They reflect not the inevitable  march of big tech into our lives, but a collection of many individual and team efforts to apply new thinking and new technology to improve business and society.

Here are some of Asimov's predictions, penned in 1964, about what the world would look like this year and my thoughts on them in italics:

1. "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." This mainly is coming to pass, though machines still continue to serve us.

2. "Schools will have to be oriented [toward automation]. All 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." This is 100% accurate, though there's increasingly less of a need to know how to code, versus being able to assemble and integrate pre-built technology components.

3. As a result of so much automation, "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." Wow, isn't that the case! Though it's also notable that technology is helping to alleviate boredom as well. With mobile devices, we now have a world of information and entertainment right at our fingertips. Waiting for a bus, plane or train, for example, no longer has to be the tedious experience it once was.

4. "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. 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!" Work -- especially when it involves entrepreneurial or innovative ventures -- certainly has become the 'new leisure' for many. Thanks to technology, fewer people are engaged in back-breaking physical labor, and more are engaged in information work.

5. "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." Spot on.

6. "Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence." Specialized robots now are part of assembly lines and do dangerous work. As for the home, well, we have Roomba.

7. "The I.B.M. exhibit at the present fair is dedicated to computers, which are shown in all their amazing complexity, notably in the task of translating Russian into English. If machines are that smart today, what may not be in the works 50 years hence? It will be such computers, much miniaturized, that will serve as the 'brains' of robots." Spot on.

8. "Suburban houses underground, with easily controlled temperature, free from the vicissitudes of weather, with air cleaned and light controlled, should be fairly common." This didn't happen, as people continue to prefer sunlit spaces.

9. "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." Asimov did not foresee the rise of coffeehouse chains such as Starbucks.

10. "The appliances of 2014 will have no electric cords, of course, for they will be powered by long-lived batteries running on radioisotopes." Well, still working on the battery life part, and let's be glad they're not radioactive.

11. By 2014, "fission-power plants will be supplying well over half the power needs of humanity." A miss, but the issues with fission-based nuclear power in populated areas were not apparent.

12. "Large solar-power stations will also be in operation in a number of desert and semi-desert areas -- Arizona, the Negev, Kazakhstan." Spot on.

13. "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." We're starting to see that now, and some predict driverless cars will be common within the next 20 years.

14. "Not all the world's population will enjoy the gadgety world of the future to the full. A larger portion than today will be deprived and although they may be better off, materially, than today, they will be further behind when compared with the advanced portions of the world. They will have moved backward, relatively." Sort of. Many underdeveloped areas -- such as large swaths of sub-Sahara Africa -- have leapedfrogged land-based communications and have embraced mobile communications. Technology is helping to lift many parts of the world out of poverty, and into a world of interconnected opportunities.

    — By on March 18, 2014, 10:10 AM PST

    Joe McKendrick

    Contributing Editor

    Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure