Bengaluru: On 31 December 1983, Canada’s Toronto Star newspaper published an article by legendary science fiction author Isaac Asimov, featuring his predictions for the year 2019. The occasion was 35 years since the publication of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984, and Asimov was asked to envision what the world would look like 35 years hence.
This wasn’t the first time Asimov had made predictions. In 1964, he had wondered what the world would be like 50 years into the future, in 2014. His predictions hit the mark about 50 per cent of the way.
Asimov’s vision published by the Toronto Star was a mix of utopian and futuristic, but his predictions were mostly shrewd and prescient, showing perhaps how much more human technology could have accomplished by now. He stated that three subjects would dominate the world: Nuclear war, computerisation, and space utilisation.
Here’s how Asimov’s 1983 predictions fared.
Obsession with nuclear war
“If the United States and the Soviet Union flail away at each other at any time between now and 2019, there is absolutely no use to discussing what life will be like in that year. Too few of us, or of our children and grandchildren, will be alive then for there to be any point in describing the precise condition of global misery at that time. Let us, therefore, assume there will be no nuclear war — not necessarily a safe assumption — and carry on from there,” Asimov said.
He made a keen observation about how the world’s two great superpowers in the 1980s needed to keep each other and themselves in check to keep the Earth intact.
“An essential side product, the mobile computerised object, or robot, is already flooding into industry and will, in the course of the next generation, penetrate the home.
“The growing complexity of society will make it impossible to do without them, except by courting chaos; and those parts of the world that fall behind in this respect will suffer so obviously as a result that their ruling bodies will clamour for computerisation as they now clamour for weapons.
“The immediate effect of intensifying computerisation will be, of course, to change utterly our work habits.”
Asimov once again hit the nail on the head. By the mid-1980s, it had become clear that computers were here to stay, making human lives and work easier every day. Apple had introduced the Lisa computer in 1983 — the first commercial personal computer with a graphical user interface. Lisa had 1 MB of RAM and a 5 MB hard drive.
The personal computer was a luxury which Asimov noted would eventually become commonplace and even a necessity.
“While computers and robots are doing the scut-work of society so that the world, in 2019, will seem more and more to be ‘running itself’, more and more human beings will find themselves living a life rich in leisure,” he said.
“This does not mean leisure to do nothing, but leisure to do something one wants to do; to be free to engage in scientific research, in literature and the arts, to pursue out-of-the-way interests and fascinating hobbies of all kinds.”
Asimov’s definition of leisure certainly rings true in a world of social media influencers, bloggers, photographers, and other forms of creativity driven by the internet.
“Education, which must be revolutionised in the new world, will be revolutionised by the very agency that requires the revolution — the computer. There will be an opportunity finally for every youngster, and indeed, every person, to learn what he or she wants to learn — in his or her own time, at his or her own speed, in his or her own way.”
In a world filled with massive open online courses (MOOCs), this is quite true. However, it does discount the fact that the computer is very much a distraction to school-going kids often, and formal schooling is still a necessity.
AI and jobs
Asimov also broached the subject of artificial intelligence taking jobs away with reason and caution.
“It is not that computerisation is going to mean fewer jobs as a whole, for technological advance has always, in the past, created more jobs than it has destroyed, and there is no reason to think that won’t be true now, too.
“The jobs that will disappear will tend to be just those routine clerical and assembly-line jobs that are simple enough, repetitive enough, and stultifying enough to destroy the finely balanced minds of those human beings unfortunate enough to have been forced to spend years doing them in order to earn a living, and yet complicated enough to rest above the capacity of any machine that is neither a computer nor computerised. It is these that computers and robots for which they are perfectly designed will take over.
“The jobs that will appear will, inevitably, involve the design, the manufacture, the installation, the maintenance and repair of computers and robots, and an understanding of whole new industries that these ‘intelligent’ machines will make possible.
“This means that a vast change in the nature of education must take place, and entire populations must be made ‘computer-literate’ and must be taught to deal with a ‘high-tech’ world.”
Needless to say, this is pretty much exactly what happened. Asimov drew parallels from history in the industrial revolution, describing the shift from farm to factory as rapid and painful.
“The consequences of human irresponsibility in terms of waste and pollution will become more apparent and unbearable with time, and again, attempts to deal with this will become more strenuous.”
The writer was spot-on. Today, anthropogenic or human-caused climate change poses one of the biggest — if not the biggest — crisis facing humanity. Millions of human lives and thousands of species are killed because of the effects of climate change and pollution, including plastic in the oceans.
However, what Asimov did not get right was his statement about advances in technology that could reverse the deterioration of the environment.
“It is to be hoped that by 2019, advances in technology will place tools in our hands that will help accelerate the process whereby the deterioration of the environment will be reversed,” he said.
In reality, today’s technology takes the form of renewables like solar and wind. Today, human beings have a greater number of electric vehicles on the road than ever before. But this particular prediction has just partially come true.
In the context of increasing cooperation between nations purely for survival, Asimov stated there might be a shadow government that runs the world.
“By 2019, then, it may well be that the nations will be getting along well enough to allow the planet to live under the faint semblance of a world government by cooperation, even though no one may admit its existence,” he said.
While there is no world government yet, the European Union is a great example of the kind of coalition Asimov envisioned, where a group of nations collaborate and also govern over all the combined population.
“Population will be continuing to increase for some years after the present,” Asimov had predicted.
“.. encouraging a lower birthrate will become steadily more strenuous and it is to be hoped that by 2019, the world as a whole will be striving toward a population plateau.”
While one could potentially argue that China did implement the one-child policy even before 2019, the idea of plateauing global population is still not mainstream or popular enough.
It’s ironic that one thing that Asimov completely overestimated was the growth of space technology.
“With the shuttle rocket as the vehicle, we will build a space station and lay the foundation for making space a permanent home for increasing numbers of human beings.”
The International Space Station, at this point, is the only example of such a collaboration to increase human presence in space.
“By 2019, we will be back on the moon in force. There will be on it not Americans only, but an international force of some size; and not to collect moon rocks only, but to establish a mining station that will process moon soil and take it to places in space where it can be smelted into metals, ceramics, glass and concrete — construction materials for the large structures that will be put in orbit about the Earth.”
Asimov’s predictions for lunar mining may probably come true 35 years from now. But even then, experts are sceptical. Today, even the best-case scenarios for lunar mining state that there isn’t any particular material on the moon whose mining would be economical.
Helium-3 is often touted as the ultimate resource that can be obtained from the moon. But it is similar to fossil fuel: Present in limited quantity and can’t be replenished.
Solar power station
Asimov envisioned large structures orbiting Earth on its equatorial plane, capturing solar energy and distributing it across the globe.
“One such structure which, very conceivably, might be completed by 2019 would be the prototype of a solar power station, outfitted to collect solar energy, convert it to microwaves and beam it to earth.
“It would be the first of a girdle of such devices fitted about Earth’s equatorial plane. It would be the beginning of the time when a major part of Earth’s energy will come from the sun under conditions that will make it not the property of any one nation, but of the globe generally.
“Such structures will be, in themselves, guarantees of world peace and continued co-operation among nations. The energy will be so necessary to all and so clearly deliverable only if the nations remain at peace and work together, that war would become simply unthinkable — by popular demand.”
While 2019 indeed sees the largest utilisation of solar power, the kind of energy efficiency Asimov described is nowhere close.
Asimov spoke of the unlimited vacuum and zero-gravity environment of Earth’s orbit for the manufacturing industry.
“In fact, projects might even be on the planning boards in 2019 to shift industries into orbit in a wholesale manner.”
Orbiting industries seems like the natural next step to mining the moon. The environment can allow for hazardous industrial processes that cannot be reproduced on earth. Raw materials from other bodies (such as the moon) can be lifted into orbit at a low cost.
“Earth will then be in a position to rid itself of the side-effects of industrialisation, and yet without actually getting rid of its needed advantages. The factories will be gone, but not far, only a few thousand miles straight up.”
Although human beings haven’t reached that level in outer space, baby steps have been taken to study feasibility. Soviet cosmonauts aboard the Soyuz 6 mission performed the welding of steel and titanium in space. The Skylab mission saw a number of experiments to do with materials processing such as an electric furnace, molten metal processing, crystal growth, electron beam welding, and more. Microgravity experiments are always ongoing on the International Space Station, which has now grown its first produce in space as well.
“Space, you see, is far more voluminous than Earth’s surface is and it is therefore a far more useful repository for the waste that is inseparable from industry. Nor are there living things in space to suffer from the influx of waste. And the waste would not even remain in Earth’s vicinity, but would be swept outward far beyond the asteroid belt by the solar wind.”
Clearly this isn’t true or practical. Space debris from just the satellites and spent rocket stages in space today poses a serious threat to expansion. The solar wind, which stripped Mars of its atmosphere over millions of years, isn’t powerful enough to get rid of human waste in space in any less time.
In fact, the opposite of what Asimov says is true — waste in space is a bigger hindrance to human presence than an advantage.
Perhaps by the time human beings are able to have orbiting industries, a way to dispose of space waste safely would also have been figured out.
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