In 1964, on the occasion of the World's Fair, noted author and biochemist Isaac Asimov envisioned the world of the future. Peering 50 years forward, the futurist offered prescient thoughts about what 2014 might look like, writing up his forecast for a piece published by the New York Times.
Asimov, who emigrated to the U.S. from Russia with his Orthodox Jewish family at age 3, served as a professor of biochemistry at Boston University, but was best known for his prolific writing, especially in the genre of science fiction. He also penned considerable works of non-fiction — including works on topics as diverse as the Bible, astronomy and Shakespeare — edited about 500 books and wrote some 90,000 letters and postcards, according to his biography.
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Asimov, who died in 1992 at the age of 72, came very close in 1964 in his predictions for the future on everything from culture to technological advances.
Here are some of those predictions:
1. "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."
While no device "converts" water to coffee, certainly the days of perk and boil are past us. Countertop microwave ovens first hit the market in 1967 and 30 years later, the Bureau of Labor Statistics noted that more than 90 percent of U.S. households kept a microwave on hand to heat food.
2. "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. Men will continue to withdraw from nature in order to create an environment that will suit them better."
Wonder what Asimov would say about the current crop of Smartphones? He pretty much predicted the phones' "Facetime" function, where wireless users can view and talk on their phones to friends in real time with similar technology. Satellites provide communications functions for every country in the world, transferring data as well as weather information. His notion of withdrawal is well-taken. In 2013, Americans spent more time on their digital devices than they did watching television, a first, according to eMarketer.com. The average time spent daily by adults on digital products: 5.9 hours versus a miniscule 32 minutes reading printed products, a study found, up from 3.14 hours in 2010.
3. "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. … Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence. … The appliances of 2014 will have no electric cords, of course, for they will be powered by long-lived batteries running on radioisotopes."
Electroluminescent panels are available — not widely used but currently sold on Ebay. Robots and robotic devices are used everywhere — from manufacturing to surgery — and with great success. Engineers continue to tweak robots to make them smarter and more functional as technological advances improve. While some appliances of today run on batteries, many more still rely on electrical cords. Longer-lived batteries are in use in many products but less common than Asimov predicted. Still batteries are used to power equipment that is in longtime and constant use, including underwater systems, spacecraft and pacemakers.
4. "Highways … in the more advanced sections of the world will have passed their peak in 2014; there will be increasing emphasis on transportation that makes the least possible contact with the surface. There will be aircraft, of course, but even ground travel will increasingly take to the air a foot or two off the ground. … 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."
Several companies are now producing concept cars that can fly, although interstate highways remain a top source for transportation and such flying vehicles are not mass-marketed. A crop of new cars on the current market can do everything from steer themselves to self-park, but thus far this collision-avoidance technology does not include driving from one destination to another without human assistance. That technology, however, is inching ever closer, automotive engineers say.
5. "Wall screens will have replaced the ordinary set; but transparent cubes will be making their appearance in which three-dimensional viewing will be possible."
As Asimov predicted, most homes have thin televisions mounted on the wall. Advances in 3-D viewing devices and technology continues to improve with Corning announcing on Jan. 3 its 3-D Gorilla glass will be ready for manufacture this year. 3-D imaging technology is utilized frequently in today's computer programs and 3-D movies have become box-offices hits.
6. "The world population will be 6,500,000,000 and the population of the United States will be 350,000,000."
World population grew at a faster pace than even Asimov predicted with 7,137,577,750 on Earth on Jan. 1, 2014. He was close on U.S. population growth, which stood at 316,148,990 on July 4, 2013, according to the U.S. census, which noted that 2013 was the slowest in population growth in 70 years.
7. Asimov warned 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! There will, therefore, be a worldwide propaganda drive in favor of birth control by rational and humane methods and, by 2014, it will undoubtedly have taken serious effect."
Birth control access and science has improved since Asimov's days as a worldwide effort has been in place to help provide contraception. While it is common and affordable in developed nations, about 233 million women who are in their reproductive years will have no access to birth control by 2015, according to projections from the U.N.'s population division. That figure has risen from 2010 when 221 million women lacked contraception access.
8. "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."
Hundreds of microorganisms and microbial-derived ingredients are used in foods and considered safe and essential for production. Many flavored yeasts are available along with flavored algae.
9. "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."
A growing number of jobs are now completed by machines as technology has improved since Asimov made his predictions. Twenty years from 2013, scientists predict about 45 percent of all American jobs currently done by humans will be done by computers, according to research completed at Oxford University. The researchers say computers will take over in production labor, administrative support, transportation/logistics, causing jobs losses in construction, sales and service. The next phase will include engineering jobs — contingent upon advances in artificial intelligence.
10. "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.'"
Most school districts offer some curriculum in technology and training. Binary arithmetic is being taught, particularly in high school computer courses. Some schools are teaching young students to code — but it is not a mandatory part of most curriculums.
11. "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 most glorious single word in the vocabulary will have become work!'
The rise of social media use in the country could be pointed to as an outcome of Asimov's assertion that boredom will increase. Millions of Americans use mobile devices for social media applications, with more than 10 billion Facebook applications alone in development. Sites like Instagram, which allow users to photograph and post online, are on the rise, with an estimated 8,000 users "liking" a post every second.
Americans work more than their counterparts around the globe, even the Japanese, and also take less vacation time. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found that 20.5 percent of the workforce said in 1999 that they worked 49 hours per week, with about 11 million reporting they worked more than 59 hours weekly.
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