"At the New York World's Fair of 2014, General Motors' 'Futurama' may well display vistas of underground cities complete with light- forced vegetable gardens. The surface, G.M. will argue, will be given over to large-scale agriculture, grazing and parklands, with less space wasted on actual human occupancy," wrote science fiction legend Isaac Asimov in 1964. In the summer of 1964, Asimov attended the New York World's Fair, a landmark event in the history of forward-looking science and design.
"What will the World's Fair of 2014 be like?" he wrote after his visit. "I don't know, but I can guess."
Asimov's article is exactly the kind of speculative futurism you'd expect based on the technology displayed at the 1964 World's Fair. Some of his ideas hew closely to the sci-fi of the time--auto-cooked meals from The Jetsons, floating cars as seen in countless pieces of sci-fi art. He gets a lot wrong. But sometimes his expertise as a scientist shines through, and he makes predictions that are reserved and surprisingly realistic.
Naturally, if Asimov would get anything right, it would be robots. The writer famous for the laws of robotics looked forward 50 years and wrote "Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence." It's hard to be more accurate than that. Today's robotic machinery works wonders for automated factory production, but bipedal robots and robots that roll around--what we usually think of when we see the term robot--are still in their infancy. Asimov more or less predicted that, too.
He continued: "The I.B.M. exhibit at the present fair has no robots but it 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. In fact, the I.B.M. building at the 2014 World's Fair may have, as one of its prime exhibits, a robot housemaid*large, clumsy, slow- moving but capable of general picking-up, arranging, cleaning and manipulation of various appliances. It will undoubtedly amuse the fairgoers to scatter debris over the floor in order to see the robot lumberingly remove it and classify it into 'throw away' and 'set aside.' (Robots for gardening work will also have made their appearance.)"
Asimov made a couple other accurate extrapolations of technology, even though he didn't get the details exactly right. For example, he predicted "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." Bang-on. Then he predicted that "Synchronous satellites, hovering in space will make it possible for you to direct-dial any spot on earth, including the weather stations in Antarctica." Satellite phones do exist, though most of our conversations are routed over the air between cellular towers or through Internet cables.
He also made some bleak, though accurate, predictions about population, and noted that "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." As of early 2012, the world population was estimated to be over 7 billion, and the population of the United States around 315 million. Unfortunately, he was right in guessing that "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." He was also certain--and this time, unfortunately wrong--that the world of 2014 would have agreed to work together to lower the birth rate and head off impending population issues.
Why were so many predictions of the 1950s and 1960s so wrong? Asimov and other futurists expected better of humanity.
In fact, most of what Asimov got wrong follows a pattern we should be very familiar with by now, even if it's not something we give much thought. Why were so many predictions of the 1950s and 1960s so wrong? It was impossible to know exactly how much work it would take to develop computers and other technologies that are infinitely more complex than they were 50 years ago. But that's not the only reason.
People like Isaac Asimov looked at the explosive technological and industrial growth of the 1950s and 1960s, the vast resources being expended to take us into outer space and to the moon, and extrapolated from that. In many ways, they expected better of humanity.
For example, in talking about overpopulation, Asimov wrote that "Population pressure will force increasing penetration of desert and polar areas. Most surprising and, in some ways, heartening, 2014 will see a good beginning made in the colonization of the continental shelves. Underwater housing will have its attractions to those who like water sports, and will undoubtedly encourage the more efficient exploitation of ocean resources, both food and mineral. General Motors shows, in its 1964 exhibit, the model of an underwater hotel of what might be called mouth-watering luxury. The 2014 World's Fair will have exhibits showing cities in the deep sea with bathyscaphe liners carrying men and supplies across and into the abyss."
When he thought about overpopulation, he thought about science and industry banding together to address that population in an incredible way, by pushing human habitation out into the sea. His first thought wasn't that city apartments would get smaller, or that millions upon millions of people would pack into slums around some of the world's largest cities.
When he thought about power, he didn't think oil and natural gas would be our primary energy sources. He predicted "fission-power plants which, by 2014, will be supplying well over half the power needs of humanity."
One of the most remarkable elements of his worldview, at the time, is just how eternal some fixtures of it seem to be. You see it in him writing about General Electric and General Motors, and what their exhibits will look like at the 2014 World's Fair. Of course, he couldn't know that General Motors wouldn't exist 50 years later without billions in government bailout funding, but he may have been able to predict that some of 2014's most powerful and influential companies, including automakers, would come from countries like Japan and China.
Still, history has a way of repeating itself, and the companies Asimov found so influential may be driving innovation for the next 50 years. This last bit is one of his best, because history has kindly brought brought at least one piece of 1960s-era technology back into fashion. If there really was a 2014 World's Fair, I'd almost believe it. Asimov wrote:
"General Electric at the 2014 World's Fair will be showing 3-D movies of its 'Robot of the Future,' neat and streamlined, its cleaning appliances built in and performing all tasks briskly. (There will be a three-hour wait in line to see the film, for some things never change.)"