Predictions of the future from the past

By Adam L. Penenberg , written on January 3, 2014

From The News Desk

What will the world be like in a 100 years?

Will fully electric driverless cars populate our nation’s roadways while Elon Musk toils away on Mars? Will swarms of delivery drones drop off everything to our doors from stuffed crust pizzas to dry cleaning to government-taxed pot, while people remain inside their homes, streaming 3D entertainment and having sex with robots programmed with Artificial Intelligence? Will sliver-sized supercomputers put the Internet under our skin? Will plastic surgery become routine as people re-engineer themselves to be smarter, more attractive, and better athletes? Will robot surgeons conduct the actual operations? What will be, perhaps most importantly, the hot hairstyle of 2114?

As physicist Niels Bohr said, “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it's about the future.” That may very well be, but if predictions are a fool’s errand they’re also irresistible. Throughout history some smart people have succumbed to their charms, leading to some pretty boneheaded prognostications.

Guglielmo Marconi of radio fame believed "The coming of the wireless era will make war impossible, because it will make war ridiculous." A 1966 Time magazine imagined the world in the year 2000 and predicted that remote retail (online shopping) would be a flop. The editors’ reasoning was quite scientific: “Women like to get out of the house, like to handle the merchandise, like to be able to change their minds.” In 1932 Albert Einstein didn’t think nuclear energy was possible, because “it would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.” Fourteen years later Academy award-winning producer Darryl Zanuck proclaimed TV doomed: “Television won't last because people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”

One 20th century thinker whose predictions have withstood the test of time is Isaac Asimov, author of such seminal works as "I, Robot" and "The Naked Sun." To celebrate the 1964 World's Fair (the theme, ironically: "Peace Through Understanding") Asimov envisioned "Visit to the World's Fair of 2014," which he penned for The New York Times.

In some ways Asimov overshot what we could accomplish in 50 years. We have not dabbled in fusion power and oversee no Moon colonies, although there is a space station. Ditto no moving sections of sidewalks in downtown areas of cities nor compressed tubes to quickly deliver letters and small packages. Nor are things as dire as Asimov thought they might be:

He appeared most deeply concerned about the risks 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 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.
But the master science-fiction writer also nailed it in other ways. He estimated that the world's population would be 6.5 billion and America's 350 million. "Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence" while "synchronous satellites, hovering in space will make it possible for you to direct-dial any spot on earth, including the weather stations in Antarctica." Wall screens will have replaced the ordinary television "but transparent cubes will be making their appearance in which three-dimensional viewing will be possible."

Communications, he added, "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." Batteries will replace power cords. Life expectancy: 85.

As well:

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. Complete lunches and dinners, with the food semiprepared, will be stored in the freezer until ready for processing.
Asimov isn't the only thinker proven to have accurately forecast the future. i09, a site that covers "science and entertainment from the world of tomorrow," compiled a list of nine historical figures who may have predicted our future, including:
  • Robert Boyle (1627 - 1691), who envisioned life extension, nanotechnology, synthetic life, and designer drugs
  • French philosopher Denis Diderot (1713 - 1784), who saw human enhancement, artificial intelligence, and reanimating the dead in our collective futures
  • Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935), who forecast the space elevator, human space flight, self-sustaining space habitats, and interstellar colonization
  • J.B.S. Haldane  (1892-1944), who imagined artificial wombs, human cloning, and human genetic engineering, a vision that influenced his friend Aldoux Huxley to write "Brave New World"
If you're interested in finding out what our world could look like 100 years from now, check out this Popular Mechanics feature from 2012, which predicted that over the course of the next century people will "become fluent in every language" and munch on "synthetic meats," "bridges will repair themselves with self-healing concrete," vertical farming will take over cities, and "digital data (texts, songs, etc.) will be zapped directly into our brains."

What are your predictions for the next century? Share them in the comments below.

[Image courtesy x-ray delta one]