Thursday, September 09, 2021

More Futuristic Forecasts

"Prediction is hard, especially about the future." Over the past week, I've been rereading LIFE AND TIME, a 1978 collection of essays by Isaac Asimov (some of them written as early as the 1960s). In contrast to the imaginative speculations in his fiction, these articles include serious forecasts about potential developments in technology and society.

Most strikingly, he anticipated the internet, a global repository of information anybody could draw upon. He envisioned everybody on Earth having a personal "channel" just as most people now have individual telephone numbers. We sort of have that system now, considering the unique IP address of each computer as a personal channel. Also, an individual tablet or smart phone serves the same function. Incidentally, J. D. Robb's "In Death" SF mystery series anticipated today's smart phone as the pocket "link" most people in her fictional future carry with them, long before such devices became common in real life. Asimov hailed the future possibilities of lifelong, customized learning through the worldwide computer bank. Granted, many people benefit from the internet in that way, yet the satirical lament too often holds some truth: We have a network that gives us access to the entire accumulated knowledge of humanity, and we use it mostly for political rants and pictures of cats. Asimov suggested computer learning could overcome one of the main disadvantages of our educational system, the necessity for one teacher to instruct a large group of students, making it impossible to adjust lessons to the comprehension level, interests, and learning style of each individual. Computer education could effectively give each pupil a private tutor. Although we've recently had over a year of experience with online education, it's still been mainly a group-oriented activity. Advanced AI might fulfill Asimov's vision. He also foresaw cashless monetary transactions, electronic transmission of documents, and virtual rather than in-person business meetings, all of which exist now. Unfortunately, his expectation that these developments would greatly reduce travel and its attendant pollution hasn't come to pass yet, probably because many employers are reluctant to embrace the full potential of remote work.

On some topics, he was too pessimistic. For example, he foresaw the world population reaching seven billion by the early 21st century, a point we've already passed. However, we're not forced to survive on synthetic nourishment derived from genetically engineered microbes, as he speculated might become necessary. We still eat a lavish variety of fresh foods. He seemed to believe a population of the current level or higher would reduce humankind to universal misery; while many of the planet's inhabitants do live in abject circumstances, Earth hasn't yet become a dreary anthill.

Not surprisingly, Asimov favored genetically modified agricultural products, which already exist, although not in some of the radically altered or enhanced forms he imagined. He also focused on the hope of cleaner energy, perhaps from controlled fusion or large-scale solar power. He proposed solar collectors in orbit, beaming energy down to Earth, far from a practical solution at present. And, as everyone knows, fusion-generated power is only twenty years away—and has been for a generation or more. :) Asimov predicted autonomous cars, almost commercially viable in the present. He also discussed the potential advantages of flying cars, however, without apparently considering the horror of city skies thronged with thousands of individual VTOL vehicles piloted by hordes of amateurs. Maybe self-driving vehicles would solve that problem, being programmed to avoid collisions.

To save energy on cooling and heating as well as to shelter inhabitants from severe weather, he proposed moving cities underground, as in his novel THE CAVES OF STEEL. This plan might be the optimal strategy for colonizing the Moon or Mars. I doubt most Earth citizens would accept it unless it beomes the only alternative to a worldwide doom scenario. Asimov, a devoted claustrophile, seemed to underestimate the value the average person puts on sunshine, fresh air, nature, and open space.

In general, he tended to be over-pessimistic about the fate looming over us unless we solve the problem of overpopulation right now (meaning, from his viewpoint, in the 1980s). As dire as that problem is in the long run, the decades since the publication of the essays in LIFE AND TIME demonstrate that Earth is more resilient than Asimov (and many prognosticators at that time) feared. Moreover, the worldwide birthrate is declining, although the shift isn't spread evenly over the world and for the present global population continues to rise through sheer momentum. Asimov analyzed the issue of whether a demographic pattern of old people far outnumbering younger ones would lead to a rigid, reactionary culture. He maintained that the mental stagnation traditionally associated with aging could be prevented by an emphasis on lifelong learning and creativity. He devoted no attention to the more immediate problem of declining birthrates some nations already begin to face now—a young workforce that isn't large enough to support its millions of retired and often infirm elders. Encouraging immigration would help. (But that's "modpol"—shorthand for modern politics on one list I subscribe to—so I'll say no more about it.) In the long run, however, if and when prosperity rises and births decline worldwide, there won't be anyplace for a supply of young workers to immigrate from.

Asimov seemed over-optimistic about the technological marvels and wondrous lifestyle we'll all enjoy IF over-population and its attendant problems are conquered. He envisioned the 21st century as a potential earthly paradise. Judging from the predictions of such optimists over many decades, just as controlled fusion is always twenty years away, utopia is always fifty years away.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

1 comment:

  1. What a fascinating article. Thanks, Margaret. I enjoyed reading this.