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Jeffery Kurz

Tomorrow here today

The New York World’s Fair in 1964 offered many thrilling glimpses of what the future may hold.

Isaac Asimov wrote about it for The New York Times in an article appearing in August that year. Asimov was one of the 20th century’s greatest science fiction writers and you would have been hard pressed to find a more expert authority on what to expect.

He set his vision 50 years in the future. What, he wondered, would the World’s Fair be like in … 2014?

There was a major caveat to Asimov’s anticipatory musings: thermonuclear war. If that happens, there’s no future worth talking about. “So,” writes Asimov, “let the missiles slumber eternally on their pads and let us observe what may come in the nonatomized world of the future.”

We can take some gratification, I suppose, and relief that 50 years down the road the missiles still slumber, and that the world of Asimov’s future and our present is not a radioactive wasteland.

His forecasting had its hits and misses. He envisioned homes with walls and ceilings glowing softly and in a variety of colors via electroluminescent panels, vehicles lifted from highways by jets of compressed air, vehicles with “robot brains” that “can be set for particular destinations and that will then proceed there without interference by the slow reflexes of a human driver.”

What else?

Moving sidewalks for short-range travel. Three-dimensional televisions. Telephones that use sight as well as sound.

The author of “I, Robot” did not think robots would be very impressive by 2014. They would be “neither too common nor very good in 2014.”

The take from my 2014 perch is that robots are more common than they ought to be for not being very good. All you have to do is call customer service anything to encounter a robot who is not very bright, not very helpful and most likely irritating.

Asimov thought electric cords would no longer be needed thanks to long-running batteries. All you have to do is think of how often you have to plug in your cell phone to find that prediction off. But he did forecast solar power stations, set up in desert areas as in Arizona, and saw that gadgetry would take the tedious work out of jobs in the kitchen. He thought there would be people living in colonies on the moon by now, and envisioned communication between the two worlds via “modulated laser beams” which would have to be led on Earth through plastic pipes to avoid atmosphere disturbances. He figured unmanned missions to Mars would have taken place, with a manned mission in the works.

He was concerned about population growth, estimating that the world population would reach 6.5 billion people (it’s more than 7 billion). “… the increasing use of mechanical devices to replace ailing hearts and kidneys, and repair stiffening arteries and breaking nerves will have cut the death rate still further… ” he wrote. He expected global birth control would be needed.

Asimov felt there would be few routine jobs people could do that machines couldn’t do better, and “mankind will therefore have become largely a race of machine tenders.”

We are, of course, living in the world he tried to envision, and among the pleasures of returning to his thoughts is the recognition of how difficult a task it is to imagine what the world will be like in yet another 50 years down the road, in 2064.

That seems like a long time away, but so did 2014 when I was at the World’s Fair.

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