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What the world of 2014 looks like, according to Isaac Asimov in 1964

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Writing in The New York Times in 1964, Isaac Asimov wondered what the world would look like 50 years in the future. Asimov had attended the World’s Fair of 1964 and took a rather optimistic view of humanity in spite of looming thermonuclear war. Technology would advance, the human population would prosper, and we would explore the frontiers of sea and space for our benefit.

Asimov got a lot right (not surprising since he was a science fiction author and real life eventually catches up with the imaginations of sci-fi authors) about how technology keeps advancing at a rapid clip, freeing humans from mundane and routine tasks. It’s the Google-fication of everything.

Despite the threat of nuclear annihilation, Asimov was optimistic about the peaceful use of atomic fission and fusion to produce electricity and I love his idea about space-based power stations beaming energy down to Earth.

You can read Asimov’s entire op/ed at The New York Times (interestingly, what we know as the internet is missing in these predictions, which is how we are all able to read this article and his thoughts decades later). Here are a few snippets that I enjoy:

The appliances of 2014 will have no electric cords, of course, for they will be powered by long- lived batteries running on radioisotopes. The isotopes will not be expensive for they will be by- products of the fission-power plants which, by 2014, will be supplying well over half the power needs of humanity. But once the isotype batteries are used up they will be disposed of only through authorized agents of the manufacturer.

And experimental fusion-power plant or two will already exist in 2014. (Even today, a small but genuine fusion explosion is demonstrated at frequent intervals in the G.E. exhibit at the 1964 fair.) Large solar-power stations will also be in operation in a number of desert and semi-desert areas -- Arizona, the Negev, Kazakhstan. In the more crowded, but cloudy and smoggy areas, solar power will be less practical. An exhibit at the 2014 fair will show models of power stations in space, collecting sunlight by means of huge parabolic focusing devices and radiating the energy thus collected down to earth.

Not all the world's population will enjoy the gadgety world of the future to the full. 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.

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. Boston-to-Washington, the most crowded area of its size on the earth, will have become a single city with a population of over 40,000,000.

Well, the earth's population is now about 3,000,000,000 and is doubling every 40 years. If this rate of doubling goes unchecked, then a World-Manhattan is coming in just 500 years. All earth will be a single choked Manhattan by A.D. 2450 and society will collapse long before that!

There are only two general ways of preventing this: (1) raise the death rate; (2) lower the birth rate. Undoubtedly, the world of A>D. 2014 will have agreed on the latter method. Indeed, the increasing use of mechanical devices to replace failing hearts and kidneys, and repair stiffening arteries and breaking nerves will have cut the death rate still further and have lifted the life expectancy in some parts of the world to age 85. [I highly recommend that you cruise over to Dot Earth and watch this video by Joel Cohen about population, demographics, birth control, etc. Objective and highly fascinating. At 43 minutes, the video is long, but again, well worth your time. – David]

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. The rate of increase of population will have slackened*but, I suspect, not sufficiently.

Much effort will be put into the designing of vehicles with "Robot-brains", vehicles that can be set for particular destinations and that will then proceed there without interference by the slow reflexes of a human driver. I suspect one of the major attractions of the 2014 fair will be rides on small roboticized cars which will maneuver in crowds at the two-foot level, neatly and automatically avoiding each other.

I expect that the trends will continue. Our population will continue to grow, perhaps at slower and slower rates, but still increasing. Meanwhile, we’ll develop better and better technology. Who knows, perhaps we’ll perfect ways to produce food in condo-like towers where every nutrient and input is controlled. These food towers could be located in city centers (there’s your locally grown food!) while preserving the landscape (or avoiding a depleted landscape, who knows).

Or we’ll have an Star Trek-like replicator in each home for instant delivery of products. I can see it now: Amazon Prime Instant!

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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