My retro‐futurological anthology would seem incomplete if it
didn't feature Isaac Asimov alongside his fellow
Hugo‐hoggers – after all, he had plenty to say on this
topic, as usual. As well as science fiction stories (such as
Nightfall and The Caves of Steel) and a doctoral
dissertation (Kinetics of the Reaction Inactivation of
Tyrosinase During Its Catalysis of the Aerobic Oxidation of
Catechol) Asimov produced hundreds of books covering almost
every other category in the Dewey classification system, plus
thousands of magazine articles. His regular columns in
“The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction” often
featured social and technological prognostication, and the October
1974 issue of F&SF featured an article titled
O Keen‐Eyed Peerer into the Future! in which the Good
Doctor itemised the following “Three Laws of
What is happening will continue to happen.
Consider the obvious seriously, for few people will see it.
Consider the consequences.
Unfortunately, that's about as quotable as he gets. Where
Clarke's Laws can be seen as guidelines for writing and
interpreting science journalism, Asimov's are essentially a sort
of general‐purpose social science data extrapolation
how‐to. And I don't think much of the word “futurics”
either, though I suppose it's less ambiguous than “futurism”
(let's leave that to mean Benito Mussolini's favourite art
style). I'm awarding a score of five for technical merit and
two for artistic impression, but with a one‐point penalty for not
showing his working.
I, II, III, Robot
Isaac's more famous newtoniad (and his more successful coinage
ending in “‐ics”) is of course his “Three Laws of
A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction,
allow a human being to come to harm.
A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except
where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such
protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
This list, just like Clarke's, was first
formulated in summary form by his editor; and just like Clarke's
it eventually ended up gaining an extra entry, though in this
case as a “Zeroth Law” prohibiting harm to humanity in
general – compare the Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics.
However, these laws were never intended as a prediction of how
AIs will be programmed, but simply as a narrative
mechanism for generating the kinds of non‐Frankensteinian
plotlines he was interested in writing. We might someday
get robots with vaguely Asimovian hard‐wired systems of ethics…
but if so, it'll be because the manufacturers were Asimov
fans. If instead it turns out that the first AIs are built
by the military with an entirely different set of priorities,
that's not something Isaac Asimov loses points to Mary Shelley
(“Frankenstein”, by the way, was subtitled “or, The Modern
Prometheus”… see mythology note.)
Foundation, Spam, Robots, Empire, and Spam
Then again, if Asimov didn't expect these “positronic” robots in
real life, that also makes it strange that he should nevertheless
have ended up introducing them into his other well known SF future
history: the originally robotless Foundation series.
These deserve a mention here since their central science‐fictional
element is itself futurology – but not the modest,
fuzzy kind Asimov was to codify as “futurics”. Instead it
was the kind that lets you map out a thousand‐year secret plan for
the re‐establishment of civilisation after the fall of the
The classic Foundation trilogy kept the inventor of the
science of “psychohistory” a shadowy figure (not difficult given
that Hari Seldon was long dead by a few dozen pages in), but his
allegedly infallible mathematical equations dominated the
story. Their predictive power was always justified in terms
of the analogy with gas dynamics: the movements of individual
molecules are unpredictable, but the behaviour of large volumes
of gas is subject to statistical laws. Unfortunately, even
granting the assumption that sociopolitical processes can be
modelled as a deterministic system, it turns out that this isn't
enough to make it predictable – turbulent flow in gases
can be thoroughly chaotic. The dynamics of a chaotic system
can be sensitive to infinitesimally trivial features of its
initial conditions (as well as the algorithms you're using to
model it), so the effective range of detailed forecasts is
When Chaos Theory (and the “Butterfly Effect”) hit the pop‐science
headlines in the eighties, I wasn't surprised to see Asimov
returning to the Foundation series; but instead of
addressing this issue in the sequels, he just muddied things up
with a couple of extra vast cosmic conspiracies, in the process
throwing three‐laws robots (and one particular celebrity robot)
into the same fictional universe. That's evidence either of
a desperately short supply of other ideas or of an increasing
tendency to take the existence of robots for granted as a
necessary feature of any plausible future. And if Asimov
was himself guilty of confusing his fiction with futurology,
maybe I should wait for the galactic Dark Age and base his score
on the time it takes for civilisation to recover.
I probably should have guessed when I published this page six
years ago that somewhere in Asimov's output there would prove to
be a much better opportunity for evaluating his expertise as a
futurician. Here for a start is one that's just become
topical: his 1964 article for the New York Times titled
Visit to the World's Fair of 2014. Not
being divided up into numbered predictions, it's less
straightforward to award points to than Heinlein's masterpiece,
but it does have the big advantage that instead of needing to
summarise it here I can ask my audience to go and read the original!
¶01: …“Peace Through Understanding”.
Anybody who's expecting me to start by penalising Asimov for
predicting any such event as a 2014 World's Fair should observe
that this paragraph is a caveat about how he's setting aside the
depressing possibilities (like thermonuclear war) that would
prevent it. Besides, if I declare I'm holding a World's
Fair 2014 here in my flat, that's just as official as the one in
New York in 1964, which was never recognised by the Bureau
International des Expositions!
Individual score: null (cumulative score:
0 out of 0)
¶02:What is to come…
¶03: …50 years from now?
He's still plugging the current expo, and hasn't begun the
— (still 0/0)
¶04:I don't know, but I can guess.
Okay, here we go. Note that instead of scoring his
prophecies on a strict basis of either one point per paragraph
(which would mean starting with a string of zeroes) or one point
per topic (which would merge the next couple of hundred words
into a single low‐scoring prediction), I'll be splitting the
difference by working in single‐ or double‐ but not
¶05:men will continue to withdraw from
¶06:to block out the harsh sunlight.
Electroluminescent panels? Windows seen as archaic?
Well, as it happens my room is currently lit only by the LCD
screen of my computer, running GNU/Linux. But joking
apart, this vision of a future populated by troglodytes is a
¶07:Suburban houses underground…
Asimov always overestimated the proportion of the population that
shared his longing for a sub‐suburban lifestyle.
¶08:Kitchen units will be devised that will
It's easy to read into this forecast of automated gadgets for
“scrambling eggs, grilling bacon, and so on” (which are no
more available now than they were then) a more accurate one that
he didn't make: microwave ovens and frozen readymeals can give us
roughly the instant brunchmaking functionality he was hoping for,
except without filling the room with flailing blades.
¶09:Robots will neither be common nor very
¶10: …3‑D movies of its “Robot of the
This succeeds by being unexpectedly conservative. His
comments on miniaturisation and clumsy but impressive prototypes
only start to drift off‐target with the mention of gardening
droids (unless perhaps minefield clearance counts). We even
have 3D movies, though maybe not in the sense he was picturing.
This veers between “not quite” (half our power from fission,
Kazakh solar plants) and “hell no” (omnipresent radioisotopes and
Archimedean death‐ray satellites), but at least he didn't expect
¶13:ground travel will increasingly take to the
¶14:cars will be capable of crossing water…
These aren't just unlucky conjectures; they're a classic example
of a “solution” that would make our lives worse. Asimov's
compressed‐air hoppercraft make Clarke's obsession with
ground effect vehicles look
reasonable. Still, it's worth pointing out that none of my
surveyed futurologists ever promised us personal jetpacks.
This may look like a prescient description of satnav systems, but
it's more likely he imagined his auto‐automobile reading the
traffic signs for itself. Even so, this is indeed a concept
that's reaching the stage of impressive small‐scale
Just like everyone else, Asimov was
convinced that by now we'd all be walking our dogs on horizontal
escalators. Is this some sort of side‐effect of the way
they're practical at things like expositions?
¶17:Communications will become
Smartphones, and comsats, and automated international exchanges…
I gave Heinlein a generous score for a
similar prediction while mobile phones
were a rarity; now that everyone's grandparents are on Skype I
suppose I'd better award Asimov full marks.
¶18:the moon colonies…
¶19:modulated laser beams…
This on the other hand is a fumble, although the mention of piped
comms lasers on Earth claws back a fraction of a point on the
basis that it's essentially a description of (single‐mode)
¶20:However, by 2014, only unmanned ships will
have landed on Mars…
Once it switches from explaining interplanetary radio‐lag to
actual futurology this deserves credit for again being
(cf. Heinlein). Even the most
optimistic (not to say fraudulent) Mars‐mission scheme yet isn't
scheduling a manned launch before 2024, but maybe that counts as
“in the works”?
¶21:As for television…
¶22:One can go on indefinitely…
When he says “wall screens” he's right; on the other hand,
rotating “transparent cubes” (even for setpiece exhibits)
are a miss. Yes, 3D TV is available, but nobody's buying
it, even in the flat‐screen format you can use without a
¶23:the population of the United States…
¶24: …will be 350,000,000.
In fact it's about 320,000,000; his figure for the global total
is also out by less than ten percent, but in the other
direction. The BosWash axis has long been known to
geographers as the Northeast Megalopolis; while it's politically
impossible for it to be recognised as a single city, Asimov's
population estimate is good. All in all this is another
modest victory for moderation.
¶25:Population pressure will force increasing
penetration of desert and polar areas.
Well, there's Dubai, but we're nowhere near needing to
build cities in deserts or underwater (we're concentrating on
bringing the hostile climates to the population centres rather
than the reverse). How did Asimov manage to swing from
level‐headed extrapolation to population panic so fast?
And anyway, weren't we all meant to be heading
¶26:Processed yeast and algae products…
No, agriculture has been keeping up pretty well so far, whereas
microbial cultures turn out to be no more efficient than the sort
of farms you can leave outdoors in all weather. Still,
single‐cell‐protein “mock‐turkey” turns out to be
¶27:better off, materially…
Asimov's forecast of reduced absolute poverty combined with a
widening rich/poor divide hasn't exactly come true, since it
isn't the first world as a whole that's pulling ahead of the
developing world – that gap has finally started
narrowing. The divide that's getting wider is the one
between the super‐rich and everyone else.
¶29: …is coming
This isn't about 2014; it's just an explanation of the Malthusian
catastrophe scenario that we're avoiding.
On the increasing shortage of early deaths, worsened by
“mechanical devices to replace failing hearts and
kidneys”, etc. His estimate that life expectancy would
reach 85 “in some parts of the world” (mostly Japan) is
good considering it was 70 when he wrote this.
¶31:a worldwide propaganda drive in favor of
¶32: …for teen‐agers
The world (Vatican excluded) was already getting this message
even in 1964, though lecturing people about it turns out to be
less useful than just giving women more control over their own
lives. Either way, it has indeed “taken serious
effect”; global baby production has been in decline since the
end of the Cold War.
¶33:a race of machine tenders
While the productive professions have proved highly mechanisable,
“service sector” jobs are less so. The US high‐school
system has not changed in the way Asimov anticipated, and makes
no attempt to teach all its students the basics of computer
¶34:mankind will suffer badly from the disease
¶35:in a society of enforced leisure…
I can understand how a prolific writer like Asimov would see a
life without creative self‐expression as unendurable, but it's
odd that he seemed to assume that you can't enjoy it unless
you're doing it professionally. If all these poor
underworked morlocks are bored with watching the 3D robot ballet
show beamed live by laser from the moon, what's to stop them
entertaining themselves by writing sarcastic reviews of dead
That's a final score of 40 percent – not quite the
spectacular display of clairvoyance I've seen some journalists
credit him with, but genuinely impressive for anything this
difficult. Mind you, part of it may be Asimov's cunning
choice of framing conceit: predicting the technologies that people
will be trying to promote as possible at the Futurama of Tomorrow
can be a lot easier than trying to guess what technologies will
actually end up changing the world!