ISAAC ASIMOV

(now with World's Fair 2014 addendum)

Peer Review

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 Futurics”:

  1. What is happening will continue to happen.
  2. Consider the obvious seriously, for few people will see it.
  3. 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 Robotics”:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. 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 for.

(“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 Galactic Empire.

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 inherently limited.

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.

2014 addendum:
Retrofuturama

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 predicting yet.
— (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 triple‐paragraph chunks.
— (0/0)
¶05: men will continue to withdraw from nature
¶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 miss.
0 (0/1)
¶07: Suburban houses underground
Asimov always overestimated the proportion of the population that shared his longing for a sub‐suburban lifestyle.
0 (0/2)
¶08: Kitchen units will be devised that will prepare “automeals”
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.
0.3 (0.3/3)
¶09: Robots will neither be common nor very good
¶10:3‑D movies of its “Robot of the Future”
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.
0.9 (1.2/4)
¶11: fission‐power
¶12: experimental fusion‐power
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 commercial fusion.
0.3 (1.5/5)
¶13: ground travel will increasingly take to the air
¶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.
0 (1.5/6)
¶15: roboticized cars
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 demonstrations.
0.8 (2.3/7)
¶16: moving sidewalks
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?
0 (2.3/8)
¶17: Communications will become sight–sound
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.
1.0 (3.3/9)
¶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) optical fibre.
0.2 (3.5/10)
¶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 surprisingly cautious (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”?
0.8 (4.3/11)
¶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 remodelled lounge.
0.4 (4.7/12)
¶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.
0.8 (5.6/13)
¶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 underground?
0.1 (5.7/14)
¶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 perfectly marketable.
0.3 (6.0/15)
¶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.
0.4 (6.4/16)
¶28: the World‐Manhattan
¶29:is coming
This isn't about 2014; it's just an explanation of the Malthusian catastrophe scenario that we're avoiding.
— (6.4/16)
¶30: life expectancy
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.
0.8 (7.2/17)
¶31: a worldwide propaganda drive in favor of birth control
¶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.
0.6 (7.8/18)
¶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 programming.
0.2 (8.0/19)
¶34: mankind will suffer badly from the disease of boredom
¶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 futurologists?
0 (8.0/20)

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!