Every New Year’s, I like to roll out some predictions of what I think might happen in the 12 months to come. For 2014, though, I want to take a look back, at a set of predictions made on the occasion of the 1964 New York World’s Fair, by the science fiction master Isaac Asimov. In a New York Times article penned some 50 years ago, Asimov got a few things right on, a bunch more completely wrong, and touched on Israeli innovation several times, albeit very obliquely.
That Israel figured into Asimov’s thinking at all is not surprising. A staunch Jewish atheist, Asimov’s breakout “Foundation” series has provided Jewish pundits 70 years of fodder on the question of whether Asimov had the Jewish people or Israel in mind as he wrote. Foundation tells the story of a group of super intelligent “Encyclopedists.” who have been sequestered on a planet at the far end of the galaxy to guard the last remnants of human knowledge during a coming dark age. Surrounded by hostile peoples on nearby planets, and with no defenses but their own smarts, these futuristic “people of the book” develop ever more advanced technologies, open clandestine trade routes, and eventually subdue and subsume their enemies.
Before Foundation, Asimov wrote “Pebble in the Sky,” featuring as its protagonist a retired tailor named Joseph Schwartz whose home planet, 11,000 years from now, is populated by what Asimov calls “an obstinate and stiff-necked race” who are despised by the 500 quadrillion people living on some 200 million inhabited planets in the Galactic Empire.
Asimov’s 1964 predictions for 2014 don’t share the same implied Jewish subtext or space-age grandeur; indeed, other than a profound apprehension over overpopulation (which he says will be such a hot topic in the coming year that there will be “a worldwide propaganda drive in favor of birth control”), his crystal ball gazing is decidedly much more down to earth. Here are a few of my favorite nuggets.
In keeping with the zeitgeist of the 1960s and perhaps even the animated TV show “The Jetsons,” Asimov saw the cities of 2014 filled with moving sidewalks (“with benches on either side and standing room in the center”); flying cars (although, unlike in the Jetsons, only a foot or two off the ground raised up by jets of compressed air – can you say Elon Musk and Hyperloop?); cars that drive themselves (hello Google Car); and automated kitchens that prepare most of your food for you.
“Breakfasts will be ‘ordered’ the night before to be ready by a specified hour the next morning. Complete lunches and dinners, with the food semi-prepared, will be stored in the freezer until ready for processing,” Asimov wrote, although he admitted, “it will still be advisable to have a small corner in the kitchen unit where the more individual meals can be prepared by hand, especially when company is coming.” (Nothing about an automated hot plate for Shabbat.)
Will we have something equivalent to the Jetsons’ cybernetic maid, Rosie the Robot by 2014? “Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence…capable of general picking up, arranging [and] cleaning.” More like a Roomba than a Danger, Will Robinson.
On the other hand, Asimov was right on when he predicted that children of the future will be taught “the fundamentals of computer technology” and computer programming languages (even if the Fortran he foresaw has long since passed out of vogue). He also anticipated distance and online learning, although for him it was “closed circuit TV and programmed tapes.” He correctly imagined two-way video communication (ala Skype or Israel’s ooVoo), And he envisioned television “wall screens” replacing “the ordinary set” – certainly true – although the 3D “cubes” he predicted for home viewing haven’t quite arrived yet.
As he tried to plan for an overpopulated 2014, Asimov missed the mark a bit with his prediction that homes would mostly be built underground so that the surface of the Earth could be devoted to agriculture and parks. He went so far as to suggest that, at his imagined 2014 World’s Fair, there would be a model of a 5-star underwater hotel and exhibits showing cities constructed in the deep sea.
His Israel-related predictions came in three places. He specifically forecast “large solar power stations” in Israel’s Negev desert (as well as in Arizona and Kazakhstan). Thanks to Israeli entrepreneurs like Yosef Abramowitz and his Arava Power and Energiya Global concerns, that is happening, albeit probably not on as large a scale as Asimov would have liked.
Asimov was a big believer in algae with his 2014 featuring algae-fied foods like “mock turkey and pseudo-steak.” While suspicious schnitzel and other mystery meats are still aplenty at Israeli youth hostel and field school dining rooms (and a few wedding halls too), they’re not yet made of algae (tofu maybe). Michael Kagan, VP of Product Development at the Israeli biotech firm Qualitas Health, is leading the blue and white advance on Asimov’s algae dreams, although Kagan says that the more immediate…and lucrative use of algae is creating Omega-3 oils from the stuff. “They’re vegetarian, sustainable, contain no mercury or PCBs like fish oils [the usual source for Omega-3] and contain more EPA – the fatty acid that adults need – than fish,” Kagan explains.
Rounding out Asimov’s Israeli innovation prediction trilogy, the sci fi master also imagined we’d have windows where “the degree of opacity of the glass may even be made to alter automatically in accordance with the intensity of the light falling upon it.” That sounds a bit like Israeli tech innovators Gauzy. (I wrote about the company here.)
Asimov had one more prediction that may give creepy comfort to parents of the next generation of Jewish doctors. He forecast that as technology spread, people would lead increasingly sedentary lives, moving us in the direction of becoming “a race of machine tenders.” Whether he was thinking of factory automation or thumb swiping video games on an iPad, the result would be the same: “mankind will suffer badly from the disease of boredom...[which] will have serious mental, emotional and sociological consequences and, I dare say, that psychiatry will be far and away the most important medical specialty of 2014.”