As the year 1984 approaches, science-fiction author Isaac Asimov is invited to take part in a unique project. Thirty-five years earlier, you see, George Orwell’s 1984 had predicted that the ’80s would take place in a dystopian landscape. So now Asimov will actually begin to imagine what the world might be like in 2019 – and some of his visions still ring terrifyingly true.
Born in the Russian region of Smolensk Oblast in 1920, Asimov emigrated to America with his family at the age of three. Then, some three years after they’d arrived, his parents purchased a little candy store. The family would buy and sell at least three more candy stores, too, and it was reportedly the newspapers stocked in these establishments that kickstarted Asimov’s love of writing.
Yet the future writer’s early adventures in studying didn’t officially involve the creative arts. After attending public schools, in fact, Asimov earned a scholarship to Seth Low Junior College, an offshoot of New York’s Columbia University. And there, he began studying zoology – although a gruesome dissection soon inspired him to switch to chemistry. Asimov even completed a Ph.D. in 1948 in the latter subject.
In the late 1930s, though, Asimov had also begun penning short sci-fi stories. And in March of 1939, the American magazine Amazing Stories agreed to publish one of his tales: Marooned Off Vesta. This was Asimov’s first published piece and earned him the equivalent of over $1,000 in today’s money. Yet it would still be a while before writing would become his full-time career.
Over the years, though, Asimov penned many more short stories. In 1941, for instance, the author wrote what many consider his first classic: Nightfall, the story of a planet that is suddenly consumed by darkness. And with its publication, Asimov enjoyed a newfound kudos within the world of science fiction. However, he still could not pay his bills through writing alone.
In 1942, then, Asimov began working at Philadelphia’s Navy Yard as a civilian chemist – a role that came with a decent salary. And with this financial stability, the writer was able to marry his girlfriend, Gertrude, and begin planning a family. Yet even though Asimov continued to earn money through his stories, he still didn’t believe that writing was a feasible career path.
So in 1949 Asimov took a job lecturing in biochemistry at the School of Medicine at Boston University. Yet the following year, the writer’s first novel, Pebble in the Sky, achieved publication. A science-fiction story, of course, this book would go on to form part of the Foundation saga, which is one of the author’s most famous works.
And just two years after the publication of Pebble in the Sky, Asimov was making enough from his writing to no longer rely on his university career. He maintained close links with the college, however, and even stayed on as a lecturer after ending his research work. But he also continued to churn out novels and short stories at a prolific rate.
By the time of his death in April 1992, in fact, Asimov had written over 500 books. And as well as writing science fiction, the author also gave us any number of fantasy, mystery and non-fiction works. Today, though, Asimov is best remembered for the Foundation saga as well as the I, Robot series, which inspired the popular Hollywood movie of the same name.
And almost 100 years after Asimov’s birth, the author is still considered one of the greatest science-fiction writers of all time. Moreover, some of his concepts – such as the Three Laws of Robotics – still resonate through popular culture today. So what happened when one of the 20th century’s greatest minds was invited to speculate on the real future of planet Earth?
Well, towards the end of 1983, staff at the Toronto Star came up with a unique idea to mark an important date in science fiction. Almost 35 years previously, you see, George Orwell had published his famous novel 1984. And in it, Orwell had painted a terrifying picture of an unjust, authoritarian future world.
Today, though, it seems as if a frightening number of Orwell’s bleak predictions have come true. In the novel, for example, the Big Brother character represents a totalitarian government that is constantly surveilling the populace. While in the real world of 2018, Cambridge Analytica caused global outrage when it was revealed that it had unlawfully extracted data from 50 million Facebook users. And this era of fake news also arguably has plenty in common with the propaganda and “newspeak” depicted in 1984.
As the 35th anniversary of Orwell’s novel approached in 1983, however, many of these developments were still in their infancy – or had not yet come to pass. Nevertheless, one editor decided to see what future predictions the era’s science-fiction writers might have in store. And so the Toronto Star’s Vian Ewart conceived of “an Orwell series” to mark the milestone year.
And after putting together a small team, Ewart reached out to Asimov. At the time, the author had also recently returned to the Foundation series after a break of 30 years. So it perhaps seemed fitting that the Toronto Star editor invited the New York-based writer to pen an article predicting what the world might be like in another 35 years time – in the far-off year of 2019.
“Asimov was popular at the time,” Ewart told the Toronto Star in 1983. “I simply phoned him at his New York home and asked him. He loved the idea of a 1984 series and was pleased to be the ‘lead-off writer.’ He was a very gracious man and charged one dollar a word.” Then, on New Year’s Eve 1983, the sci-fi author’s article appeared in print.
So at the beginning of the piece, Asimov acknowledged the specter of nuclear war. And he also admitted that all of his predictions would be rendered obsolete should such a conflict occur. “If the United States and the Soviet Union flail away at each other at any time between now and 2019, there is absolutely no use to discussing what life will be like in that year,” he wrote.
After addressing the potential scope of such a catastrophe, though, Asimov moved on to break his predictions into two categories: computerization and space utilization. And bizarrely, many of his thoughts on both these areas of human development have proved strangely accurate over the years.
Back in 1983, you see, the world of computing was still very much in its infancy. In fact, that was the year Apple launched Lisa – the first commercial machine to feature a graphic user interface. The internet was also just a little-known innovation that was likely seldom talked about outside certain circles.
Yet despite this environment, Asimov was still able to predict the future of computers with startling accuracy. In fact, he wrote that these machines would come to influence every aspect of our daily lives – a situation that most of us find ourselves in today. “Computerization will undoubtedly continue onward inevitably,” he wrote.
Moreover, Asimov noted that those unable to keep up with the development of computers would find themselves at a disadvantage. “The growing complexity of society will make it impossible to do without them, except by courting chaos,” he wrote. “And those parts of the world that fall behind in this respect will suffer so obviously as a result that their ruling bodies will clamour for computerization as they now clamour for weapons.”
Asimov also accurately predicted the effect that computerization would have on the jobs market. He noted that this technology would, in fact, lead to the creation of new, previously unheard of jobs, even as old roles in areas such as manufacturing and administration disappeared.
“The jobs that will appear will, inevitably, involve the design, manufacture, installation, maintenance and repair of computers and robots and an understanding of whole new industries that these ‘intelligent’ machines will make possible,” Asimov wrote. And these days, companies such as Apple and Microsoft are among the biggest in the world. So it seems clear that at least some of the writer’s predictions have come true.
Additionally, Asimov predicted that these changes would require a complete overhaul of our education system. A move that, he said, would be crucial to teaching individuals how to function in this new, hi-tech society. Asimov also appeared to foresee the divide between the Baby Boomers, with their late adoption of technology, and the Millennials of Generation Y.
“The generation of the transition will be dying out. And there will be a new generation growing up who will have been educated into the new world,” Asimov wrote. The writer further predicted that by 2019 this change would be largely complete. And with 93 percent of Americans now viewing computers as a vital part of their working lives, according a CBT Nuggets poll, this again seems to have been an accurate prediction.
Yet although the world of computers has indeed completely transformed since 1983, Asimov actually predicted that things would go even further. Specifically, he believed that by 2019 robots would be commonplace. “The mobile computerized object, or robot, is already flooding into industry and will, in the course of the next generation, penetrate the home,” the author wrote.
Mind you, some might interpret Asimov’s “mobile computerized objects” as a reference to today’s cellular phones. But that not being the case, we are still a long way from regularly employing robots in our homes. Their threat to the workplace, though, remains just as the writer predicted. And once automation arrives on an even larger scale, we may indeed lose the “clerical and assembly-line jobs” that Asimov warned would disappear.
Additionally, Asimov foresaw the important role that technology would come to play in education. His prediction that teachers would be all but redundant by 2019 has yet to be realized, though. But it’s true that computers are now integral in classrooms around the world. “There will be an opportunity for every youngster, and indeed, every person, to learn what he or she wants to learn in his or her own time,” he wrote.
Elsewhere, Asimov accurately predicted that the global population would continue to rise. He erroneously believed, however, that by 2019 humanity would be actively working to reduce birth rates across the globe. The author also acknowledged that pollution would be an even bigger problem in the future. Sadly, though, his proposed solution has yet to become a reality.
In the article, you see, Asimov predicted that technology would have reached a point where humans could begin to heal the environment. He even suggested that the shared experience of a changing world might bring about peace between nations – including those that had previously struggled to get along.
“The world effort that must be invested in this and in generally easing the pains of the transition may, assuming the presence of a minimum level of sanity among the peoples of the world, again not a safe assumption, weaken in comparison [to] the causes that have fed the time-honored quarrels between, and within, nations over petty hatred and suspicions,” he wrote.
But with climate change still an ever-pressing concern – and nationalism on the rise across the globe – it seems unlikely that this hopeful vision of the future will materialize any time soon. Similarly, some of Asimov’s predictions about space utilization seem extremely optimistic in the modern age.
For example, Asimov predicted that by 2019 structures would be orbiting the planet, supplying power to the Earth. He also believed that these developments might be another key to global harmony. “The energy will be so necessary to all and so clearly deliverable only if the nations remain at peace and work together, that war would be simply unthinkable,” he wrote.
Asimov also erroneously predicted that the colonization of space would have begun by 2019. In fact, he believed that the first off-world settlement “may perhaps be under actual construction.” But while large-scale human society has yet to expand beyond Earth, the launch of the International Space Station (ISS) in 1998 saw another of the author’s visions come true.
“With the shuttle rocket as the vehicle, we will build a space station and lay the foundation for making space a permanent home for increasing numbers of human beings,” Asimov wrote. Since the year 2000, in fact, more than 200 people have embarked on missions to the ISS. Moreover, private ventures, such as Mars One, have brought the colonization of other planets closer to reality every year.
But for all of Asimov’s accuracy, the writer failed to predict many of the future’s other advancements. The author, for example, didn’t spot just how significant artificial intelligence would become. In fact, some experts believe that this technology will soon completely transform how we live and work on planet Earth.
But while the technology itself might be different, could the results be the same? In Asimov’s article, you see, he predicted that advances in computing and robotics would create a society capable of “running itself.” Therefore, humanity would be free to live “a life rich in leisure.” And with talk of a global basic income as a response to job automation, it’s possible that we are now closer to the author’s vision of the future than ever before.
Interestingly, though, a life of leisure isn’t the only one of Asimov’s predictions that may yet come true. Elsewhere, in fact, he wrote that by 2019 humanity would have advanced to mining the moon for its raw materials. And while such a venture has yet to take place, there are plans to launch an expedition to extract lunar materials from the red planet in just six years time.
Yet shockingly, the 1983 article wasn’t the first time that Asimov had predicted the future with alarming accuracy. In 1964, in fact, the science-fiction writer marked the New York World’s Fair by publishing an article that speculated on the world of 2014. And in it, Asimov appeared to foresee much of the technology that we have come to depend on today.
Amazingly, you see, Asimov predicted that the humans of the future would be able to communicate easily through “sight-sound” devices. With these, he said, callers could see as well as listen to the person on the other end of the line – a goal resoundingly realized in the popular video chats of today. Elsewhere, he accurately foretold that regular televisions would be replaced by “wall screens.” And the author also foresaw that fake meat products created from plant matter would become commonplace.
Today, then, Asimov’s predictions highlight how far we’ve come since 1983 – taking in the rise of the computer and the first permanent station in space. However, the writer’s optimistic visions of a future free from war and pollution have yet to be realized. But they should serve to remind us of just how much more we could achieve.