Thursday, April 17, 2014


An Asimov-Style Question For 2014: What Will Life Be Like In 2064?

Will mutton chops be all the rage in 2064? The prescient Russian-born American science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in 1974.
Will mutton chops be all the rage in 2064? The prescient Russian-born American science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in 1974.
By Daisy Sindelar
In 1964, Isaac Asimov -- the author of such science fiction classics as "I, Robot" and "The End of Eternity" -- attended the World's Fair in New York.

The fair featured a display dedicated to advances in electrical appliances since the start of the 20th century. And it left Asimov asking himself a question: what further advances would the world see 50 years on?

His resulting essay, "Visit To The World's Fair Of 2014," was in many ways prescient. Asimov, among other things, predicted a world of 3D movies, cordless home appliances, driverless cars, and screens that allow you to make video phone calls, read books, or study documents.

Other forecasts, meanwhile, have yet to be realized. Asimov predicted that by 2014, much of humanity would be living underground or underwater to maximize the use of the Earth's surface for agricultural production. He imagined robots that would tend gardens, and cars that would hover over roads rather than driving directly on them.

RFE/RL asked British engineer and futurologist Ian Pearson to make some of his own, Asimov-style predictions about what life will be like 50 years from now -- in 2064.

Finding Shelter In Mile-High Cities

Asimov predicted that a rapidly expanding human population would seek shelter underground or underwater by 2014. But Pearson, who says population growth and increased urbanization will result in "megacities" of up to 50 million people, is looking in another direction -- upward.

"One of the solutions that people are already looking at is making very, very tall buildings for people to live in -- maybe kilometers high," he says.  "You can't build those today because the materials don't really exist that are strong enough to build tall buildings reliably, but by 2050-2060 we will have a lot of carbon-based materials, like graphene and so on, which are very cheap to make and very, very strong and we can start making buildings much, much taller."

Smart Phones Go The Way Of The Dinosaur

Asimov envisioned a 2014 where gadgets would be used to prepare "automeals," scrambling eggs and grilling meat on command to relieve the "tedium" of housework.

In a 2014 context, "gadgets" have come to be associated more with communication than with kitchens. And with miniaturization progressing rapidly, Pearson says, the gadgets of the future will be so small that the term will become meaningless.

Instead, most people will sport what he calls digital jewelry -- with a single nose piercing or earring holding enough memory to serve all your communication functions.
Futurologist and engineer Ian PearsonFuturologist and engineer Ian Pearson
Futurologist and engineer Ian Pearson
Futurologist and engineer Ian Pearson

"Eventually you can get all of the IT [information technology] that you currently own down into a space much smaller than an earring stud or a nose stud," he says. "So basically, any piece of jewelry will very soon be able to replace all of your IT. The head of display will be in your active contact lenses or your video visor. You'll be able to just type or use your fingers in 3D space, and interface any way you like that way. So there's really no reason to have gadgets that you can actually physically pick up and look at. You simply don't need them."

Sophisticated, Not Necessarily Smart, Robots

Asimov, the author of "I, Robot," saw the promise of robotics but also its danger. The sci-fi writer was among the first to warn of the ethical dilemma of empowering robots with intelligence or using them to harm humans or themselves.

Pearson says robotics is one field that has already seen tremendous progress, thanks to improvements in artificial intelligence and the materials used for robotic limbs. He says the robot of the future will be highly sophisticated, and a far cry from the clunky metal machines often envisioned in futuristic movies.

"It's not likely to have lots of cogs and wheels and wires, it's much more likely to be using polymer gels attached to some sort of plastic skeleton," he says. "So it'll be a bit more like a human being than the traditional ones you see on sci-fi. It'll have fairly powerful computers linked to it via the cloud [remote data-storage system]; it doesn't have to have intelligence embedded on board. So the idea that the robot itself is 'smart' is a primitive one. The robot is really just a front end for some smartness to exist somewhere on the network. I would expect that we will have some very sophisticated androids and other kinds of robots running around in the 2064 time frame."

An End To Fossil Fuels?

Asimov was overly optimistic in predicting that nuclear-fusion power plants would exist, in an experimental stage, by 2014. Nor was he correct in predicting that large stretches of desert in Arizona, Israel, and Kazakhstan, would be given over to large-scale solar power stations.

But by 2064, says Pearson, both options will be the main sources of power in a world that will have abandoned fossil fuels in favor of cheap, renewable energy.

"In 2064, the chances are we will already have nuclear fusion reactors up and running pretty successfully and hopefully be getting quite cheap energy from those," he says. "That is essentially the utopian energy dream that everyone's been waiting for. And once we conquer a few technology barriers that we're currently facing, it may also be much cheaper to produce energy using solar power than it is to get oil out of the ground. Most of the oil that we know exists might be just left in the ground because it's simply too expensive to extract compared to using other forms of energy."

Sorry, No Flying Cars

Asimov predicted that one of the major attractions at a 2014 World's Fair would be "rides on small roboticized cars" flying a meter above the ground, "neatly and automatically avoiding each other."

Pearson sighs, saying flying cars are the "first thing" that futurologists get asked about. He says for reasons of safety and engineering, the drivers of 2064 will use electronic cars -- that will nonetheless stick close to the road.

"I really don't see any reason why we're all going to be flying around," he says. "You just don't need it. If you look at what you can do at ground level, once we start moving to electronically driven cars, they can drive within centimeters of each other, maybe even millimeters of each other. And if you make little tubes with enough space inside for people to sit comfortably, you can make several layers thick of cars. You can get 75 times more cars on the street than you can with today's technology."

A War To End All Wars

Asimov did not discuss the future of warfare in his essay, aptly noting, "If a thermonuclear war takes place, the future will not be worth discussing."

Pearson agrees, saying he does not rule out the possibility of a world war emerging in the Middle East or Asia, or even a series of civil wars between right-wing and left-wing ideologues in the West. Meanwhile, he says, rapid advances in technology are making the prospect of a future war ever more devastating.

"I think it will be quite terrible," he says. "We've got some pretty bad technologies in terms of warfare already. Chemical weapons are pretty nasty things to play with. Nuclear weapons and biological weapons are just as bad. We're now developing all sorts of things using nanotechnology, where you can dismantle people and turn them into grey goo. I really don't think the next war will be terribly pleasant for anyone concerned."

PHOTO GALLERY: The Future, As It Used To Look

'We Had A Really Weird Dream Last Night...' 

Although he envisioned the people of 2014 standing in three-hour lines to watch 3D movies, Asimov did not foresee the home theater.

Pearson, who says "humans will always remain interested in humans," imagines entertainment in 2064 will still involve traditional forms of diversion like movies, plays, and concerts. But some things, he says, will have changed.

"In 2064, I pretty much guarantee you will still listen to music and you will still go to the theater," he says. "The means of delivery certainly changes as technology gets better. In 2064, if you think about a piece of music, it starts playing inside your head! You don't know how, you don't care how, it just does. Another form of entertainment in 2064 that we don't currently have is linking your dreams to someone else's dreams. Already you can do that to some extent with thought recognition. In 2064 it'll be very old-fashioned technology. You'll be able to pick out what you're dreaming about, put images straight into your eyes, straight into your brain, sounds as well, and you'll be able to link your dreams to someone else's."

New Sexes, New Sex

Gender relations and gender identity are one issue that Asimov did not address in his World's Fair essay.

But Pearson, noting the massive changes already under way in terms of hormonal therapy and elective surgery, says humanity's notions about what it means to be male or female are about to change dramatically, thanks to improvements in genetic modification, robotic limbs, and body swapping.

"This opens up a whole new era of gender relations, where we get to choose essentially what gender you are on a day-to-day basis," he says. "But the choice won't be just between male and female, as it is today. Already we're blurring those lines anyway. But there's nothing to stop us as we're creating the technology from creating whole new genders, and even creating new forms of lovemaking which require three or four different genders to be involved, rather than just two."

The One Constant -- Anxiety

Asimov, with considerable foresight, predicted that psychology would be a key medical specialty in 2014 and that mankind, facing a world of increasing automation, would suffer from chronic boredom.

Pearson, to the contrary, believes automation will ultimately relieve human beings of all forms of menial labor, leaving them free to explore creative pursuits. Still, he says, they will always find something to complain about.

"It's a fairly safe bet that the future of work is doing interpersonal work where you're interacting with other human beings directly," he says. "That isn't boring; it's something which people enjoy doing. As for future existential crises, people are always very good at finding misery in the midst of joy. I imagine that one of the problems that we'll worry about in the future is that with all of this fantastic choice enabled by future technology we might be worried that we're not quite getting the maximum out of life that we could be. Already that's becoming a threat, and already people are already facing 'choice stress.'"

The (Eternal) Life Of The Mind

Asimov correctly identified a population explosion as one of the most pressing problems facing the future Earth, noting that people would live ever-longer lives due to improvements in technology.

What he failed to envision, however, was eternal life -- or what Pearson calls "electronic immortality" -- where a person's body may fail, but his or her mind will continue living by reconnecting to artificial bodies or simply existing as part of a vast computer network.

"Eventually, by 2050 or so, you're getting to the point where 90 percent of your thinking might be happening outside of your brain," he says. "By 2060, if you get run down by a truck, it's not a big career problem. Just the fact that you've been killed isn't a big deal, because your mind is mostly running on the network. So you buy an android from the nearest android store, you upload your mind into that, and you carry on as if nothing had happened. So that gives you a sort of electronic immortality. You might make multiple copies of yourself. You might have different copies of your mind running around on the network, as well as one inside your head. It really changes the whole future of humanity once you get that level of choice."

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