futurists - Isaac Asimov
Updated: Jul 21
Isaac Asimov is probably one of the most well-known sci-fi writers out there. Partially because he has just such a memorable and unique name. He’s most well known for his works Robot and Foundations. Asimov describes himself having a crazy compulsion to write since his idea of a fun time is to “to go up to my attic, sit at my electric typewriter (as I am doing right now), and bang away, watching the words take shape like magic”. And write he did. Asimov wrote and published 00000 books ranging from books covering the origin of the Bible to science textbooks to sci-fi series covering the implications of robotics. As a result of his wide range of technical, Asimov leaves us with some ideas and predictions for the future worth considering.
What did he think?
Isaac’s stories leave us with some interesting ideas:
Three Laws of Robotics
First Law: A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
Second Law: A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
Third Law: A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
Many of the books from his robot series explore the intricacies and edge cases that arise from these three laws.
Psychohistory: A fictitious field combining history, sociology, and mathematical statistics to predict the future behavior of large populations of humans. What would you do if you predicted humanity would be sent back into the stone ages? How would you account for individual outliers in populations? The Foundation series explores these questions in depth.
The books are alright. It’s more fun to talk about some of Asimov’s predictions about what life would be like today (~2020 ish).
He predicted: Nuclear war, Computerization, and Space utilization would be our focus. These are relatively important today, so it’s fair to say he had the right ideas. Unfortunately, I don’t think he could have predicted the unfortunate state of our politics today. None of these are really prioritized by the US government which is a fortunate and unfortunate outcome.
Isaac also predicted education would be revolutionized by computers. Every student would have a personalized education on a laptop. We are not quite there yet with this either. Even though many students have access to Chromebooks through school, the software still doesn’t come close to providing a useful learning experience. Many students still don’t have access to devices or internet connectivity either especially in rural areas.
Asimov predicted computers and robots would be “doing the scut-work of society so that the world” so “human beings will find themselves living a life rich in leisure”. We have Roombas and Alexa, but we still have plenty of busy work and minimum wage jobs. Just a /r/boringdystopia in 2021.
Regarding space utilization, Asimov said, “we will enter space to stay”. He predicted we would build mini societies in space, on the moon, building observatories and factories to better understand how humans can operate in space. Part of this prediction included building solar panels that would beam energy to Earth (I realize I have a friend who started a startup to try to do this a few years back). Sadly, we are not quite there yet either. RIP my dreams watching The Expanse and reading the Red Rising series.
Ocean exploration and habitation is also similar to space exploration but much less prioritized. Isaac predicted humans would live in underwater cities. Maybe someday.
A dated older trend is the Malthusian theory of overpopulation resulting in famine. Asimov said, “democracy cannot survive overpopulation” and “as you put more and more people onto the world, the value of life not only declines, but it disappears.” This is very surprising given that Isaac believes we can have robots doing the busy work for us. How come robots can’t be doing the food growing? Clearly, this isn’t the case yet as the birth rate has been dropping, and we still can feed the worldwide population with improved agricultural technologies.
Climate change has been long predicted. Asimov hoped we would have technologies in 2019 allowing us to reverse “the deterioration of the environment” but we still do not have any implemented at scale.
Asimov predicted a reversal to nationalism where “there will be increasing co-operation among nations and among groups within nations”. Unfortunately, the far right and populist movements around the world coupled with authoritarian governments disproves Asimov’s optimistic hope.
Asimov also predicted advances in food preparation technologies. For example, “kitchen units that will prepare "automeals, heating water and converting it to coffee; toasting bread; frying, poaching or scrambling eggs, grilling bacon, and so on”. Unfortunately, all we have is DoorDash really and that one Kickstarter with the $500 juice machine that squishes bags.
Asimov predicted “appliances of 2014 will have no electric cords, of course, for they will be powered by long- lived batteries running on radioisotopes.” It’s deadly apparent we have not made that much progress applying nuclear energy.
A relatively correct prediction is one for “mock-turkey and pseudosteak”. Even more accurately Asimov predicted, “It won't be bad at all (if you can dig up those premium price), but there will be considerable psychological resistance to such an innovation”. We see something similar today as Impossible still has a ways to go bringing their prices down and changing the social perception of fake meats.
Asimov also accurately predicts the widening wealth inequality gap we have today. “A larger portion than today will be deprived, and although they may be better off, materially, than today, they will be further behind when compared with the advanced portions of the world.
For the last prediction we will be considering, Asimov predicts we “mankind will suffer badly from the disease of boredom”. Apparently, this will have major psychological effects on people and since we will live “in a society of enforced leisure, the most glorious single word in the vocabulary will have become work”. This is 50% correct. We do suffer from a disease of boredom as we look for meaning and dopamine highs in things like TikTok, watching Logan Paul fight, and playing Bust a Bit. It definitely makes kind of degenerate. However, we are still a few decades off until we have forced leisure for most of humanity.
What’s the takeaway?
tldr: we need more scientific breakthroughs, building in space, and cooperation among nations
Think for yourself though.
My takeaways from researching this includes:
Let’s consider optimistic futures again. Ted Chiang’s Exhalation short stories are a great of example of non-dystopian futures. I think it’s well worth considering good outcomes we should aim for instead of bad ones to avoid.
Let’s make science more accessible and comprehensible for all. There’s so much bullshit out there. We need a better way to create content like Asimov did and a better way to distribute it to people. We need to rally people to create more funding and progress in the sciences.
Let’s work together or create new models for cooperation? I’m curious what comes after capitalism and democratic governments. We need a better system so all of humanity can better collaborate as the same team. Asimov put it beautifully. I hope humanity finally grows up to become an adult when we can cooperate enough to leave our galaxy instead of destroying each other in it.