The future has arrived

2014-01-05 10:00

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In 1964, the legendary sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov gave his predictions of what the world would look like in 50 years’ time. In many respects, he wasn’t far off

The New York World’s Fair of 1964 is dedicated to “peace through understanding”. Its glimpses of tomorrow’s world rule out thermonuclear warfare. And why not? If a thermonuclear war takes place, the future will not be worth discussing.

So let the missiles slumber eternally on their pads and let us observe what may come in the non-atomised world of the future.

What is to come, through the fair’s eyes at least, is wonderful. The direction in which man is travelling is viewed with buoyant hope, nowhere more so than at the General Electric (GE) pavilion.

There, the audience whirls through four scenes, each populated by cheerful, lifelike dummies that move and talk with a facility that, inside of a minute-and-a-half, convince you that they are alive.

What will life be like, say, in AD 2014, 50 years from now?

What will the World’s Fair of 2014 be like?

I don’t know, but I can guess. One thought that occurs to me is that men will continue to withdraw from nature to create an environment that will suit them better.

By 2014, electroluminescent panels will be in common use. Ceilings and walls will glow softly and in a variety of colours that will change at the touch of a push button.

Windows need be no more than an archaic touch and even when present, will be polarised to block out the harsh sunlight.

The opacity of the glass may be made to alter automatically in accordance with the intensity of the light falling on it.

There is an underground house at the fair that is a sign of the future. If its windows are not polarised, they can alter the “scenery” by changes in lighting.

Suburban houses underground with easily controlled temperature, free from the vicissitudes of weather, with air cleaned and light controlled, should be fairly common.

At the New York World’s Fair of 2014, General Motors’ (GM’s) Futurama may display vistas of underground cities complete with light-forced vegetable gardens.

GM will argue that the surface will be given over to large-scale agriculture, grazing and parklands with less space wasted on actual human occupancy.

Gadgetry will continue to relieve humankind of tedious jobs. Kitchen units will be devised to prepare “automeals”, heating water and converting it to coffee, toasting bread, frying, poaching or scrambling eggs, grilling bacon, and so on. Breakfasts will be “ordered” the night before to be ready by a specified hour the next morning.

Complete lunches and dinners, with the food semiprepared, will be stored in the freezer until ready for processing.

Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence. The IBM exhibit at the present fair has no robots but is dedicated to computers, which are shown in all their amazing complexity, notably in the task of translating Russian into English.

If machines are that smart today, what may not be in the works 50 years hence? It will be such computers, much miniaturised, that will serve as the “brains” of robots.

The IBM building at the 2014 World’s Fair may have, as one of its prime exhibits, a robot housemaid – large, clumsy, slow-moving but capable of general picking up, arranging, cleaning and manipulating various appliances.

It will undoubtedly amuse the fairgoers to scatter debris over the floor to see the robot lumberingly remove it and classify it into “throw away” and “set aside”.

In 2014, GE will be showing 3D movies of its “robot of the future”, neat and streamlined, its cleaning appliances built in and performing all tasks briskly.

The appliances of 2014 will have no electric cords for they will be powered by long-lived batteries running on radio isotopes. The isotopes will not be expensive for they will be by-products of the fission power plants which, by 2014, will be supplying well over half the power needs of humanity. But once the isotype batteries are used up, they will be disposed of through authorised agents.

An experimental fusion power plant will exist in 2014. Large solar-powered stations will be in operation in several desert and semidesert areas?–?Arizona, the Negev, Kazakhstan. In more crowded, but cloudy and smoggy areas, solar power will be less practical.

An exhibit at the 2014 fair will show models of power stations in space, collecting sunlight with huge parabolic focusing devices and radiating the energy collected to Earth.

The world of 50 years hence will have shrunk further. At the 1964 fair, the GM exhibit depicts, among others, “road-building factories” in the tropics and crowded highways along which long buses move on special central lanes.

There is every likelihood that highways, at least in the more advanced sections of the world, will have passed their peak in 2014. There will be increasing emphasis on transportation that makes the least possible contact with the surface. There will be aircraft, but even ground travel will increasingly take to the air, half a metre or so off the ground.

Visitors to the 1964 fair can travel there in an “aquafoil” which lifts itself on four stilts and skims over the water. By 2014, the stilts will have been replaced by four jets of compressed air so that the vehicle will make no contact with liquid or solid surfaces.

Jets of compressed air will lift land vehicles off the highways, which will minimise paving problems. Smooth earth or level lawns will do as well as pavements. Bridges will be less important since cars will cross water on their jets although local ordinances will discourage this.

Much effort will be put into the designing of vehicles with “robot brains”?–?vehicles that can be set for particular destinations and will then proceed there without interference by the slow reflexes of a human driver.

A major attraction of the 2014 fair will be rides on small robotised cars that will manoeuvre in crowds at the 60cm level, automatically avoiding each other.

For short-range travel, moving sidewalks (with benches on either side, standing room in the centre) will be making their appearance in downtown sections. They will be raised above the traffic. Traffic will continue (on several levels in some places) only because all parking will be off-street and because at least 80% of truck deliveries will be to certain fixed centres at the city rim.

Compressed air tubes will carry goods and materials over local stretches and the switching devices that will place specific shipments in specific destinations will be a city marvel.

Communications will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the person you call on the telephone. The screen can be used not only to see the people you call, but also for studying documents and photographs, and reading passages from books.

Synchronous satellites, hovering in space, will make it possible for you to direct-dial any spot on Earth, including the weather stations in Antarctica.

For that matter, you will be able to reach someone at the moon colonies, concerning which GM puts on a display of impressive vehicles (in model form) with large soft tyres intended to negotiate the uneven terrain that may exist on our natural satellite.

Any number of simultaneous conversations between Earth and the moon can be handled by modulated laser beams, which are easy to manipulate in space.

On Earth, laser beams will have to be led through plastic pipes to avoid material and atmospheric interference. Engineers will still be dealing with this in 2014.

Conversations with the moon will be a trifle uncomfortable in that 2.5 seconds must elapse between statement and answer (it takes light that long to make the round trip). Similar conversations with Mars will experience a 3.5-minute delay even when Mars is at its closest.

By 2014, only unmanned ships will have landed on Mars although a manned expedition will be in the works. In 2014, the Futurama will show a model of an elaborate Martian colony.

As for television, wall screens will have replaced the ordinary set, but transparent cubes will be making their appearance in which three-dimensional viewing will be possible. In fact, one popular exhibit at the 2014 World’s Fair will be such a 3D TV, built life-size, in which ballet performances will be seen. The cube will slowly revolve for viewing from all angles.

One can go on indefinitely in this happy extrapolation, but all is not rosy.

As I stood in line waiting to get into the GE exhibit, I found myself staring at Equitable Life’s grim sign blinking out the population of the US, with the number (more than 191?million) increasing by one every 11 seconds.

During the interval that I spent inside the GE pavilion, the American population had increased by nearly 300 and the world’s population by 6?000.

In 2014, there is every likelihood that the world population will be 6.5?billion and the US population will be 350?million. Boston to Washington, the most crowded area of its size on Earth, will have become a single city with a population of more than 40?million.

Population pressure will force increasing penetration of desert and polar areas. Most surprising and, in some ways, heartening, 2014 will see a good beginning in the colonisation of continental shelves.

Underwater housing will have its attractions to those who like water sports and will undoubtedly encourage the more efficient exploitation of ocean resources, both food and mineral.

GM shows, in its 1964 exhibit, the model of an underwater hotel of what might be called mouthwatering luxury.

The 2014 World’s Fair will have exhibits showing cities in the deep sea with bathyscaphe liners carrying men and supplies across and into the abyss.

Ordinary agriculture will keep up with great difficulty and there will be “farms” turning to the more efficient microorganisms.

Processed yeast and algae products will be available in a variety of flavours. The 2014 fair will feature an Algae Bar at which “mock turkey” and “pseudosteak” will be served. It won’t be bad at all, but there will be considerable psychological resistance to such an innovation.

Although technology will still keep up with the population through 2014, it will only be through a supreme effort and with partial success. Not all the world’s population will enjoy the gadgety world of the future to the full.

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. They will have moved backwards, relatively.

Nor can technology continue to match population growth if that remains unchecked. Consider Manhattan of 1964, which has a population density of 80?000 a square mile at night and of over 100?000 per square mile during the working day.

If the whole Earth, including the Sahara, the Himalayan mountain peaks, Greenland, Antarctica and every square mile of the ocean bottom, to the deepest abyss, were as packed as Manhattan at noon, surely you would agree that no way to support such a population was conceivable.

The Earth’s population is now about three billion and is doubling every 40 years. If this doubling goes unchecked, then Earth will be a single choked Manhattan by 2450 and society will collapse long before that.

There are only two general ways to prevent this?– raise the death rate or lower the birth rate. Undoubtedly, the world of 2014 will have agreed on the latter method. Indeed, the increasing use of mechanical devices to replace failing hearts and kidneys and repair stiffening arteries and breaking nerves will have cut the death rate still further and have lifted the life expectancy in some parts of the world to age 85.

There will be a worldwide propaganda drive in favour of birth control by rational and humane methods and, by 2014, it will have taken serious effect.

One of the more serious exhibits at the 2014 World’s Fair will be a series of lectures, movies and documentary material at the World Population Control Centre.

The situation will have been made more serious by the advances of automation. The world of 2014 will have few routine jobs that cannot be done better by some machine than by any human being. Schools will have to be oriented in this direction.

Part of the GE exhibit today consists of a school of the future in which realities like closed-circuit TV and programmed tapes aid the teaching process. It is not only the techniques of teaching that will advance, but also the subject matter.

All high school students will be taught the fundamentals of computer technology and will become proficient in binary arithmetic. They will be trained in the use of computer languages that will have developed out of contemporary ones.

Even so, humankind will suffer badly from the disease of boredom, a disease spreading more widely each year and growing in intensity. This will have serious mental, emotional and sociological consequences, and psychiatry will be the most important medical speciality in 2014.

The lucky few involved in creative work of any sort will be the true elite of humankind for they alone will do more than serve a machine.

The most sombre speculation I can make about 2014 is that in a society of enforced leisure, the most glorious single word in the vocabulary will have become ‘work’.

– The New York Times

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