​In 1983, Isaac Asimov predicted the world of 2019. Here's what he got right (and wrong).

Some of them were surprisingly astute.

  • In 1983, the Toronto Star asked science fiction writer Isaac Asimov to predict what the world would be like in 2019.
  • His predictions about computerization were mostly accurate, though some of his forecasts about education and space utilization were overly optimistic.
  • Asimov's predictions highlight just how difficult it is to predict the future of technology.

Isaac Asimov was one the world's most celebrated and prolific science fiction writers, having written or edited more than 500 books over his four-decade career. The Russian-born writer was famous for penning hard science fiction in his books, such as that in I, Robot, Foundation and Nightfall. Naturally, his work contained many predictions about the future of society and technology.

Some of those predictions came true, such as our ability to use what he called sight-sound communication to contact anyone on Earth. But others — a machine that can convert yeast, algae and water into foods like "mock-turkey," for instance — never manifested.

In 1983, the Toronto Star invited Asimov to predict the answer to a specific question: "What will the world look like in 2019?" It was a fitting time to pose the question, the Star's editors figured, because 1983 was 35 years after George Orwell penned 1984.

Asimov wrote that it was pointless to imagine the future of society if the United States and the Soviet Union were to engage in nuclear war, so he assumed that wouldn't happen. He then broke down his predictions under two main themes: computerization and space utilization.

Computerization

Asimov was more or less correct in many of his predictions on the future of computerization, even if some of his forecasts were a bit broad and obvious, including:

  • "Computerization will undoubtedly continue onward inevitably."
  • The "mobile computerized object" will "penetrate the home," and the increasing complexity of society will make it impossible to live without this technology.
  • Computers will disrupt work habits and replace old jobs with ones that are radically different.
  • Robotics will kill "routine clerical and assembly-line jobs."
  • Society will need a "vast change in the nature of education must take place, and entire populations must be made "computer-literate" and must be taught to deal with a "high-tech" world."
  • This education transition will be difficult for many, especially as world population grows at unprecedented rates.

Still, Asimov was wrong, or at least slightly off, on a few predictions about the future of computerization.

For instance, he predicted that technology will revolutionize education (correct), but that traditional schooling will become outdated as kids become able to learn everything they need to know from computers at home. That might technically be possible, but it also assumes that kids wouldn't spend all that time using technology to, say, play Fortnite.

​Space utilization

"We will enter space to stay," Asimov claimed in his essay.

And he was mostly right: The International Space Station has been continuously occupied for more than 18 years.

But Asimov was a bit optimistic about future societies' space endeavors, predicting that humans would be "back on the moon in force" with mining operations, factories that "use of the special properties of space," observatories and even a solar power station that would beam microwaves back to Earth.

Asimov also thought we'd be on our way to establishing human settlements on the moon.

"By 2019, the first space settlement should be on the drawing boards; and may perhaps be under actual construction," he wrote. "It would be the first of many in which human beings could live by the tens of thousands, and in which they could build small societies of all kinds, lending humanity a further twist of variety."

NASA is indeed planning to send astronauts to the moon in about a decade, though it'll likely take longer than that for any nation to establish a permanent lunar settlement.

​Why it's so difficult to predict the future of technology

It's possible to use observations such as Moore's law to predict the general kinds of technological advances we should see in one, two or even five years. But, as tech analyst Andy Oram of O'Reilly Media is quoted as saying in a Pew Research Center report on the future of the internet, "Beyond five years, everything is wide open."

That's mainly because it's impossible to predict the many innovative ways in which the next generation might make use of those major advances.

Ed Lyell, a former member of the Colorado State Board of Education and Telecommunication Advisory Commission, elaborated on this idea in a report from the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project.

Peter Drucker wrote about the major transformations in history. The printing press, steam engine driven industrial revolution, and the then-emerging internet. His main point, that I share, is that it takes a generation, about 25 years, for the new 'thing' to real have its impact. At first society uses the new tool to better do what they have been doing. The generation raised with it finds totally new things and ways to do things. Thus we will be working in jobs that we cannot now see or define. Going through our work and play days doing things we cannot now envision or perhaps which only a few now envision, but have trouble getting others to see their vision.

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less

Where do atoms come from? Billions of years of cosmic fireworks.

The periodic table was a lot simpler at the beginning of the universe.

10 excerpts from Marcus Aurelius' 'Meditations' to unlock your inner Stoic

Great ideas in philosophy often come in dense packages. Then there is where the work of Marcus Aurelius.

(Getty Images)
Personal Growth
  • Meditations is a collection of the philosophical ideas of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
  • Written as a series of notes to himself, the book is much more readable than the dry philosophy most people are used to.
  • The advice he gave to himself 2,000 years ago is increasingly applicable in our hectic, stressed-out lives.
Keep reading Show less

An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
Surprising Science
  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.