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Subject: A vision of the future? Not...yet. Date: Sun, 31 Oct 1999 08:30:10 -0500
Lost in space
Where are the robots, the moon colonies, the domed cities, and automated highways predicted 40 years ago?
By Scot Lehigh, Globe Staff, 10/31/99
tanding here on the cusp of the new millennium, peering back at the predictions of the last half century, one can't escape an obvious conclusion: Some dastardly time bandit made off with our future.
Oh, the dazzling modern amenities that were supposed to have arrived by now.
Underwater settlements. Domed cities. Space colonies.
Automated highways. Hover trains. Endless energy.
Smart homes and smarter offices. Robot maids. Even universal health care.
Such were the predictions proffered in the last half century for life by the year 2000. And they weren't the pipe dreams of harebrains and crackpots, but the best guesses from supposed specialists: engineers and scientists, futurologists, technologists, and professional trend-watchers.
But just as in Michael Crichton's ''Westworld,'' somewhere, something went wrong ... wrong ... wrong.
When it comes to forecasting the future, two maladies commonly distort the gaze: too little imagination or too much.
A prime example of the former is Charles Duell, who in 1899, as commissioner of the US Office of Patents, opined that ''everything that can be invented has been invented.''
A more common failing, however, is an excess of imaginative power. Futurologists, tingling with a love of technology and a sense of endless possibilities, are particularly susceptible.
At the New York World's Fair of 1964-65, the undersea city was one of the promised marvels in General Motors' popular Futurama II. At about the same time, Alister Hardy, an Oxford marine biologist, declared that in 20 years, men would be using aquatic tractors to cultivate crops on the sea floor, while divers would stay for days in permanent undersea habitations.
Others looked toward the heavens, found the sky illimitable, and promptly got lost in space.
Now predicting is not rocket science - but rocket scientists have long been predictors. We would have a manned station on the moon by 1984, Wernher von Braun foretold in 1964; 50,000 people would live and work in space by 2000, thought Robert Truax, another rocket pioneer.
Futurologist Roy Mason figured 1989 was a more accurate date for that, while Timothy Leary, then a professor at Harvard, felt man would begin a massive migration to High Orbital Mini Earths, or HOMES, in 1995, by which time Drew University professor Roger Williams Wescott expected we'd have satellite factories producing goods and bouncing solar power to earth via microwave.
Arthur C. Clarke, the science and science-fiction writer, foresaw a manned lunar base by 1995; science writer Trudy Bell predicted the Soviets (remember them?) would colonize the moon by then.
A mere moon colony? Why, Gerald Feinberg, a Columbia University physicist, said we'd build an artificial planet by 2000 - and see the birth of the first extraterrestrial tots.
How to transport goods to space? Nothing as fanciful as ''Beam me up, Scotty,'' certainly. How about the space elevator, a device that would operate on a cable running, like a giant beanstalk, up through the clouds to a geosynchronous satellite?
That was a nostrum Clarke tried to popularize in the 1970s and '80s.
''Clearly, if a satellite can remain poised forever above the same spot on
the equator, then, in principle, it should be possible to lower a cable from orbit to Earth, performing an Indian rope trick 36,000 kilometers high,'' he wrote. Cagily vague on the time line, he said it would happen ''50 years after everyone stops laughing.''
One who was not chuckling was inventor and designer Buckminster Fuller, who noted that as early as 1951 he had proposed a man-made space ring encircling the earth above the equator. To travel, one would simply ascend to the ring-bridge, wait for the earth to turn below, and then drop back to the desired location.
Fuller's fecund imagination also saw the virtual reinvention of the land-based city under climate-controlling domes. New York City was a likely candidate, he said, as was East St. Louis.
That idea caught the fancy of other wool-gatherers, and Robert Kenedi, a Scottish professor of bioengineering, predicted those environmentally controlled towns by 1984.
Clarke's time line for future progress, outlined in 1964, gives some idea of the perils of prognostication. A half decade out, he was doing pretty well, missing by only one year with his estimate when he predicted a manned lunar landing by 1970.
But what of his fusion delusion: power by combining atom nuclei by 1990? Any number of more cautious soothsayers thought 1995 to 2000 was a likelier date, and Clarke later revised his estimate to that date for commercial application.
What to do while we wait for the promise of unlimited power?
Enter, stage north, the huge chunks of glacial ice that, futurologists Marvin Cetron and Thomas O'Toole predicted in their 1982 book, ''Encounters with the Future,'' would be towed south to remedy the severe water shortages they foretold for the 1990s.
Those icebergs, declared the diving duo, would also ''be used as floating islands where the country can locate breeder power reactors, using the melting glacial ice to cool down the reactors while they produce enough electricity to light up entire coast regions.''
Alas, once the breeder went bust and the cold-water-fusion craze of 1989 turned out to be the scientific equivalent of a misplaced Alka Seltzer bubbling away in a beaker, hope for power too cheap to meter receded to more distant days.
Nor have we eliminated hurricanes and typhoons, as Roger Revelle, director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, thought we would. And if we're to have complete weather control by 2010, as Clarke thought, science had best get busy in the lab.
Futurologists took to the road with their predictions. Automated highways were much in imaginary vogue, and we're not talking a simple ''smart pass'' here, but systems in which drivers would surrender their cars to remote roadway control, and let the central computer set the speed.
Worried about malfunctions? No need to be. By 1995 at the latest, Sperry Corp. futurist Earl Joseph said, a new car would have computerized collision-avoidance hardware to keep it ''virtually accidentless throughout its life.''
As for steel wheels on steel rails? Gone the way of the horse and buggy. The hovercraft subway was the wave of the future, with cars that cruised on an air cushion, said Christopher Cockerell. (As inventor of the hovercraft, Cockerell can perhaps be forgiven his self-interested optimism.)
And for cross-country travel, there was Rand physicist Robert Salter's
''planetron,'' an underground mag-lev train that would zoom from New York to
Los Angeles in about an hour.
And there was going to be plenty of time for travel. Life was supposed to become more leisurely, not more hectic. ''There will be shorter workweeks, 32 hours a week by 1990 and 25 hours a week by 2000,'' wrote Cetron and O'Toole. A common idea, the truncated workweek, and the reasons were obvious: computers and robots.
As office help, these machines were supposed to be microelectronic Radar O'Reillys. Mention a meeting and a topic, the authors confidently predicted, and your computer would log the appointment, find the address, calculate your travel time, assemble a dossier of relevant information - and remind you when promptness required your departure.
Keyboards would become a thing of the past, replaced by ''direct speech communication'' with your machine, predicted computer expert Malcolm Peltu.
And technology wasn't just for the workplace. Writing in the 1960s, British
engineering specialist Meredith Thring envisioned, within 20 years, a
''robot slave'' that could ''carry out half a dozen or more standard
operations (for example, scrubbing, sweeping, and dusting, washing-up, laying tables, making beds). ''
In more modern predictions, add shoveling the snow, cutting the grass, cooking meals, and acting as a sympathetic companion to the elderly. (''Please Pro-vide Me With More In-for-ma-tion About Your Lin-e-ar De-scen-dants One Gen-e -ra-tion Re-moved.'')
Others thought robots would become so smart they'd teach our children, whip us at Scrabble, and be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. And, horror of microelectronic horrors, perhaps eventually they would grow so haughty about their obvious superiority that they would subject us to cyber-tude and cyber-snubs. (That's a role Gen X has graciously agreed to assume while we wait upon technology.)
Society's past difficulty with prognostication has not discouraged a new crop of futurists. ''Predictions for the Next Millennium,'' a 1998 book surveying some of today's best-known citizens, is full of the same sort of notions: spaceships, robots, orbiting cities, colonies on Mars.
But until then, we will have to make do. So if you're living in a
not-so-smart home, muddling along without a mechanical maid, and driving a
car or taking a subway not so very unlike those of a decade ago to an office
where you're endlessly tap-tap-tapping on the same old keys of yore, well,
feel free to lament your lost future. And remember the words of Yogi Berra:
''It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future.''
Editor's note: Information for this essay was drawn from a dozen books about
the future or futurology, including, prominently, ''The Book of
Predictions,''``1984 and Beyond,'' ''Encounters with the Future,'' and
This story ran on page E01 of the Boston Globe on 10/31/99. © Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.