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Isaac Asimov's 50-Year-Old Prediction for 2014 Is Viral and All Wrong (vice.com)
33 points by ahomescu1 1297 days ago | hide | past | web | 26 comments | favorite



Asimov imagined that humanity would decide to distribute the wealth accrued by the automatons, and the problem wouldn't be lost capital for workers, but lost meaning. Of course, in reality, it's both—and therefore a much, much bleaker scenario.

I don't think Asimov believed that "humanity would decide to distribute the wealth accrued by the automatons" at all. I think he believed (as I do) that automation reduces costs. Reduced cost is equivalent to increased wealth. If nobody has to work anymore because everything they need is close to free of charge, then what is the motivation to create or do anything? Hence a sense of pointlessness to life, etc.

Now obviously that is not the case in 2014, but the author's assumption that the reality is necessarily lost capital is unfounded. Any one industry that is displaced by automation examined in a tunnel will appear bleak, but in the long term, the consumers are likely better off because they become wealthier. I think that idea extrapolated outward to most every manufacturing industry is what Asimov was referring to.


You're talking about owners and consumers; where are the workers in this?


The point is that workers are no longer necessary because everything is automated.

I do not believe this will ever really be feasible because you still need lawyers, the government, police, teachers, etc. But I do believe that as time goes on more and more industries will become more efficient in production capability, rendering a large part of our society fairly useless in relation to productivity.


> The point is that workers are no longer necessary because everything is automated.

Sure, but what then happens to them? My guess is poverty and starvation, rather than lower costs for owners of means of production leading to giving means of production or products away for free. Why shouldn't this game of musical chairs keep going on until there are only a few dozen mansions and millions of golf courses and parks left? Or even machines optimizing humans away completely -- unless held on a tight leash, why shouldn't they? And if held on a tight leash, why would this not also extend to the disenfranchised masses, the then "useless eaters"? As much as I would like to believe it, everything else being the same I don't think automation and lower costs by themselves will necessarily lead to anything good.

Worker's rights weren't granted because they could be afforded, they had to be fought for. Same for segregation and other things. But these people had something to throw on the scales -- unnecessary workers will not have that. They will be at the mercy of others, and I do not see enough mercy to go around already, looking bleaker going forward. We already have elites that are pretty much above the law -- steal cell phones repeatedly, go to jail for a long time, start aggressive wars, get re-elected, be too big to fail, get bailed out. Once fooling people to get their approval is no longer required, I doubt the same classes will suddenly discover virtue.


The fuck? It's a simple question, no?


> Asimov [predicting the future]: The lucky few who can be involved in creative work of any sort will be the true elite of mankind, for they alone will do more than serve a machine.

The article says he got this wrong. I'm not so sure.


Yes, because artists and creative writers make up the upper echelon of our society, and Wall Street bankers, doctors, lawyers, politicians and business executives are staying at the bottom of the social ladder.

(To be fair, one can say bankers, lawyers, politicians and business execs are constantly engaging in creative work, as in creating new ways to circumvent any obstacles, including laws and regulations, to accumulate more wealth and influence ^_^)


Creatives go beyond the arts. People who are able to contribute new inventions and create new industries are creatives too. I think the point is that when technology becomes so advanced to make the cost of most everything trivial, you'd have to be pretty extraordinary to create any new invention of value.


Yes, people who are more innovative at their trade usually end up a step ahead, this has been true throughout our entire civilization and is not a new discovery.

I don't think that's what Asimov meant though, if you read the context of his prediction, I actually think he meant creative arts, since all "necessary" functions and jobs of the society would have been automated under his prediction.


The immediate extension of this line of thought (IMHO) is to ask what is "art" and what is "necessary". Architecture seems like an example of both.

Also, I think scientists definitely qualify as "creative workers", and will do so as long as there are unknowns in the universe (like how the brain works, what the universe is made of, stuff like that). For example, wouldn't you call Einstein's work "creative"?


I don't think Asimov necessarily meant 'elite' to equal 'upper echelon,' and I think we do a disservice in thinking of Wall Street bankers, at least, as in the 'upper echelon' of our society--they're just rich, not respected except in the fleeting respect for money.

(Though I share your ^_^)


Does it seem like cultural commentary has also improved in the last 50 years? I am young enough to not remember what it may have been like when Asimov wrote originally, but it strikes me that Vice is a relatively contemporary sort of a thing.

I would be interested in similar pieces from 50 years ago, looking back on 1914's view of 1964. So much has changed since then, though, and it seems like more has changed since 1964 than changed from 1914 to 1964. In particular, the 60s happened, but even after that, the Internet seems to have effected a fairly massive and seemingly permanent cultural shift. It might be too early to tell, but even the fact that someone posted this commentary, we all read it instantly, and then now we're discussing it here only hours later seems worlds away from the climate of 1964.


>Does it seem like cultural commentary has also improved in the last 50 years? I am young enough to not remember what it may have been like when Asimov wrote originally, but it strikes me that Vice is a relatively contemporary sort of a thing.

Cultural commentary? If anything, it declined a lot. Once you had people like Normal Mailer, Tom Wolf and Hunter Thompson doing cultural commentary, and many more besides.

Now it's mostly puff pieces, and 90% of it is about who said what on some bs tv show (and twerking).


90% of it was then as well, we just don't reread or remember those. You don't think that there are five cultural critics(whatever that includes) on par with Thompson or mailer? There might be more noise, but there's a lot more signal as well.


>* You don't think that there are five cultural critics(whatever that includes) on par with Thompson or Mailer?*

No, I really don't. Not to mention others -- heck, Hemingway himself was a reporter and cultural commentator too.


In America in the 60s, it was easy to believe that technology had solved the old problems of allocation of wealth between capital and labour once and for all. And maybe, in the long run, the techno-utopians are right. But we've still got a long way to go.

In the early 20th century, new manufacturing technologies triggered a burst of investment in capital-intensive production lines. With so much capital lying around, workers had secured a pretty good deal for themselves by 1964. But now those jobs have fled to Asia, and it sucks to be an unskilled American. Most new jobs are in the service sector, and they can disappear in a heartbeat.

Still, I'm not entirely pessimistic. Factory wages in China are rising...


"Asimov imagined that humanity would decide to distribute the wealth accrued by the automatons" - why would one think that this will ever happen?


A man like Asimov probably assumed that earthlings would develop a greater sense of community as civilization progressed. Also, in 1964 the US was a lot more liberal; LBJ and a massive democratic landslide had just taken control of the government and were on the verge of rolling out the Great Society programs. War on poverty, civil rights, social welfare programs, consumer protections, etc. He had no way of knowing that ongoing class struggle would push us back into this vast inequality, and rationalizations for it, that we're currently accustomed to.


And the Vietnam war, escalation of the draft, escalation of the war on drugs... Those liberals way back when weren't as wonderful as many would like to believe.


The point remains, it was a more optimistic time. It was only three years after the first people had been launched into space, and it seemed that the sky was no longer the limit. Asimov had no way of knowing that so much of our potential would be wasted on killing each other instead of on building the future he envisioned.


Well, it turned out that the only people wanting to distribute wealth are the ones who were not creating it. By the way, for some reason, neither Asimov nor his estate released his works to the public domain for the greater good.


Because at that point the whole world was believing much more in egalitarianism.

USSR and all its satelite countries for sure (however hypocritially for those at the top), but also the US, who had a booming labor movement, increased work rights and salaries for decades since the "new deal", etc.

But even the most hardcore believers in capitalism thought that automatons (industrial robots and such) will bring a society of less work and increased leisure -- for the same kind of salaries or purchasing power as before.

If you watch Star Trek for example, it's like some kind of egalitarian future world. Same as what's happening in a lot of science fiction books, Asimov's included.


We're a far way away from seeing what digitization and automation will eventually bring.

The Arab Spring would not have been possible if not for social media and the internet in general. It is a perfect example of machines helping the commoner. What then happens, when machines and software become powerful enough to automate even the more complex aspects of society?

It's not a matter of if, but when. We have to actually allow it to happen, but so far there has yet to be a society who hinders progress without crumbling in on itself. Are we to be so naive as to think we'll be the exception to the rule?


Keynes and other economists had similar thoughts, they thought we'd be working fewer hours in the future, as the benefits of automation would be distributed amongst all the workers.


So his predictions were not really that different to a 'cold reading' that a psychic comes up with - remember the hits and forget the misses.


>So his predictions were not really that different to a 'cold reading' that a psychic comes up with - remember the hits and forget the misses.

No, his predictions were quite accurate on the technological side, but for the societal side they were based on prevailing ideas of the day (which didn't necessarily apply later).

For example the "moon colony" would have been a very real possibility, if the US has kept the same determination of space exploration. It's not much harder than the ISS to setup something similar on the moon, just the budgets are not there.

As for his food prediction, we already have something similar ready to be commercially available, with Soylent. Not to mention that compared to his era's food (mostly home cooking, no HFCS, no prevailing fast food chains), today's food is 500% more processed and lab made.

Anyway, they are called "predictions". What did people expect? Genuine prophecy?




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