April 24, 2013
When I was in second grade I made a diorama of a city of the future. This was the early 1990s and the diorama was supposed to represent the year 2000—somehow still lightyears away for a young kid during the George H. W. Bush administration. My little diorama city had cars that ran on a magnetic track, some tall awkwardly-shaped buildings, and a way of recycling rainwater that supposedly (at least in my juvenile mind) was great for the environment.
Children of the 20th century (present bloggers excluded, perhaps) had some fascinating visions for the future. They tended to be pretty optimistic, but each generation betrays its own fears for the world of tomorrow. In the 1960s, kids imagined flying cars and jetpacks, tempered by fears around the Cold War. In the 1970s, kids expected their future to be filled with robot maids and vacations to Mars, but they also worried about violence, the price of gas and skyrocketing unemployment.
In this film from 1983 we hear from American kids about their visions for cities of the future. The kids have constructed and drawn cities that include peoplemovers run by computer, underground shops and even horse-drawn transportation. The end of this clip shows a kid who warns that humanity will be destroyed if we don’t find an alternative to gasoline soon—a fear that made a lot of sense to children of the 1970s and 1980s, but maybe less so to children of the 1960s or 1990s.
What did you envision the world of the future looking like when you were a kid? How do you think the time in which you grew up influenced your outlook?
April 19, 2013
In the 1930s journalists from publications like the New York Times and Time magazine would regularly visit Nikola Tesla at his home on the 20th floor of the Hotel Governor Clinton in Manhattan. There the elderly Tesla would regale them with stories of his early days as an inventor and often opined about what was in store for the future.
Last year we looked at Tesla’s prediction that eugenics and the forced sterilization of criminals and other supposed undesirables would somehow purify the human race by the year 2100. Today we have more from that particular article which appeared in the February 9, 1935, issue of Liberty magazine. The article is unique because it wasn’t conducted as a simple interview like so many of Tesla’s other media appearances from this time, but rather is credited as “by Nikola Tesla, as told to George Sylvester Viereck.”
It’s not clear where this particular article was written, but Tesla’s friendly relationship with Viereck leads me to believe it may not have been at his Manhattan hotel home. Interviews with Tesla at this time would usually occur at the Hotel, but Tesla would sometimes dine with Viereck and his family at Viereck’s home on Riverside Drive, meaning that it’s possible they could have written it there.
Viereck attached himself to many important people of his time, conducting interviews with such notable figures as Albert Einstein, Teddy Roosevelt and even Adolf Hitler. As a German-American living in New York, Viereck was a rather notorious propagandist for the Nazi regime and was tried and imprisoned in 1942 for failing to register with the U.S. government as such. He was released from prison in 1947, a few years after Tesla’s death in 1943. It’s not clear if they had remained friends after the government started to become concerned about Viereck’s activities in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Tesla had interesting theories on religion, science and the nature of humanity which we’ll look at in a future post, but for the time being I’ve pulled some of the more interesting (and often accurate) predictions Tesla had for the future of the world.
Creation of the EPA
The creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was still 35 years away, but Tesla predicted a similar agency’s creation within a hundred years.
Hygiene, physical culture will be recognized branches of education and government. The Secretary of Hygiene or Physical Culture will be far more important in the cabinet of the President of the United States who holds office in the year 2035 than the Secretary of War. The pollution of our beaches such as exists today around New York City will seem as unthinkable to our children and grandchildren as life without plumbing seems to us. Our water supply will be far more carefully supervised, and only a lunatic will drink unsterilized water.
Education, War and the Newspapers of Tomorrow
Tesla imagined a world where new scientific discoveries, rather than war, would become a priority for humanity.
Today the most civilized countries of the world spend a maximum of their income on war and a minimum on education. The twenty-first century will reverse this order. It will be more glorious to fight against ignorance than to die on the field of battle. The discovery of a new scientific truth will be more important than the squabbles of diplomats. Even the newspapers of our own day are beginning to treat scientific discoveries and the creation of fresh philosophical concepts as news. The newspapers of the twenty-first century will give a mere ” stick ” in the back pages to accounts of crime or political controversies, but will headline on the front pages the proclamation of a new scientific hypothesis.
Health and Diet
Toward the end of Tesla’s life he had developed strange theories about the optimal human diet. He dined on little more than milk and honey in his final days, believing that this was the purest form of food. Tesla lost an enormous amount of weight and was looking quite ghastly by the early 1940s. This meager diet and his gaunt appearance contributed to the common misconception that he was penniless at the end of his life.
More people die or grow sick from polluted water than from coffee, tea, tobacco, and other stimulants. I myself eschew all stimulants. I also practically abstain from meat. I am convinced that within a century coffee, tea, and tobacco will be no longer in vogue. Alcohol, however, will still be used. It is not a stimulant but a veritable elixir of life. The abolition of stimulants will not come about forcibly. It will simply be no longer fashionable to poison the system with harmful ingredients. Bernarr Macfadden has shown how it is possible to provide palatable food based upon natural products such as milk, honey, and wheat. I believe that the food which is served today in his penny restaurants will be the basis of epicurean meals in the smartest banquet halls of the twenty-first century.
There will be enough wheat and wheat products to feed the entire world, including the teeming millions of China and India, now chronically on the verge of starvation. The earth is bountiful, and where her bounty fails, nitrogen drawn from the air will refertilize her womb. I developed a process for this purpose in 1900. It was perfected fourteen years later under the stress of war by German chemists.
Tesla’s work in robotics began in the late 1890s when he patented his remote-controlled boat, an invention that absolutely stunned onlookers at the 1898 Electrical Exhibition at Madison Square Garden.
At present we suffer from the derangement of our civilization because we have not yet completely adjusted ourselves to the machine age. The solution of our problems does not lie in destroying but in mastering the machine.
Innumerable activities still performed by human hands today will be performed by automatons. At this very moment scientists working in the laboratories of American universities are attempting to create what has been described as a ” thinking machine.” I anticipated this development.
I actually constructed ” robots.” Today the robot is an accepted fact, but the principle has not been pushed far enough. In the twenty-first century the robot will take the place which slave labor occupied in ancient civilization. There is no reason at all why most of this should not come to pass in less than a century, freeing mankind to pursue its higher aspirations.
Cheap Energy and the Management of Natural Resources
Long before the next century dawns, systematic reforestation and the scientific management of natural resources will have made an end of all devastating droughts, forest fires, and floods. The universal utilization of water power and its long-distance transmission will supply every household with cheap power and will dispense with the necessity of burning fuel. The struggle for existence being lessened, there should be development along ideal rather than material lines.
Tesla was a visionary whose many contributions to the world are being celebrated today more than ever. And while his idea of the perfect diet may have been a bit strange, he clearly understood many of the things that 21st century Americans would value (like clean air, clean food, and our “thinking machines”) as we stumble into the future.
March 29, 2013
This is the last in a 24-part series looking at every episode of “The Jetsons” TV show from the original 1962-63 season.
The final episode of the first season (and only season until a mid-1980s revival) of “The Jetsons” originally aired on March 17, 1963, and was titled “Elroy’s Mob.”
In the opening sequence of each episode of “The Jetsons” we see young Elroy dropped off at the Little Dipper School. Down he goes, dropped from the family car in his little bubble top flying saucer; his purple and green lunchbox in hand. Despite this, viewers of the show don’t get many peeks at what education in the future is supposed to look like. All of that changes in the last episode. Here the story revolves around Elroy’s performance in school and a bratty little kid named Kenny Countdown. It’s report card day (or report tape, this being the retrofuture and all) and the obnoxious Kenny swaps Elroy’s report tape (which has all A’s) for his own (which not only has four D’s and an F, but also an H).
Elroy brings his report tape home and naturally gets in trouble for getting such low marks. The confusion and anger are settled after Kenny’s dad makes him call the Jetsons on their videophone and explain himself. But by then the damage had been done. Elroy ran away from home with his dog Astro and proceeded to get mixed up with some common criminals. (Based on the last 24 episodes of the Jetsons you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking that maybe 50 percent of people in the year 2063 are mobsters, bank robbers and thieves.)
All of this trouble with the boys’ report tapes starts in the classroom, where Elroy’s teacher is passing out the tapes. According to little Elroy: “And eight trillion to the third power times the nuclear hypotenuse equals the total sum of the triganomic syndrome divided by the supersonic equation.” Elroy’s teacher, Ms. Brainmocker, praises little Elroy for his correct answer (perhaps gibberish is rewarded in the future?). But we have reason to believe that maybe Elroy’s answer isn’t correct. You see, his teacher is having a tough day because she’s malfunctioning. Because Ms. Brainmocker is a robot.
Aside from the vicious fights over racial segregation in our nation’s schools, one of the most pressing educational concerns of the 1950s and ’60s was that the flood of Baby Boomers entering school would bring the system to its knees. New schools were being built at an incredibly rapid pace all across the country, but there just didn’t seem to be enough teachers to go around. Were robot teachers and increased classroom automation the answers to alleviating this stress?
As Lawrence Derthick told the Associated press in 1959, the stresses of the baby boom would only get worse in coming years with more kids being born and entering school and the number of teachers unable to keep pace with this population explosion: “1959-60 will be the 15th consecutive year in which enrollment has increased. He added this trend, with attendant problems such as the teacher shortage, is likely to continue for many years.”
Other than the Jetsons, what visions of robot teachers and so-called automated learning were being promised for the school of the future?
Arthur Radebaugh‘s classic futuristic comic strip “Closer Than We Think” (1958-63) looked at the idea of automation in the classroom. Movies, “mechanical tabulating machines” and teachers instructing by videophone were all envisioned for the classroom of tomorrow. Each child sits in front of a console which has a screen displaying equations, multiple colored buttons and what looks like maybe a video camera or microphone mounted on the top-center of the desk.
From the May 25, 1958 edition of “Closer Than We Think”:
Tomorrow’s schools will be more crowded; teachers will be correspondingly fewer. Plans for a push-button school have already been proposed by Dr. Simon Ramo, science faculty member at California Institute of Technology. Teaching would be by means of sound movies and mechanical tabulating machines. Pupils would record attendance and answer questions by pushing buttons. Special machines would be “geared” for each individual student so he could advance as rapidly as his abilities warranted. Progress records, also kept by machine, would be periodically reviewed by skilled teachers, and personal help would be available when necessary.
But visions of automated classrooms and robot teachers weren’t exactly comforting predictions to many Americans. The idea of robot teachers in the classroom was so prevalent in the late 1950s (and so abhorrent to some) that the National Education Association had to assure Americans that new technology had the potential to improve education in the U.S., not destroy it.
In the August 24, 1960 Oakland Tribune the headline read “NEA Allays Parent Fears on Robot Teacher”:
How’d you like to have your child taught by a robot?
With the recent splurge of articles on teaching machines, computers and electronic marvels, the average mother may feel that her young child will feel more like a technician than a student this fall.
Not so, reassures the National Education Association. The NEA says it is true that teaching machines are on their way into the modern classroom and today’s youngsters will have a lot more mechanical aids than his parents.
But the emphasis will still be on aid — not primary instruction. In fact, the teaching machine is expected to make teaching more personal, rather than less.
In recent years, teachers have been working with large classes and there has been little time for individual attention. It is believed that the machines will free them from many time-consuming routine tasks and increase the hours they can spend with the pupil and his parents.
The article went on to cite a recent survey showing that there were at least 25 different teaching machines in use in classrooms around the United States. The piece also listed the numerous advantages, including instant feedback to the student about whether their answers were correct and the ability to move at one’s own pace without holding up (or feeling like you’re being held up by) the other students in a class.
The year after this episode first aired, the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair featured an “automated schoolmarm” at the Hall of Education. The desks and chairs were incredibly modern in design and included plastic molded chairs, a staple of mid-1960s futurism.
From the Official Souvenir Book: “The Autotutor, a U.S. Industries teaching machine, is tried out by visitors to the Hall of Education. It can even teach workers to use other automated machines.”
The December 5, 1965 edition of Athelstan Spilhaus‘s comic strip “Our New Age,” people reading the Sunday paper learned about humans’ ability to understand faster speech. This “compressed speech” was illustrated in the last panel of the strip as something that could easily be delivered by robot teacher of the future.
“Compressed speech” will help communications: from talking with pilots to teaching reading. Future school children may hear their lessons at twice the rate and understand them better!
Fast-talking humanoid robots have yet to enter the classroom, but as I’ve said before, we have another 50 years before we reach 2063.
The Jetson family and the Flintstone family would cross paths in the 1980s but there was also a joking nod to the connection between these two families in this episode. The “billionth rerun” of “The Flintstones” is showing on Kenny Countdown’s TV-watch. “How many times have I told you, no TV in the classroom! What do you have to say for yourself?” the robot teacher asks.
In keeping with its conservative leanings, viewers in 1963 are at least assured of one thing — that it doesn’t matter how much well-meaning tech you introduce into a school, kids of the future are still going to goof off.
October 12, 2012
The February 26, 1977 edition of the Herald-Star in Steubenville, Ohio published dozens of predictions for the year 2000 made by the people of Steubenville, a working class town in eastern Ohio (and the birthplace of Dean Martin). Some of these letters came from local middle school kids 10-12 years old and they provide a fascinating snapshot of the era; unique in their ability to reflect the pessimism stirred by a down economy and shaken faith in government in a post-Watergate, post-Vietnam War era, while also laying bare the irrational optimism of youth.
Many of the predictions are clearly influenced by the energy crisis, with many kids predicting there will be tough times ahead without access to cheap energy. However, there’s also optimism about space exploration and more than one reference to women as astronauts. Even though Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space in 1963, the first American woman (Sally Ride, who died this past summer) wouldn’t become an astronaut until 1983 — a full six years after these kids were making their predictions.
Interestingly, for being middle schoolers these kids sure seem concerned about high taxes. All of these kids are now between 45 and 48 years old and if you happen to be one of them, I’d love to hear from you. How do you feel reading your predictions from the vantage point of “the future”? How do you feel about the years to come?
Some of the letters from the February 26, 1977 Herald-Star appear below:
New Great Depression
I think that by the year 2000 we will be in a great depression. People are saying that we are running out of fuel. People will be using machines to do everything. And machines run on fuel. If we run out of fuel we won’t be able to run the machines and people will be out of jobs. So we can save fuel. Everybody should try to save by turning their heat to 68 degrees.
Debbie Six, 12 (Harding School)
We’ll Find More Oil
My view of the future is that we will find more gas and oil. No one will be poor and we all will live in peace! Also in the future, I think they will find some mechanical device that could make kitchens, dining rooms and etc. You’d just push a button and WHAM!! An instant living room or WHAM!! an instant milkshake. And that’s my view of the future!
Emma Conforti, Age 11 (Harding School)
Robot Maids, Robot Teachers
In the year 2000, we will have all round buildings. We will have a robot teacher, a robot maid, and all workers will be robots, too. We will have a pocket computer that has everything you can name. We will even be able to push a button to get anything you want!
Marty Bohen, Age 10 (Harding School)
Electric Cars and Ladies on the Moon
The year 2000 might have everybody walking instead of riding in their cars because there might be a gas shortage by then, and the cars give out a lot of pollution. Or there might even be electric cars instead of gas cars. The year 2000 may send ladies to the moon to explore and look and see if there are people living on the moon. And when you work you will push buttons and robots will come out and do the work for you. And there will be lower prices and taxes, I hope.
Tim Villies, 10 (Harding School)
Cures For Every Sickness
In 2000 I will marry a doctor and maybe have kids. I would like my husband to be a doctor because he would be helping people and would still want to be close to my family. As for a job for me I would help the crippled boys and girls. I would still like to have my same friends. And the most important thing for there to be is no wars and killings. I hope they could find cures for every sickness. And everybody will care for each other.
Monica Katsaros, Age 10 (Harding School)
The Last Five Years Haven’t Been So Good
I think 2000 will be a good year. I hope so because the last five years haven’t been so good with people dying and getting shot and murdered. I will be a grown man by then and will be married. I’ll probably have kids. I hope it will be a good America.
Michael Beal, Age 10 (Harding School)
In the year 2000, I think there won’t be any crimes of any kind. Shorter school days and lower taxes. I hope there will be lower taxes and no crimes because I’ll be 33 years old and I am sick of crimes and high taxes. I hope woman can be astronauts. I also hope there won’t be any pollution. And I also hope there will be town in space, where people live in space capsules.
Lora Ziarko, Age 10 (Harding School)
Cars That Float On Air
I think the future will be better than it is now. The pollution problem will be solved and there will be cars that float on air. I will be 34 in the year 2000. I will have a good job designing modern houses with push-button controls for everything to make it easier on everyone.
You could push a button and a bed would unfold from the wall. Everything would run on solar energy so you wouldn’t have to worry about the fuel shortage. You wouldn’t have to go to school. It would be on TV and living would be much easier for everyone.
John Vecchione, Age 11 (Harding School)
Young People Unemployed
I think by the year 2000 we will be riding bikes or driving solar-energized cars. By then more younger people will be unemployed. The price of gas will go up and so will the price of coal, silver, gold and oil.
Pietro Sincropi, 10 (Harding School)
Living on Mars
I think it is going to be an all-new world. People are going to be able to live on the moon and on Mars. Man is going to have computers to do the work for him. It is going to be a computer run world.
Tracy McCoy, Age 12 (Harding School)
Most of the World Will Be The United States of America
In the year 2000 I will be 34 years old. And actually I don’t think kids will have to go to school, because I believe that families will have computers to educate students. That’s all for education. I also believe that most of the world will all be the United States of America. I also believe that business and industry will be up 75 per cent. And as for culture, the Model T will be an old artifact. And, if you have children or grandchildren, they’ll all be more interested in culture than ever.
Mike Metzger, Age 10 3/4 (Harding School)
I Hope By Then Things Will Get Better
I think that everything by the year 2000 will be different. I hope the violence will all be stopped. I hope that the computers don’t take over people’s jobs. I hope by then things will get better.
Mary Gallo, Age 12 (Harding School)
June 27, 2012
In 1987, Bill Gates became the world’s youngest self-made billionaire, making the Forbes 400 Richest People in America list with a net worth of $1.25 billion, up from a measly $900 million the year before. Gates was just 32 years old and Microsoft Windows was still very much in its infancy, the operating system having been introduced just a couple of years earlier in November 1985. The world of 1987 was an exciting one for Gates and he saw even more exciting things ahead.
The January 1987 issue of OMNI magazine featured predictions from 14 “great minds” about what the future held; specifically the world of 20 years hence. Bill Gates predicted that the world of 2007 would be filled with flat panel displays, diverse forms of interactive entertainment, highly advanced voice recognition software and the ability to access vast quantities of information at the touch of a button — this was a capital I, capital A, Information Age.
Gates explains the typical home of 2007:
You’re sitting at home. You have a variety of image libraries that will contain, say, all the world’s best art. You’ll also have very cheap, flat panel-display devices throughout your house that will provide resolution so good that viewing a projection will be like looking at an original oil painting. It will be that realistic.
And the information that is accessed with the help of these displays will seem limitless. His idea of a world database sounds quite familiar to the 1981 predictions of Neil Ardley that we looked at a few months back.
In 20 years the Information Age will be here, absolutely. The dream of having the world database at your fingertips will have become a reality. You’ll even be able to call up a video show and place yourself in it. Today, if you want to create an image on a screen — a beach with the sun and waves — you’ve got to take a picture of it. But in 20 years you’ll literally construct your own images and scenes. You will have stored very high-level representations of what the sun looks like or how the wind blows. If you want a certain movie star to be sitting on a beach, kind of being lazy, believe me, you’ll be able to do that. People are already doing these things.
Gates predicts the perfection of a technology that has been around for decades, but one that many people of 2012 might associate with the name Siri: voice recognition.
Also, we will have serious voice recognition. I expect to wake up and say, “Show me some nice Da Vinci stuff,” and my ceiling, a high-resolution display, will show me what I want to see—or call up any sort of music or video. The world will be online, and you will be able to simulate just about anything.
I would love to see an iPhone commercial where Zooey Deschanel or Samuel L. Jackson say “Siri, show me some nice Da Vinci stuff.”
Gates continues by explaining that you’ll be able to realistically simulate racing formula cars in Daytona but worries what it might mean when people no longer have any reason to leave the house.
There’s a scary question to all this: How necessary will it be to go to real places or do real things? I mean, in 20 years we will synthesize reality. We’ll do it super-realistically and in real time. The machine will check its database and think of some stories you might tell, songs you might sing, jokes you might not have heard before. Today we simply synthesize flight simulation.
Gates believed that all of our technological advancements would also mean the end of credit cards and checks — old technologies replaced by voice and fingerprint recognition.
A lot of things are going to vanish from our lives. There will be a machine that keys off of physiological traits, whether it’s voiceprint or fingerprint, so credit cards and checks — pretty flimsy deals anyway — have to go.
Gates also welcomed the death of what he calls “passive entertainment.”
I hope passive entertainment will disappear. People want to get involved. It will really start to change the quality of entertainment because it will be so individualized. If you like Bill Cosby, then there will be a digital description of Cosby, his mannerisms and appearance, and you will build your own show from that.
Later in the article Gates is cautious and believes that we may eventually test just how much information the human mind can take.
Probably all this progress will be pretty disruptive stuff. We’ll really find out what the human brain can do, but we’ll have serious problems about the purpose of it all. We’re going to find out how curious we are and how much stimulation we can take. There have been experiments in which a monkey can choose to ingest cocaine and the monkey keeps going to create some pretty intense experiences through synthesized video-audio. Do you think you’ll reach a point of satisfaction when you no longer have to try something new or make something better? Life is really going to change; your ability to access satisfying experiences will be so large.
Gates ends his article by explaining that he doesn’t think we can really extrapolate with much accuracy from the year 1987.
But in the next 20 years you won’t be able to extrapolate the rate of progress from any previous pattern or curve because the new chips, these local intelligences that can process information, will cause a warp in what it’s possible to do. The leap will be unique. I can’t think of any equivalent phenomenon in history.
I’d argue that the vast majority of Gates’ predictions are actually fairly accurate. Here in the year 2012 we’ve seen many of his ideas about the world of 2007 become a reality. But perhaps the most interesting prediction of the bunch is about interactive entertainment. It’s fascinating that the internet has given rise to a remix culture that values slightly different modes of interaction — from the creation of a new video itself right down to the comments — though they’re typically unsanctioned by the original artists and rights holders.
For the time being, it would seem that modern copyright law makes these forms of remix entertainment targets for litigation — despite many obvious examples of fair use. And it’s not just remix culture, but the right to parody itself that has been under attack with the rise of the internet. An animated parody show about Bill Cosby himself, called House of Cosbys received a cease and desist letter in 2005 for even daring to imitate Bill Cosby’s voice and likeness. And if you’ve ever seen House of Cosbys you can probably attest that it’s likely not what Bill Gates had in mind when he was picturing the future.
Image above is a screenshot from this video: