Isaac Asimov Predicts the Future on The David Letterman Show (1980)

In 1980, Newsweek pub­lished a can­tan­ker­ous and sad­ly on-the-nose diag­no­sis of the Unit­ed States’ “cult of igno­rance” — writ­ten by one Isaac Asi­mov, “pro­fes­sor of bio­chem­istry at Boston Uni­ver­si­ty School of Med­i­cine” and “author of 212 books, most of them on var­i­ous sci­en­tif­ic sub­jects for the gen­er­al pub­lic.” Giv­en this intim­i­dat­ing biog­ra­phy, and the fact that Asi­mov believed that “hard­ly any­one can read” in the U.S., we might expect the sci­ence fic­tion leg­end want­ed noth­ing to do with tele­vi­sion. We would be wrong.

Asi­mov seemed to love TV. In 1987, for exam­ple, the four-time Hugo win­ner wrote a humor­ous­ly crit­i­cal take­down of ALF for TV Guide. And he was a con­sum­mate TV enter­tain­er, mak­ing his first major TV appear­ance on John­ny Carson’s Tonight Show in 1968, appear­ing four times on The Mike Dou­glas Show in the next few years, and giv­ing his final tele­vi­sion inter­views to Dick Cavett in a two-part series in 1989. The same year he wrote about America’s cult of igno­rance, he appeared on The David Let­ter­man show to crack wise with the biggest wiseass on TV. Asi­mov held his own and then some.

“Asi­mov, six­ty in this video, proves him­self a nat­ur­al come­di­an,” writes the Melville House blog; “Let­ter­man, thir­ty-three, can bare­ly keep up.” Sure­ly Asimov’s ban­ter had noth­ing to do with The David Let­ter­man Show’s can­cel­la­tion three days lat­er. (Let­ter­man was back on the air for eleven sea­sons two years lat­er.) Their inter­view ranges wide­ly from pop cul­ture (Asi­mov con­fess­es his appre­ci­a­tion for both Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back) to “the future of med­i­cine, space explo­ration, hope for mankind, and much more,” Vic Sage writes at Pop Cul­ture Retro­ra­ma.

Asimov’s dry deliv­ery — honed dur­ing his Eng­lish-and-Yid­dish-speak­ing Brook­lyn child­hood — is delight­ful. But the writer, teacher, and sci­en­tist hasn’t only come on TV to crack jokes, pro­mote a book, and flaunt his mut­ton­chops. He wants to edu­cate his fel­low Amer­i­cans about the state of the future. (His Newsweek bio was out­dat­ed. As Let­ter­man says, his appear­ance marked the pub­li­ca­tion of his 221st book.) Like Hari Sel­don, the hero of his 1951 nov­el Foun­da­tion, Asi­mov felt con­fi­dent in his abil­i­ty to pre­dict the course of human progress (or regress, as the case may be).

He also felt con­fi­dent answer­ing ques­tions about what to do with out­er space, and where to “put more men,” as Let­ter­man says. His rec­om­men­da­tion to build “fac­to­ries” may strike us as a banal fore­run­ner of Jeff Bezos’ even more banal plans for office parks in space. Asi­mov boasts of the vision he had of “pock­et com­put­ers” in 1950 — hard­ly a real­i­ty in 1980. Dave com­plains about how com­pli­cat­ed com­put­ers are, and Asi­mov accu­rate­ly pre­dicts that as tech­nol­o­gy catch­es up, they will get sim­pler to use. “But these are lit­tle things,” he says. “I nev­er tried to pre­dict. I just tried to write sto­ries to pay my way through col­lege.” He must have paid it sev­er­al times over, and he seemed to get more right than he got wrong. See more of Asi­mov’s pre­dic­tions in the links below.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Isaac Asi­mov Pre­dicts the Future of Civilization–and Rec­om­mends Ways to Ensure That It Sur­vives (1978)

Free: Isaac Asimov’s Epic Foun­da­tion Tril­o­gy Dra­ma­tized in Clas­sic Audio

Isaac Asi­mov Pre­dicts in 1964 What the World Will Look Like Today

Isaac Asi­mov Laments the “Cult of Igno­rance” in the Unit­ed States (1980)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (18)
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  • D.A. Trappert says:

    Amaz­ing to see how calm and intel­li­gent Let­ter­man was in 1980. As he got more pop­u­lar, it got to the point where he seemed to be bored with his guests and just out to amuse him­self. Asi­mov also appeared on oth­er TV shows, once I believe along with Har­lan Elli­son on Tom Sny­der’ show. It’s so sad Asi­mov did­n’t live to 100. We could use more like him today, when igno­rance and anti-Sci­ence seem to have tak­en over.

  • Arlene Stern says:

    I’m a rabid Isaac Asi­mov­fan. A he was an amaz­ing prophet. His prophet­ic vision in 1980 on the David Let­ter­man show start­ed to come fruition in 2015 when Don­ald Trump ran for pres­i­dent. And igno­rance and sheer stu­pid­i­ty began to be glo­ri­fied. Mind­less and brain­less slugs and oth­er crea­tures began to crawl and to slith­er forth from the swamps that Trump kept his promise to clean. We now see that these filthy beasts com­ing forth from them are spread­ing across our coun­try. Poi­son­ing every­thing and every­one that they come into con­tact with.

  • Adrienne Boswell says:

    When Trump ran I could­n’t help think­ing he was The Mule.

  • Jack Babbel says:

    Got­ta love with videos from The Donz pop up in unex­pect­ed places!

  • Mochael says:

    “start­ed to come fruition in 2015 when Don­ald Trump ran for pres­i­dent. And igno­rance and sheer stu­pid­i­ty began to be glo­ri­fied. Mind­less and brain­less slugs and oth­er crea­tures began to crawl and to slith­er forth from the swamps”

    Quite true!

    “that Trump kept his promise to clean.”

    Wait, what?

  • Anthony says:

    Was com­plet­ed with Biden and it is scary as hell!!

  • Orange Man says:

    Orange Man bad

  • Steven Garrison says:

    I recent­ly came to aquire the knowl­edge of Issac Asi­mov being a per­son. In that acqui­si­tion I learned he had an idea about a positron­ic brain. I would like to know what the best course of action to take would be for a per­son who has dis­cov­ered a way to make it pos­si­ble. I has no for­mal train­ing past basic elec­tron­ics and yet have pro­duced many of the elec­tron­ic impulse engines required for the func­tion on minecraft. Caused a full sys­tem crash on my Nin­ten­do Switch lite with 2 of my par­tial thought matri­ces. I see parts I need to make in sys­tem­at­ic flash­ing men­tal images that come in waves when new infor­ma­tion is pre­sent­ed to me. As they occur I am also pre­sent­ed with a visu­al men­tal walk­through of how to accom­plish the task of cre­ation in sev­er­al dif­fer­ent ways, all of which work. I have a lot of infor­ma­tion that I would like to trans­late into what our cur­rent math sys­tems pro­vide. Where do I start? I need help with this as I believe my goal of cre­at­ing a Positron­ic Brain will be the goal that con­sumes the rest of my life.
    In the pur­suit of more infor­ma­tion, I would like to know as much infor­ma­tion about all of his writ­ten works. Read­ing a per­sons words are the same as expe­ri­enc­ing, in part, the writ­ers mind. If I can expe­ri­ence the mind of Issac Asi­mov, even in part, I know I can do his dream prop­er jus­tice. What are some good links alter­na­tive to the already pro­vid­ed web links here? I will also be look­ing those up short­ly.

  • Mike says:

    That was hap­pen­ing well before Trump. The inter­net always cel­e­brat­ed the stu­pid­i­ty of peo­ple and car­ried their voic­es far and wide.

  • Edward Murphy says:

    This guy is copy­ing Sen­a­tor Daniel Patrick Mon­a­han who preached this for years in the sev­en­ties.

  • Agnone says:

    It nev­er fails. There will always be a few clowns, often many, who will find a way to use the name of Trump as a reply to lit­er­al­ly any­thing. You peo­ple have allowed Trump to pur­chase prime real estate in your head and he has erect­ed a mas­sive Trump Tow­er in there and he con­trols every­thing you think, say and do. You are owned by Trump. You are a Trumpite.

  • TGP says:

    Right on!

  • Rich says:

    They drank the orange cool aid and it’s

  • OC says:

    Just curi­ous, does any­one know who is send­ing a lot of vis­i­tors to this page at this moment?

    Open Cul­ture

  • Anonymous says:

    Google now news feed

  • Steven Reyes says:

    MJT, Gosar, etc, etc, the cult of stu­pid. Nev­er mind the racism.…wtf. Where are we head­ed ?
    Per­son­al­ly I think, as far as cli­mate change goes, this civ­i­liza­tion is doomed, not to extinc­tion lev­el, just hell on earth. And what is the end game for these trump­ists ?
    Jim­my Kim­mel made a joke about the biggest meth bust in his­to­ry, 50 mil­lion (? )
    Here’s what 50M meth looks like: pic­ture of Jan. 6 riot­ers…

  • Michael Sacco says:

    He is the Muke!!! I thought this too!!!

  • Howard White says:

    But Asi­mov put his thoughts down in writ­ing in his books ! DPM may have spo­ken to Chris Matthews. about his thoughts but nev­er shared them with us. Love C. Matthews !

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