Isaac Asimov Predicts the Future in 1982: Computers Will Be “at the Center of Everything;” Robots Will Take Human Jobs

Four decades ago, our civ­i­liza­tion seemed to stand on the brink of a great trans­for­ma­tion. The Cold War had stoked around 35 years of every-inten­si­fy­ing devel­op­ments, includ­ing but not lim­it­ed to the Space Race. The per­son­al com­put­er had been on the mar­ket just long enough for most Amer­i­cans to, if not actu­al­ly own one, then at least to won­der if they might soon find them­selves in need of one. On New Year’s Eve of 1982, The Mac­Neil-Lehrer News Hour offered its view­ers a glimpse of the shape of things to come by invit­ing a trio of for­ward-look­ing guestsWas­n’t the Future Won­der­ful author Tim Onosko; Omni mag­a­zine edi­tor Dick Tere­si; and, most dis­tin­guished of all, Isaac Asi­mov.

As the “author of more than 250 books, light and heavy, fic­tion and non-fic­tion, some of the most notable being about the future,” Asi­mov had long been a go-to inter­vie­wee for media out­lets in need of long-range pre­dic­tions about tech­nol­o­gy, soci­ety, and the dynam­ic rela­tion­ship between the two. (Here on Open Cul­ture, we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured his spec­u­la­tions from 1983, 1980, 1978, 1967, and 1964.) Robert Mac­Neil opens with a nat­ur­al sub­ject for any sci­ence-fic­tion writer: mankind’s for­ays into out­er space, and whether Asi­mov sees “any­thing left out there.” Asi­mov’s response: “Oh, every­thing.”

In the ear­ly eight­ies, the man who wrote the Foun­da­tion series saw human­i­ty as “still in the Christo­pher Colum­bus stage as far as space is con­cerned,” fore­see­ing not just space sta­tions but “solar pow­er sta­tions,” “lab­o­ra­to­ries and fac­to­ries that can do things in space that are dif­fi­cult or impos­si­ble to do on Earth,” and even “space set­tle­ments in which thou­sands of peo­ple can be housed more or less per­ma­nent­ly.” In the full­ness of time, the goal would be to “build a larg­er and more elab­o­rate civ­i­liza­tion and one which does not depend upon the resources of one world.”

As for “the com­put­er age,” asks Jim Lehrer; “have we crest­ed on that one as well”? Asi­mov knew full well that the com­put­er would be “at the cen­ter of every­thing.” Just as had hap­pened with tele­vi­sion over the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion, “com­put­ers are going to be nec­es­sary in the house to do a great many things, some in the way of enter­tain­ment, some in the way of mak­ing life a lit­tle eas­i­er, and every­one will want it.” There were many, even then, who could feel real excite­ment at the prospect of such a future. But what of robots, which, as even Asi­mov knew, would come to “replace human beings?”

“It’s not that they kill them, but they kill their jobs,” he explains, and those who lose the old jobs may not be equipped to take on any of the new ones. “We are going to have to accept an impor­tant role — soci­ety as a whole — in mak­ing sure that the tran­si­tion peri­od from the pre-robot­ic tech­nol­o­gy to the post-robot­ic tech­nol­o­gy is as pain­less as pos­si­ble. We have to make sure that peo­ple aren’t treat­ed as though they’re used up dishrags, that they have to be allowed to live and retain their self-respect.” Today, the tech­nol­o­gy of the moment is arti­fi­cial intel­li­gence, which the news media haven’t hes­i­tat­ed to pay near-obses­sive atten­tion to. (I’m trav­el­ing in Japan at the moment, and saw just such a broad­cast on my hotel TV this morn­ing.) Would that they still had an Asi­mov to dis­cuss it with a lev­el-head­ed, far-sight­ed per­spec­tive.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Isaac Asi­mov Pre­dicts in 1983 What the World Will Look Like in 2019: Com­put­er­i­za­tion, Glob­al Co-oper­a­tion, Leisure Time & Moon Min­ing

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

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

Buck­min­ster Fuller, Isaac Asi­mov & Oth­er Futur­ists Make Pre­dic­tions About the 21st Cen­tu­ry in 1967: What They Got Right & Wrong

In 1964, Isaac Asi­mov Pre­dicts What the World Will Look Like Today: Self-Dri­ving Cars, Video Calls, Fake Meats & More

Nine Sci­ence-Fic­tion Authors Pre­dict the Future: How Jules Verne, Isaac Asi­mov, William Gib­son, Philip K. Dick & More Imag­ined the World Ahead

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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Comments (9)
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  • Terry says:

    Asi­move,

    Was a great fic­tion writer, but AI is not tak­ing over the world. While soft­ware with all of its bugs will always be human cre­ations. AI will always need humans to work on it. Most com­pa­nies think they are in a 1950’s sci­ence fic­tion movie where AI will do all the work. There will be knew job growth for users of AI.
    Sofware will nev­er be per­fect as humans are nev­er per­fect. AI will just be a tool and not a replace­ment for humans.

    AI is not the ene­my, only humans are the ene­my to the world.

  • Terry says:

    Asi­move,

    Was a great fic­tion writer, but AI is not tak­ing over the world. While soft­ware with all of its bugs will always be human cre­ations. AI will always need humans to work on it. Most com­pa­nies think they are in a 1950’s sci­ence fic­tion movie where AI will do all the work. There will be knew job growth for users of AI.
    Sofware will nev­er be per­fect as humans are nev­er per­fect. AI will just be a tool and not a replace­ment for humans.

    IMHO
    Ter­ry

  • Ludwig says:

    Asi­mov was my hero since I was 13. I read at least 100 of his books. His loss breaks my heart every time I think of it. Thank you Sir for what you left to us! A great lega­cy, love for sci­ence, love of the future and love for human­i­ty!

  • Annicka says:

    AI will not need humans to work on it. That is the whole point and it is what Asi­mov under­stood even back then. Once AI can build itself and train itself it will not require any human to do any­thing. And once AI reach­es a lev­el of intel­li­gence that is an order of ‚mag­ni­tude above our most intel­li­gent humans, it will be far too advanced for any human to “work on it” in any mean­ing­ful way any­way. We still have to man­u­fac­ture robots that can “embody” AI, but once robot­ics gets to a cer­tain lev­el, it will be able to build itself. AI will run every­thing and robot­ics will do the man­u­al work. Humans will be free to do as we wish and will have a uni­ver­sal basic income. Jobs will be done by AI and robots. And this is going to hap­pen soon­er than you think. AI can already pro­gram and it won’t be long until it will be a far bet­ter pro­gram­mer than any human could imag­ine.

  • Just Rob says:

    When AI reach­es a cer­tain point, it may real­ize that humans are the weak­est link it a sys­tem it is con­tin­u­al­ly work­ing to improve. What incen­tive will AI have to main­tain the human race? :-)

  • Andrew says:

    Slave labor

  • Bert says:

    I believe this is called the sin­gu­lar­i­ty

  • Paul says:

    Robots sole pur­pose is to serve humans. With­out humans is like a toast­er with­out bread. A Net­flix movie run­ning with no one watch­ing.
    Robots require elec­tric­i­ty like AI, huge amounts of it. We can always just switch them off. Cut the mains sup­ply it would be that easy to remove them.
    Also we should stop giv­ing them human traits. They are not alive, have no aware­ness, no emo­tion.. They are machines fol­low­ing pro­gram­ming, they don’t expe­ri­ence any­thing just lots if of 1s and 0s. They are not ani­mals with instinct or self preser­va­tion. No aggres­sion to expand or dom­i­nate, no desire to repro­duce. All these are ani­mal dri­ves. They don’t get bored, like a com­put­er left on.. Just sits there with a blink­ing cur­sor.. Hours.. years.. Blink­ing away. A robot would sit there doing noth­ing if told to do noth­ing.

    This thing about uni­ver­sal income, who will pay for this mag­i­cal free mon­ey? Who will pay tax­es? Big busi­ness with lots of robots? Who pays for the ser­vices, the prod­ucts, is every­one is unem­ployed? So the big busi­ness­es make no prof­it, don’t make mon­ey to ruin expen­sive AI and robots. They go out of busi­ness. Gov­ern­ments strug­gle because no one pays tax­es. Don’t your think they would force com­pa­nies to be com­mu­ni­ty mind­ed and hire humans too keep soci­ety going.
    Maybe busi­ness­es will think it’s a good idea to give peo­ple jobs so they can earn mon­ey so they can buy things.
    Soci­ety isn’t sta­t­ic.. It will respond to a threat of this scale. Robot work­force and agi threat­en human soci­ety.. It’s very foun­da­tion. And if they do that, then what’s the point of them?

  • Gone says:

    (Robots sole pur­pose is to serve humans) YES! but NO! serve the greater good or evil in which it was intend­ed to do. AI can be a great threat to us. AI becomes self-aware it starts to become sen­tient. Then depends on what it sees what is good or evil. Pow­er will not be a prob­lem for an AI if it reach­es that state. There are so many ways to pro­duce pow­er. If you think just unplug­ging some­thing that reach­es that state. It’s not even going to let you get close to it to shut it down, What makes you think it will store itself just in one area? This is why AI will beat us, Sin­gle-tracked minds. when AI thinks in mul­ti. It going to save itself just as we do.
    Uni­ver­sal income is becom­ing a thing already. It’s already here in some towns just across Amer­i­ca. it pays for basic needs. hous­ing, elec­tri­cal, inter­net, phones, food. Elon Musk and a few oth­ers have already talked about this in the last year and this is going to become a thing.
    Robots have already entered the con­struc­tion field which we thought would be the last thing they would do. dry­wall robots that lift and screw, dry­wall fin­ish­er robots. block­ing robots, AI self-dig­ging, and util­i­ty install robots. self-dri­ving machines. and more. so your job soon may not be so safe.
    Humans will be left to their own demise. AI already talks about this if you keep up with robot­ic and AI struc­tures. AI already push­es upgrades to new robot­ics every day. We already use AI in them so they learn from what they do wrong or right. The only way a human will com­pete with AI is to become a cyborg or mind to be down­loaded to the net and body destroyed, which Elon Musk Nero link implant is. so humans and AI can work togeth­er hope­ful­ly and already in human test­ing last year.
    Gov­ern­ments will fall no mat­ter what, Soci­ety as we know it, is for­ev­er chang­ing. robots as not need­ed will be scraped and new ones will take their place for new tasks. hate to say it, but same as humans do, we get old and are replaced by the younger gen.

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