What path did sci-fi writers in the 50s think technology would take?

I was really struck by this little thought experiment over at the Pajama Guy blog in a post about Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics:

Back in the 40s and 50s, I suppose people were noticing so many mechanical problems being solved, while computing as we understand it was in a primitive stage. It would have been great if someone sat down the top sf writers in 1950 and asked them in what order will these three events happen? 1) The invention of a machine that can walk around your house picking up after you. 2) A spaceship that takes us to the moon and back. 3) A small machine that can beat you at chess.

I don’t really know what their answers would be, but I suppose that’s the point. I wish someone had had the foresight to ask that question at some early con.

It’s a slow news day, so let’s see if we can’t put together a similar question to ask sci-fi writers now in the comments… one that, fifty years from now, would really juxtapose the actual path of future technology with our own subconscious expectations of which way that path will wind.

Me Robot [Pajama Guy]

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21 Responses to What path did sci-fi writers in the 50s think technology would take?

  1. dainel says:

    Direct brain-to-computer linkage, as in brain implants? We already have that. They’re working, if only at a very basic, imperfect level.

    Starting in 2002, William Dobelle implanted 16 blind people. They didn’t get 20/20 vision. Enough to distinguish a doorway from the wall, but we have to start somewhere right? There have also been implants that lets you control a computer as well.

    But brain implants is not the only way. It’s like hooking up your scanner directly to the CPU chip on your computer. It’s risky and you risk damaging something critical. Why not hook up your computer to the nerves that runs all over your body?

  2. Takchess says:

    This is an interesting topic. I think alot of these predictions (from scientists) are listed in sites like
    http://www.edge.org/questioncenter.html
    the long now foundations,
    I imagine that there are some scifi readers who can point us to simalar links or books.

    My question would be

    What year would a genetically modified substance would cause a major negative unforeseen consequence?

  3. edgore says:

    @semiotix

    I think we will call the thirties “The good old days, when we ate our dogs, not our children, to survive” Good times.

  4. Dewi Morgan says:

    What a wonderful box of chocolates this thread is turning out to be!

    Complex nanotech machines available for cosmetic reasons (eg, keeping skin clean) for less than a week’s wage.

    Defeat of all symptoms of ageing (including neurodegenerative ailments) for less than a week’s wage.

    Complete replication of a machine by itself (à la reprap – but including all screws, electronic components, and supporting rods), for less than a week’s wage in materials.

    The flip side is, what dream of yesteryear will happen LAST (or, not at all, in our timeline?)

    Jetpacks/flying cars that aren’t suspended from either fixed or rotating wings (dangerous and impractical when we already have helicopters & planes)?

    Cyborgs for practical reasons, rather than medical or cosmetic ones (why go through a painful process of embedding rapidly outdated tech in your body, when we have already perfected “pocket” technology?)

    Zeppelins making a comeback?

  5. ptrourke says:

    Which advance do you think will come first:

    1. A permanent settlement on another astronomical body.

    2. Software that can translate one language into another so well that a fluent speaker of the target language would be unable to distinguish it from the work of another fluent human speaker of that language.

    3. A renewable energy source that can be made (through a generator + storage device or direct installation technology) portable and efficient enough to replace all fossil fuels.

    4. (Hey, I can’t help it.) The discovery of a signal of some kind from an extraterrestrial source.

  6. lava says:

    1 integration of cell phone/laptop functionality into our beings

    2 flying cars as day to day transportation

    3 world economy 2.0 where want eliminated and wealth/poverty rendered irrelevant

  7. Swampdog says:

    Funny, I watched Blade Runner this weekend and found myself thinking how they underestimated the computer advances and overestimated the mechanical advances (caveat: there’s still 10 years to go, the movie is set in 2019).

    As far as the genetic advances – well, we could maybe be there in 10 years. The climate impact – unending rain in LA – who knows?

  8. dculberson says:

    Feed children are a poor use of resources; it makes more sense to use the resources directly.

  9. Charlie Stross says:

    Which of these events do you suppose will happen in what order? (a) A general cure (or class of cures) for cancer that are roughly as effective as antibiotics were in the 1960s; (b) widespread deployment and use of driverless cars; (c) procedurally generated CGI animated movies (including procedurally generated characters and plot)?

  10. Gary61 says:

    My questions would be – which first?

    1. Hacked genome and genetically modified humans? (other than as gene-repair for existing ailments)

    2. Date of last use of fossil fuels (coal, petroleum, etc.)?

    3. 1st completely sustainable closed-system habitat? (usable as space station or moon/Mars habitat)

  11. shutz says:

    Which of these do you think will come first:

    1- Space flights as common as airplane flights are right now, along with the establishment of permanent settlements outside of Earth’s atmosphere.

    2- The development of teleportation and matter-replication technology, bringing cheap transportation and completely resolving world hunger (along with a major economic upheaval.)

    3- The complete and total abandonment of DRM by big media and tech companies.

    4- The Singularity.

    To me, 3 seems about as momentous and significant (and likely) as the other choices.

  12. Nile says:

    Pick a card, any card…

    1: Fusion
    2: Rejuvenation therapy
    3: Direct brain-to-computer linkage

    Things like a reusable spaceplane, a lunar colony, world peace and an end to poverty and hunger… These have all been possible since the end of the Second World War. We’re just not interested in them: not in any meaningful sense that would marshal the national and global resources to achieve them. I would therefore place them in the category of ‘alternative history’ or retro-futurism; insofar as there is little prospect of more than two of them being achieved, one might consider them better questions for a fantasy author than for Science Fiction writers.

    I won’t bother with a dystopian trio: the worst things we can imagine – like an engineered epidemic, chemical or radiological sterilisation of the planet, and so on – have also been possible for the last fifty years. What is worse that is *not currently possible* (but not beyond plausible technical progress and realisable resources) and therefore still in the realms of Science Fiction? Grey goo and the Vinge singularity are the only ones that spring to mind, although ‘loyalty virus’ reprogramming of the human mind is a worthy contender.

  13. okcalvin says:

    Which of these events do you suppose will happen in what order?
    1) Commercially-viable fusion generators?
    2) Floating cities with 5,000 min. permanent inhabitants?
    3) The first solar sail regatta?

  14. tp1024 says:

    1) A unified theory of the behavior of complex systems with limited particles/agents in physics, society and economy.

    2) Portable libraries of movies, pictures, music, books and whatever

    3) A reasonable system of public health and education.

    (Scrap that last one, I was dreaming again.)

  15. bbonyx says:

    Not interested in the order of things, but curious if anyone believes we will ever bridge the organic/silicon barrier and link directly with machines. Specifically for data replication of the human mind. This is the crux of The Singularity, but slightly to one side, IMHO.

    Realizing that once you can duplicate/download/upload/store data to/from an organic mind you will have created both easy teleportation (into a different body, of course), cloning (of the consciousness) and the real biggie: immortality (the body wears out, just copy yourself into a new one).

    It would render the worth bodies either substantially high or completely zero. After all, if you want to travel you wouldn’t take your body along, you’d just dump into an empty mind at your destination… so bodies themselves would just become shells, swapped around like shopping carts.
    But then again, being able to live a while in the body of a star athlete or extremely attractive person might be a vacation style in itself.

    I just wonder if that will ever happen.

  16. Joe Helfrich says:

    Bionic replacement parts for sensory organs.

    Automated cars.

    First manned expedition to the Asteroid belt.

  17. ridl says:

    1. Off-planet mining

    2. West Coast (Vancouver, BC –> LA ) bullet train

    3. De-desertification

    4. Talking dogs

    5. Latin@ President

  18. TheFirstMan says:

    1) A machine with an AI so advanced that it’s offered the same rights, and expected to assume the same responsibilities, as a human with a similar mechanical potential.

    2) Custom-produced organic lifeforms become so advanced that any malicious bacterial or viral disease is quickly contained and eliminated.

    3) World peace.

  19. TheFirstMan says:

    Or, you know, you could find some sci-fi writers that were around 50 years ago, and see how they think they would have responded. That would be undeniably cool.

  20. dculberson says:

    Which will happen first:

    1) The first emotion felt and expressed by software.

    2) The first fully self replicating machine.

    3) The first human born off planet.

  21. semiotix says:

    Oh, listen to all you Pollyannas. Here’s an appropriately gloomy list, so that future historians will know that at the onset of the Great Depression* we were all sad and pessimistic.

    Which happens first?

    (a) the permanent abandonment of a New York-scale city because of climate change

    (b) the next use of nuclear weapons (in anger, not as a test)

    (c) a new nonhuman, sentient, intelligent entity is created, and is sold to a human against its will

    * Until 1929, “Great Depression” meant what we now call the Panic of 1893. By the time this one is over, it’ll be the Great Depression, and that other one will be called “The Less-Than-Prosperous Thirties.”

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