The Dangers of Prediction

BIS Odyssey

Arthur C Clarke’s early predictions of space exploration. This edition published by Four Square 1962. Cover art by Roy Camon.

Attempting to predict the future is often seen as one of the key roles of science fiction.  It’s a subject which we consider in the latest edition of Odyssey.  In a lecture in 1974, the author Isaac Asimov observed that one of the reasons why the genre originally became so popular was probably because it provided the opportunity to appreciate the great things yet to come for those readers who wouldn’t live long enough to see them for real.  It’s had a chequered history on this score, though.

One of the obvious predictions that is, unfortunately, showing little sign of coming true is in the area of robotics.  Asimov’s excellent short stories first collected together in I, Robot in 1950 were set in a twenty-first century where thinking, functioning robots are everyday items.  The infamous HAL 9000 computer in Arthur C Clarke’s 2001 was “born” in 1997 and showed a level of artificial intelligence superior to the humans around him.  Perhaps, fortunately, there’s no sign of anything like that yet.

Space travel got off to a good start in the 1960s, but then started to falter, with still little chance of interplanetary travel in the immediate future.  Clarke’s 1951 novel Prelude to Space was a pretty realistic approach to the subject at the time, and is still one of the most powerful stories advocating humanity’s conquest of space.  However, many of the novels envisaging travel throughout the Solar System by the early twenty-first century have been proved wrong – we won’t be seeing the first colonisation of Mars by 2026 as Kim Stanley Robinson suggested in Red Mars published in 1993.

In The Great Unknown (Scientific American, September 2016), Robinson explains that science fiction writers are no better than anyone else at predicting the future, but tend to focus on our current preoccupations when considering what might happen.  He refers to predictions which Asimov made in 1964 about life in 2014, concluding that he was right about half of the time.  Writers tend to be modest in their prognostications, but he expresses his own doubts regarding many of the more extravagant ideas concerning interstellar travel or the future dominance of artificial intelligence.

Science pundits have not been so good at predictions either, and we tend to think that they always underestimate the potential of scientific developments to make rapid progress.  Who can forget the comment from the Astronomer Royal Sir Richard Woolley in 1956, just a year before Sputnik, that space travel was “utter bilge”? (Though there’s a good argument that he was really having a go at many of the fantastic claims for space travel at the time, and it was more “all the talk about” space travel that he was criticising.  As many know, being taken out of context is a constant risk.)

On the other hand, scientists’ predictions can be far too optimistic.  In his BIS lecture Rama for Real in 2013, Jerry Stone pointed out that, although Gerard K O’Neill never gave a precise timescale for the first large-scale human settlements in space, he estimated in the 1970s that it should happen between 1995 and 2010.  O’Neill had based this on projections for cheap and reliable access to space, and for provision of solar power from space, which have sadly proved to be unrealistic.

In an interview in the first issue of Omni magazine in 1978, the physicist Freeman Dyson was asked about his predictions that Project Orion would have put men on Mars by 1965, and as far as Saturn by 1970.  He replied that the nuclear test ban treaty of 1963 changed the situation dramatically from what might have been possible (and, in his mind, rightly so).  As he said, history simply passed it by.

The trouble is that history has a habit of doing precisely that.  it happens all the time.  Perhaps the only sensible answer is the one expressed by Eugène Ionesco in Act 3 of his 1959 play Le RhinocĂ©ros: “You can only predict things after they have happened.”


Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

With a lifetime’s interest in science, history and human behaviour, Richard Hayes focuses his writing on how the imagination has created the world in which we live, and where it may lead us in the future.  Odyssey, the e-magazine of the British Interplanetary Society, draws on the rich treasury of science fiction to explore many fields of speculation, enabling us to glimpse what might yet be, both here on Earth and out amongst the stars.

For related Odyssey posts, please click here: He Who Controls The PastNothing New Under the Sun

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