Failed Science Fiction Prophecies

We're now in HAL territory. Who would have thought that Clarke's IBM-joke would already feel so out of date? Yet most computer users' experience of "artificial intelligence" still be the doggedly primitive Wintelligence? Miniaturization and money rule as planned, but those "minds not made of meat" that we were promised have done a clever job of disguising themselves as the same old dumb machines, don't you think?

... Yes, we're in HAL territory but the shame of it is that we're nowhere near anything even the simplest ScienceFiction predicted. We're not on Mars. Heck, we haven't even been to the moon for many years! On the other hand, 1984 and such never happened either.

... As I'm sure you know, Orwell wrote 1984 in 1948 and simply reversed the last two digits to create his failed "prophecy" of what was to come. But he sure told a great story, as did Arthur C Clarke. In the end it's the stories that grip us and shape and define our lives I guess, whatever digits we hang them on.

More like a warning than a prophecy. Who can say to what effect the writing of 1984 served to prevent that very outcome.

Exqueeeze me, but here in The Homeland at the butt end of 2002 with John Poindexter getting carte blanche to track our every move and recorded syllable, I'd say your celebration is a bit premature.

During the Dot.Com Bubble, I frequently stated that, "The West spent so much time trying to avoid Orwell's future that no one noticed when we ended up with Huxley's instead." Now it seems the current US government is dead set on combining the worst of both of those futures, though apparently they mean it only as a rest stop along the road to John of Patmos' non-future. - JayOsako
Failed or unexpectedly late


So what other "FailedProphecies?" can we discuss that might have meaning? ... and are there any SuccessfulScienceFictionProphecies?

NoEugenicsWar? - one of the parts of the original StarTrek timeline that stood out to me was the idea that the late 1990's would be the time of the EugenicsWar? - when bio-engineered supermen like KhanNoonianSingh? would try to take over. Well, we've now fully sequenced the Human genetic code, and we've even had workable (though not really practical given the failure rate) cloning of mammals for a few years. But the thing that interests me is the remarkable restraint that governments have shown so far in applying this technology. When Tony Blair and Bill Clinton stand up together and state "we will NOT experiment on humans", it has to mean something.

Wait for it. The genetic code is sequenced but we don't know what to do with it (yet).

NoCommunistTakeover? - Another thing that, as far as I can tell, NO science fiction author predicted was the quick and (mostly) non-violent collapse of Soviet communism. As a result, a lot of science fiction stories (even some of the best TwilightZone episodes) seem dated now that we are in a time free of ColdWar rhetoric. JamesHogan? did posit the final collapse of the Soviet system in EndgameEnigma?, but he put it well into the 21st century.

While I'm no fan of his, I have to credit JerryPournelle with getting it half right; In his Second Empire history (which includes TheMoteInGodsEye?) he speculated that the Cold War would end when the US and the USSR got too exhausted to continue, and signing a formal treaty divvying up the world between them (the CoDominium?). I understand that he still brags about this 'prediction' even now. - Jay Osako

NoWorkableArtificialIntelligence? - As Richard, Sam and the rest discuss above - I doubt that anyone would have predicted that we still wouldn't have a workable AI by 2001. Even the (conceptually) simple things like SpeechRecognition? are mostly hit and miss. Granted, DeepBlue is the world's best chess player, but not through AI and brilliant insights of its own - through sheer brute force calculation. (Though note the ArtificialIntelligenceIsUnattainableByDefinition problem.)

NoFreeEnergy? - It's 2001 and we still are "10 to 20 years away" from demonstrating break-even in controlled nuclear fusion. We don't have Solar Power Satellites. The UnitedStates relies LESS upon Nuclear Fission as a power source than it did in 1980, and more on Coal, oil and Natural Gas. A lot of science fiction depends on CheapEnergy? - strangely enough, we've got good, well-grounded ideas for how to travel quickly around the solar system (e.g. the VasimirEngine?), but we don't have a compact and cheap enough power source to make them workable. we do have solar power satellites, we dont have solar power stations in space to provide energy on the ground <-- I consider the two to be synonymous. What we have are solar-powered satellites.

NoPervasiveVirtualRealityNetworks - it took (most writers) until Cyberpunk even to catch on to the idea that the thrust in IT would be to enhance communication abilities (as opposed to calculation abilities). Now they've grasped that, they all seem bound up in a world of avatars and 3d shapes. But I suppose it makes for more marketable film rights than HTML would...

No "Moon Base".


No manned missions to Mars and Jupiter.

No SkyNet.

the uk MOD are up to version 5 of skynet now. of course we dont know if skynet became self aware in 1999 or not
One of my favorites I read a few years ago: 2001: Pan Am moon shuttle, today: Pan Am in receivership. Or the "Bell" logo on the videophone in the space station. Shoot, there might not even be a company named AT&T in a couple of years if the break-ups continue...

Remember the Atari logos in BladeRunner?
Where is my rocket car? I was promised a rocket car! I want my rocket car! -- PeteHardie

If hit at certain angles, Ford Pintos and GM trucks are "rocket cars".
My favorite for being very specific, very cheesy, and very wrong:

September 13th, 1999

A nuclear accident at a lunar-based waste disposal site propels our moon out of Earth orbit and into deep space. The 311 residents of Moonbase Alpha find themselves adrift in space with no way to control their course through the interstellar void.

I'd swear just yesterday I looked up and saw the placidly waxing gibbous moon in the sky!

On the other hand, we have no human presence on the moon at all. Several dusty spacecraft, a handful of used cars, and some American flags - at least one of which lying forlornly on the ground, having been knocked over by the blast from the ascent stage liftoff.

-- StevenNewton

How about: On August 29, 1997, anybody not wearing 2000 sunblock is gonna have a very bad day! Lots of Terminator fans held parties on that day... of course, T3 did cause lots of Terminator fans to have bad days.
DeepnessInTheSky by VernorVinge, which is set in the distant future, refers to the "failed dreams", which include AI, nanotechnology, and reliable software. These are imagined technologies that somehow never came to fruition.

-- RobertChurch
In one or two sentences in Clarke's 2001, we learn that there are nuclear weapons parked in orbit, presumably by the superpowers, presumably to be a little bit faster than ICBMs. (Also that the CCCP didn't break up, by the way. Who could blame him, writing in the sixties?). Heinlein has space-based nukes deployed in Between Planets. I'm glad they were wrong. (-: This is discounting all the covert orbital nukes the superpowers have managed to put up, of course. :-)

-- DavidVincent

Orbital nukes were never very bright. If you go to all the trouble of getting up there, you might as well just use the potential energy (cheap(ish) to get mass from the moon...).

Agree. Nukes on submarines make much more sense. yup.

Rocks from the moon is a dumb idea. At best, it multiples by about a factor of 10 the energy you have to expend launching the mass from the moon -- and manipulating that energy in the launcher is very nontrivial and expensive, since EM launch cost tends to scale proportional to peak power. Nukes are really hard to beat when it comes to bang for the buck.

Nukes in orbit are a dumb idea since they're sitting ducks; it costs too much fuel to have them moving around. Nukes on mobile platforms like subs or trucks make perfect sense. And gee, that's exactly what we have.

the pentagon actually has a program nicknamed "Rods from God" where they just drop steel rods on you from orbit and let the kinetic energy do its thing without any need for explosive anything [Referred to as Thor]
Time for NewBeginnings!
A major issue is that science fiction authors tend to have utopian tendencies; so it's interesting to look at dystopias for more accurate predictions. A science fiction film that predicts the future of computing much more accurately is Brazil. -- JasonGrossman

Id' say most SF is dystopian, and just as wrong as the utopian stuff. Extreme events make better stories; the mundane is probably more likely however.
Do the dates matter? What if the EugenicsWar? were to occur in, say, 2012? Would it matter that it occurred in a year different than the StarTrek canon? (Obviously, the dates should matter a little otherwise we have open-ended predictions which might eventually come true due to entropy).

does that matter though? is the date part of the prediction or simply setting the prediction into the rest of the story (you surely dont expect the entire story to be a word for word prediction?). open-ended predictions are not a problem as one doesnt always have to act on them while they 'might' be true but can, in general wait, and see if they are true or not before doing anything.
I'm still waiting on flying cars and robot butlers. Aren't we all?
Something else that failed was the notion, perhaps best expressed by Asimov's robot stories, that computers would get bigger and bigger even as component sizes dropped to molecular scales. All of the small computers in Asimov's fiction, unless I'm misremembering or simply haven't read enough of it, are terminals connected to huge computers that made the supercomputers we actually built in the 1950s and 1960s look like pocket calculators. In some of his stories, all of Earth's computing (and, not incidentally, governmental, economic, and presumably healthcare and entertainment as well) needs are served by a single planet-size supercomputer named Multivac. In the classic short story The Final Answer, Multivac eventually grows to fill its own pocket universe. It seemed that he correctly predicted the shrinkage of components from tubes to molecular relays (or equivalent), but he couldn't make the conceptual jump needed to predict the desktop computer or the PDA as we currently know them. (: It was almost as if he was KenOlsen?. :)
You are wrong about 1984 not happening. The year is wrong, but it is happening in the United Kingdom. This isn't science fiction: speeding cameras for all major (and many minor) roads that track all vehicle movements in a database for 5 years under the guise of crime prevention. These capture the licence plate and photo of all drivers. This is linked to photo ID database of driving license and face-recognition technology (in conjunction with a US company) to match drivers with cars and routes. Additionally, the government is investing in spy planes to fly over and photo houses and categorize number of rooms, house extensions and layouts, etc. It was on the front page of several newspapers and is a scandal that I'm sure will be buried and it'll go ahead regardless. The UK is by far the most surveilled region in the planet. All bars, petrol stations, businesses, roads, trains, buses, etc have video cameras.

Not something they tell tourists, huh?

If somebody from the 1950's was suddenly transported into a typical Main Street, they wouldn't immediately notice anything different, other than relatively subtle style changes. Bob, I'll call this person, may think he's in another country, but would have no immediate reason to assume it's another time. No FlyingCar's, no mushroom-shaped motels, no robots walking or rolling around, and no silver suits (well, except for Lady Gaga fans). If Bob walked around, the first hint of futuredom would probably be people looking at and talking to small rectangular devices. Bob would probably find a way to get close to one where he'd see the "finger GUI", and this would be Bob's first "Wow" moment. (In a few years from now, maybe everybody will have Google Glass-like eye-ware, which may stand out if you are close enough.)

Next, Bob would wander into a department store and catch sight of the big flat-screen HD TV's on the wall, and this would be his next "Wow" moment. Some of the LED signs or store props may also catch his eye. Then Bob would start looking for a pay phone to see if he can call anybody he knows, but would be disappointed in their rarity.

Minority Report had clear monitors and tablets, we will get those in a couple of years. We have Dick Tracy style phones, rather than watches. Where is my (d*mn) Jet-Pack!? -- ChuckCottrill

It's being delivered by FlyingCar.

See: TechnologyDisappointments, PredictionsFromFortyYearsAgo


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