The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; The Future
ROBERT MacNEIL [voice-over]: In 1902 this was a French filmmaker's fanciful view of the future. As we know, his vision of flying to the moon wasn't so crazy.But what are today's visionaries predicting for the future?
MacNEIL: Good evening. 1982 has been a year of remarkable developments in science and technology. The first permanent artificial heart is working inside the chest of Barney Clark. Genetic engineering has produced a new, jumbo-sized mouse. Just this week, scientists at Princeton for the first time successfully tested a fusion reactor, perhaps the precursor of a safer, cheaper form of nuclear energy. Robots began taking the place of men in U.S. auto plants, and Time magazine selected the computer as its man of the year. Each one of these advances seemed impossibly romantic only a few decades ago, but as technology advances, so does the art of predicting future advances. And we thought New Year's Eve an appropriate time to look at how accurate some of the visionaries of the past have been and what current futurists see ahead of us. Tonight, with author Isaac Asimov and others, the future revisited. Jim?
JIM LEHRER: Robin, it's always been a mixed bag when it comes to visionaries and their visions. In the early 1900s the populace was gripped for awhile by wild and scary predictions about mechanical people -- robots. The word "robot" was coined, in fact, in a very downbeat 1921 play called RUR for Rawsom's Universal Robots, which ended with an earth occupied only by mechanical people; the humankind having destroyed themselves. A few years later the German filmmaker Fritz Lang created his vision of Metropolis where a mad scientist creates a robot to replace enslaved human workers, all of whom would be eliminated as a cost-saving measure. But in 1955 a not-so-mad real life scientist shared a vision that proved to be right on the mark -- remarkably so. The scientist was Wernher Von Braun, and he did it on a Walt Disney television program called Man in Space.
WERNHER VON BRAUN: If we were to start today on an organized and well-supported space program, I believe a practical passenger rocket could be built and tested within 10 years. Let's look ahead a few years and see how this might be accomplished.
LEHRER: Twenty-five years later, the actual photographs of the U.S. space shuttle mission were stunningly similar to these make-believe ones.For the record, the word is that after seeing that TV program President Eisenhower set in motion the actions which led to the creation of the U.S. space program. Robin?
MacNEIL: In the 1930s there was a wave of exuberant and sometimes outlandish predictions about what the future would look like. For example, they thought skyscrapers were doomed and would be replaced by vast underground cities. Some thought that flying would become as common as driving, and that we would all have our own personal "autoplanes." But some of the predictions came very close to the mark. They envisioned, for example, harnessing the power of the sun for energy, the forerunner to today's solar power. Then there was the projection that one day man would be able to capture movies on common phonograph records. That's only now coming into popular use in today's video discs. Those hits and misses by the futurists of the '30s are included in a book called Wasn't the Future Wonderful? Its author is Tim Onosko, a futurist himself, from Madison, Wisconsin. Mr. Onosko, why did the '30s, first of all, produce such a flood of predictions of the future, do you think?
TIM ONOSKO: Well, I think certainly the economic conditions of the time lent itself to dreaming of better days, much the same way the economic conditions today look forward to the future for better opportunities for all, new and wonderful things to get excited about.
MacNEIL: Do you see parallels with this time in terms of a desire to look into the future more than there has been recently?
Mr. ONOSKO: Well, certainly that, and it's also -- this is a period of transition. We hear so much about entering a real information age. In those days we were entering a real machine age, and despite the other ages that came in between -- the jet age and the atom age -- nothing really caught on as well as machines did or information is today.
MacNEIL: I was looking through your book today and wondered why so many of the predictions seem so wildly fanciful now or just downright childish. Why were they -- I mean, that was a pretty sophisticated age already in the 1930s. Why were so many of them wrong?
Mr. ONOSKO: Well, part of it was because the predictions in the book came from the popular press. They came from the popular scientific magazines of the day -- Modern Mechanics, Popular Science -- magazines that were probably the forerunners of magazines like Omni today or Technology Illustrated, for example. But the writers and editor didn't have strong scientific backgrounds, but were nonetheless excited by the developments of the day. It was more of an enthusiastic response to the age rather than an analytic response.
MacNEIL: In today's equivalent publications, do the editors have better access or take care to have better access to accurate scientific information?
Mr. ONOSKO: I think so, and certainly science reporting today is a specialized field. But it's a field, a very definite field. It's a specific area of interest for reporters.
MacNEIL: Well, are today's futurists, as they're now called, likely to be more accurate than they've been in the past? Is the science, if it is a science, of futurism growing better?
Mr. ONOSKO: Futurism is either the science of prediction or the art of wishing and dreaming. I don't know which it is, but I think in terms of the accuracy of futurists, I don't know whether it's fair to rate futurists in terms of hits or misses. I think it's important to realize that futurism is valuable all by itself -- that perhaps, of any number of scenarios that are painted of any number of events or developments that are foreseen, the fact that someone does foresee them, not as opposed to how many are right and how many are wrong.
MacNEIL: How much is just pure imagination, something that hasn't been thought of before that is sort of conceivably possible, and how much is good scientific inductive reasoning or deduction from what already exists?
Mr. ONOSKO: Oh, today certainly there is a scientific method that's attempting to be applied to futurism. Back in the '30s, I think, there was very little of that. There was, as I said, an enthusiasm. And as you said, there was a fanciful approach to it.It was an entertainment. But it also became part of a popular culture, and I think the fact that futurism exists today and is popular, and the writings of futurists -- people are interested in the future. It is as much a cultural phenomenon as it is a scientific field.
MacNEIL: Well, thank you. Jim?
LEHRER: Now let's look ahead to the future from this point on, first as seen by a man some call the number-one futurist around. He is Isaac Asimov, author of more than 250 books, light and heavy, fiction and non-fiction, some of the most notable being about the future -- the Asimov vision of it, at least. Technologicallly, let's see what major developments you see coming, Mr. Asimov. For instance, in space. Anything left out there that you see coming still?
ISAAC ASIMOV: Oh, everything. So far we have only been exploring space. We are still in the Christopher Columbus stage as far as space is concerned. What remains now is to actually make use of space, to get out and stay there more or less permanently, to set up space stations, to build solar power stations, to have laboratories and factories that can do things in space that are difficult or impossible to do on earth, and eventually to have space settlements in which thousands of people can be housed more or less permanently.
LEHRER: Do you think that's actually going to happen, or is that just a -- I mean, it's possible to do it, but do you think it's actually going to happen in these next several years?
Dr. ASIMOV: Well, as to whether it's actually going to happen, that's the choice that humanity has to make. We can decide not to do it, but we can also decide to do it because the technology is there. It would be expensive, require a great deal of time, energy, manpower, etc., but on the whole, not as much expense and effort and emotional input as, for instance, to maintain our military machines year after year.If we could put in half a trillion dollars a year on space instead of on military machines, there are almost no limits to what we can do.
LEHRER: Well, what's the point to it? What's the point of doing all that?
Dr. ASIMOV: Well, for one thing, we'll gain new sources of energy, new sources of materials. We'll gain new knowledge; we'll make new technologies possible. We'll be moving out from an earth -- which is relatively worn out by thousands of years of human depredations, and not vicious depredations, necessarily, just the fact we've been living here and making use of its resources -- into new territory, and be able to build a larger and more elaborate civilization and one which does not depend upon the resources of one world.
LEHRER: All right. Speaking of what might happen, though, back here on earth. The computers. Computers have really come into their own in these last few years. What do you see ahead for the computer age? Have we crested on that one as well?
Dr. ASIMOV: Oh, no. No, no. The computer is at the center of everything. The computer is a problem-solving device. It is a technique that makes it possible to do things that would be utterly impossible without it. We couldn't reach the moon without the computer.We require the computer to handle these spaceships that we're making use of. Everything we do in space we won't be able to do without banks of computers doing thinking faster than we possibly can. And in the same way the advance of robots depends entirely upon the computer. In fact, the simplest way of defining a robot is as a computerized machine.
LEHRER: Do you see a time where computers at the basic human level, in homes and that sort of thing, will -- that everybody will have a computer, will have to have computers in order to exist and make it down here on earth?
Dr. ASIMOV: It's not even a matter of having to have it. They'll want to. When television frist came in in 1948 it was easy to predict that everybody would want to have a television set simply because it was primarily used for entertainement. Well, 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.And the home computer is the wave of the future.
LEHRER: What do you see -- you mentioned robots, and we saw at the beginning that there were a lot of scary things involved in the '20s when predicting the coming of the robot. What do you see the robot's place being in our future?
Dr. ASIMOV: Well, it's scary, but not for the reasons they always saw it. They saw the robots as being somehow imitation human beings that were vicious and soul-less. That's not so. We now know that robots are simply machines that do what they're told to do. But they replace human beings. It's not that they kill them, but they kill their jobs. They'll create more jobs than they kill, but they'll be different jobs, and the people whose jobs are lost may not easily be educationable -- educatable -- educable -- there is is -- into new jobs. So that 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.Work has to be found for them. Those who can be educated into new jobs should be. Those who can be transferred, fitted in somewhere else, should be. This is not going to be easy, and the transition period will be starting almost at once.
LEHRER: Finally, let me ask you this. In a word, Mr. Asimov, when you look ahead to the future, do you see the world in optimistic terms? I mean, do you see good things ahead? Would you classify yourself as being an optimistic futurist?
Dr. ASIMOV: I'm a hopeful optimist. In other words, I hope things will be optimistic. It is up to humanity to make the decisions. We can decide to specialize in hatred and suspicion and end up with a nuclear war which will destroy everything, or we can decide to cooperate and overcome our suspicions and hatreds, in which case I see an endlessly receding horizon with no foreseeable way of coming to an end to greatness.
LEHRER: Thank you. Robin?
MacNEIL: News of the artificial heart was another reminder of how far medical science has come. But what about tomorrow? One man who's thought a great about what's going on on the medical horizon is Dick Teresi, executive editor of Omni magazine. He's also the author of several books and articles about the frontiers of science and medicine. Mr. Teresi, let's go through the list of some major medical areas, and tell us what you see as practical advances and when we're likely to get them. Let's start with cancer treatment. When are we likely to have effective treatment for cancer, and what will it consist of, do you think?
DICK TERESI: Well, that's the most loaded subject because you really don't want -- so many hopes have been raised and then dashed over the years. But what looks really interesting is the genetic approach, which is, during the past year, the genetic component of cancer has finally been isolated. In other words, a cancer gene, an outlaw kind of gene in the body that can start producing cancers when exposed to carcinogens -- while this is obviously not a treatment, it does mean that if we can trace for the proteins that this gene produces, we will have an early test. And if we can block the actions of the genes, of course we'll have a cure. But this -- we're talking now a decade at least, and this is very experimental.
MacNEIL: About 10 years from now, you think?
Mr. TERESI: I would say so. More shortly on the horizon are things such as monoclonal antibodies, which are basically the -- it's like -- it's a human antibody. It's the technique the body uses against cancer, except in this case we use mice because we can take the mouse antibodies and we can clone them. We can clone all of one sort. Therefore you get the word "monoclonal," and you get a very powerful immune system against the cancer.
MacNEIL: And you see some of that coming a bit sooner than the genetic --
Mr. TERESI: Well, it's already being used. It was used on a 67-year-old man at Stanford who had an incurable cancer; not even interferon would work on it, and he has been cured. And it's also been used against leukemia. And by 1984 it's pretty likely that monoclonal antibodies will be used as detection methods, hitting the market as an actual cancer treatment probably a few more years beyond that.
MacNEIL: What about the treatment of pain? What advances and when do you see coming there?
Mr. TERESI: Well, probably, I'd say one of the most startling discoveries of the last decade was the discovery that we have endorphins, which are natural opiate-like substances in our brains, and that the brain consists of a series of locks and keys into which natural chemicals fit. Endorphins are a painkiller; they are also natural substances that act like Valium, like a tranquilizer. And the problem with current painkillers and current tranquilizers is that they're too general. They affect too many things in the brain so we get terrible side effects. What drug companies are now working on are tailor-made drugs that fit right into these locks in the brain, and we're going to get a far more precise type of painkiller, I'd say, within three years. This is what the drug companies are predicting.
MacNEIL: What about the possibilities of prolonging life or slowing down the aging process?
Mr. TERESI: Well, probably the most phenomenal statement is being made by a scientist named W. Donner Denckla at the National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse. He claims that we all start dying at age 20, not later on, and it all has to do -- it's not that we just die. It's not that we just age, but that there is an actual type of death hormone secreted by the pituitary in the brain, and he's done some phenomenal experiments with rats in which he has removed -- these are aging rats -- removed their pituitary gland, and then substituted the other drugs that the pituitary normally affects, such as thyroid and growth hormone, and found that their heart and lungs would start reverting to a more youthful appearance and more youthful functioning, and that 20% of these rats live to an age of a human equivalency of 95 years. What he predicts is not really an immortality pill, but a kind of block or an antidote to this hormone. That's the most startling. It probably will not -- it may not work out. This is probably the most futuristic. Probably the less futuristic and more practical, of course, are things such as the artificial heart and other artificial organs that will prolong life. It's interesting. We were talking earlier about predictions that just didn't wash out in the '30s. As little as four years ago I went to the University of Utah and did a story on --
MacNEIL: Where the artificial heart was developed.
Mr. TERESI: Right. Where they were developing something called the Jarvik-7, a plastic artificial heart, and they could not get funding. When I published the story we were roundly criticized by doctors and other scientists as being too fantastic.
MacNEIL: Only four years ago?
Mr. TERESI: Only four years ago, and today, of course, it's in Barney Clark.
MacNEIL: Well, thank you. Jim?
LEHRER: Mr. Onosko, what do you think of the Asimov and Teresi views of the future?
Mr. ONOSKO: I think it's perfectly valid. Certainly I think much about the future and, like Dick and Mr. Asimov, we look at things that are in the labs, we look at theories that are in the classrooms, and there's a lot that can be learned from just very careful inspection of where science and technology is going today.
LEHRER: Well, how would you categorize what they have said? You told Robin a minute ago that a lot in the '30s was based on imagination; a lot of the futuristic thinking today is based on real-world technology that's already here. Is what we've heard from these two men and what we've heard from others like them more realistic than what people saw in those magazines in the '30s?
Mr. ONOSKO: Of course it is, because science reporters are much more careful today, and we do have the lessons of the past to learn from. But most important is the fact that Dick can take avery exciting development like the artificial heart four years ago and turn it into an exciting piece of journalism and a careful piece of journalism. The root of Dick's story about the artificial heart was no doubt the same root that inspired people to write about the mechanical developments of the day during the 1930s. It was enthusiasm, again.
LEHRER: I want to pick up a thing that you mentioned a minute ago, Mr. Asimov, the threat of nuclear war. It's something that has very much been in the public mind in the last several months, as you know. I want to start with you and ask what each of you, when you look in your crystal balls, what do you see in that regard?
Dr. ASIMOV: Well, with regard to nuclear war, the first thing I see is that 40 years has passed and no one has had the nerve to start one. I see a public opinion which every year becomes more alive to the dangers thereof and more insistent that the risks be lowered. It's just a question as to whether the general public perception of nuclear war as something that must not-happen can overcome the -- what I might call the conventional military mind.
LEHRER: Mr. Teresi?
Mr. TERESI: Nuclear war?
LEHRER: What do you see?
Mr. TERESI: Well, I think people are finally taking action into their own hands. They're voicing their opinion and they're really disregarding their leaders to a much greater extent than they used to.
LEHRER: Mr. Onosko, what about the question, though, that always comes up, that if you have a technology, then you have to use that technology? Is that one of the dilemmas that's involved in the ability of the world to blow itself up?
Mr. ONOSKO: Well, I think personally I'm more concerned about a nuclear weapons accident. Many of the technologies of the 1950s and '60s are, quite frankly, outmoded, and much of this technology is still in military hardware, and it's my own personal worry that, without further testing, that some of this outmoded technology may have pretty much staled itself on the shelf, and that it might cause an accident. Will we use it? Are we going to be forced to use it? I don't think that we're forced to use anything.
LEHRER: Mr. Asimov, of all the things that you see in the future, what excites you the most -- as a person? I mean, just really turns you on when you think about, if this wonderful thing could happen?
Dr. ASIMOV: Oh, what excites me most is the thought of an understanding of the human brain far deeper than any we have now. I'm hoping that by the use of computers that perhaps by the construction of artivicial intelligence we can be able to understand the most complex conglomeration of matter that we know of, the human brain, which is at one and the same time our greatest hope and our greatest danger. It's in the brain that all advances can be planned; it's in the brain that all dangers can be expected. And I want to understand that.
LEHRER: Mr. Teresi, what turns you on the most?
Mr. TERESI: I would have to agree -- the brain. As I said earlier, probably the most remarkable discovery is that we have within our brains the power to kill pain, the power to tranquilize ourselves, the power to reach altered states, perhaps even the power to understand what mind is and what brain is, and what are the boundaries between the two, and are there boundaries between the two?
LEHRER: Mr. Onosko?
Mr. ONOSKO: I'd like to take what's upstairs and bring it out more. I think that new technologies are giving us new fields, new areas of expression, new tools for expression -- that machines are in fact opening up a remarkable world for people who thought that they could not otherwise express themselves, either as musicians or as artists or as writers, who are finding brand new avenues of expressions with these machines.
LEHRER: Thank you. Robin?
MacNEIL: Yes, thank you, Mr. Teresi and Mr. Onosko and Dr. Asimov. And good night. Jim.
LEHRER: Good night, Robin.
MacNEIL: May I wish all of you and everyone at home a happy new year. We'll be back on Monday night. I'm Robert MacNeil.Good night.
- The MacNeil/Lehrer Report
- The Future
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- NewsHour Productions
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- Episode Description
- This episode's headline: The Future. The guests include TIM ONOSKO, ""Future"" Historian; ISAAC ASIMOV, Science Fiction Writer; DICK TERESI, Omni Magazine. Byline: In New York: ROBERT MacNEIL, Executive Editor; In Washington: JIM LEHRER, Associate Editor; LEWIS SILVERMAN, KENNETH WITTY, Producers; MAURA LERNER, Reporter
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- Chicago: “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; The Future,” 1982-12-31, National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed June 26, 2022, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-507-9s1kh0fm76.
- MLA: “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; The Future.” 1982-12-31. National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. June 26, 2022. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-507-9s1kh0fm76>.
- APA: The MacNeil/Lehrer Report; The Future. Boston, MA: National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-507-9s1kh0fm76