Robert Heinlein’s Predictions for the 21st Century

robert heinlein 1953.jpg

Science-fiction author Robert Heinlein wrote several predictions for the year 2000 and beyond in his article “Where To?” which was first published in the February 1952 edition of Galaxy Science Fiction:

AXIOM: A “common sense” prediction is sure to err on the side of timidity […] AXIOM: The more extravagant a prediction sounds the more likely it is to come true […] So let’s have a few free-swinging predictions about the future. Some will be wrong – but cautious predictions are sure to be wrong.

1. Interplanetary travel is waiting at your front door — C.O.D. It’s yours when you pay for it.

2. Contraception and control of disease is revising relations between the sexes to an extent that will change our entire social and economic structure.

3. The most important military fact of this century is that there is no way to repel an attack from outer space.

4. It is utterly impossible that the United States will start a “preventive war.” We will fight when attacked, either directly or in a territory we have guaranteed to defend.

5. In fifteen years the housing shortage will be solved by a “breakthrough” into new technologies which will make every house now standing as obsolete as privies.

6. We’ll all be getting a little hungry by and by.

7. The cult of the phony in art will disappear. So-called “modern art” will be discussed only by psychiatrists.

8. Freud will be classed as a pre-scientific, intuitive pioneer and psychoanalysis will be replaced by a growing, changing “operational psychology” based on measurement and prediction.

9. Cancer, the common cold, and tooth decay will all be conquered; the revolutionary new problem in medical research will be to accomplish “regeneration,” i.e., to enable a man to grow a new leg, rather than fit him with an artificial limb.

10. By the end of this century mankind will have explored this solar system, and the first ship intended to reach the nearest star will be a-building.

11. Your personal telephone will be small enough to carry in your handbag. Your house telephone will record messages, answer simple inquiries, and transmit vision.

12. Intelligent life will be found on Mars.

13. A thousand miles an hour at a cent a mile will be commonplace; short hauls will be made in evacuated subways at extreme speed.

14. A major objective of applied physics will be to control gravity.

15. We will not achieve a “World State” in the predictable future. Nevertheless, Communism will vanish from this planet.

16. Increasing mobility will disenfranchise a majority of the population. About 1990 a constitutional amendment will do away with state lines while retaining the semblance.

17. All aircraft will be controlled by a giant radar net run on a continent-wide basis by a multiple electronic “brain.”

18. Fish and yeast will become our principal sources of proteins. Beef will be a luxury; lamb and mutton will disappear.

19. Mankind will not destroy itself, nor will “Civilization” be destroyed.

Here are things we won’t get soon, if ever:

  • Travel through time.
  • Travel faster than the speed of light.
  • Control of telepathy and other E.S.P. phenomena.
  • “Radio” transmission of matter.
  • Manlike robots with manlike reactions.
  • Laboratory creation of life.
  • Real understanding of what “thought” is and how it is related to matter.
  • Scientific proof of personal survival after death.
  • A permanent end to war. (I don’t like that prediction any better than you do.)

Most of Heinlein’s predictions were rather optimistic, which reminds me of T. Baron Russells’s predictions for the 21st century in his A Hundred Years Hence (1906). Heinlein acknowledged this when he revisited his predictions fourteen years later in his 1966 book The World of Robert A. Heinlein, a collection of his science-fiction stories, published in 1966. For example, for his prediction that the housing shortage will be solved by a “breakthrough”, he said, “Here I fell flat on my face. There has been no breakthrough in housing, nor is any now in prospect.” He repeated the same sentiment when he reconsidered his predictions once again in his 1980 book Expanded Universe.

Similarly, in 1966, he was also disappointed that his prediction about the discovery of intelligent life on Mars seemed unlikely to happen. In 1980, he said that the photographs by the Viking landers in 1976 just further affirmed his prediction was wrong. Nonetheless, he still had his hopes up when he remarked, “But the new pictures and the new data make Mars even more mysterious. I’m a diehard because I suspect that life is ubiquitous […] Almost all discussion has been about Life-as-we-know-it… but what about Life-as-we-don’t-know-it?”

“Prediction of gadgets is a parlor trick anyone can learn,” Heinlein concluded, “but only a fool would attempt to predict details of future history (except as fiction, so labeled); there are too many unknowns and no techniques for integrating them even if they were known. Even to make predictions about overall trends in technology is now most difficult.”

See Also:

“A Century Hence”

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My name Edmark M. Law. I work as a freelance writer, mainly writing about science and mathematics. I am an ardent hobbyist. I like to read, solve puzzles, play chess, make origami and play basketball. In addition, I dabble in magic, particularly card magic and other sleight-of-hand type magic. I live in Hong Kong. You can find me on Twitter` and Facebook. My email is edmarklaw@learnfunfacts.com

6 thoughts on “Robert Heinlein’s Predictions for the 21st Century

  1. Let’s see how he did:
    1. Well yes, if people were prepared to fund it… but what of the technical challenges of keeping people alive and healthy in deep space for that lenght of time, mewonders? Sadly the paying for it has not been forthcoming.
    2. Spot on.
    3. When we are focussed on fighting earthbound wars, probably quite true. But thankfully there have so far been no threats from outser space.
    4. Covertly imperialist wars under the guise of “preventive wars”, on the other hand… Iraq anyone?
    5. Erm…. nope.
    6. Well yes, this is bound to happen.
    7. He wished.
    8. It seems to be so, but I’m not too sure.
    9. None of these have quite been conquered, though perhaps we have made progress with cancer. The latter part sounds like the kind of thing that in primitive terms has been attempted with stem cell research, but as complex as a missing limb? Not really.
    10. The first part is true if we count unmanned probes visiting most of the planets at some point before 2000. Interstellar or manned interplanetary travel? Nope.
    11. Apart from “answer simple inquiries”, pretty much spot on. It might not be so widely known but even experimental videophones were around in the 90s!
    12. Nope.
    13. Probably nope. Sounds like the Hyperloop type idea being mentioned here.
    14. Yeah right.
    15. If by “Communism” you mean the Soviet Bolshevik type, almost right. Certainly no world state exists nor does it look likely even over 60 years on.
    16. Not sure what he means by the first part, the second part nope.
    17. Not sure. I am sure there have been technological advances in air traffic control vaguely along these lines, but….
    18. Not really.
    19. So far, this has proved true. Only so far.
    “Here are things we won’t get soon, if ever…”: Pretty much.

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    1. Heinlein initially believed that the US population would explode in the future. In 1980, he said, “It would now appear that the USA population in 2000 A.D. will be about 270,000,000 (Note: US population in 2000 was around 282 million) instead of 500,000,000. I have been collecting clippings on demography for forty years; all that the projections have in common is that all of them are wrong. Even that figure of 270,000,000 may be too high; today the only reason our population continues to increase is that we oldsters are living longer; our current birthrate is not sufficient even to replace the parent generation.”

      While he remarked that the US won’t have hunger as a problem in the near future, hunger is a world problem and it would only get worse if nothing is done about it.

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  2. I suppose the good news is that we still have 81 years to achieve Heinlein’s optimistic predictions, but hopefully not that long for cancer to be cured. It would be interesting to look back in 2095 and see how many of these came true, and if so when. Too bad we won’t be here to do that, so I suppose putting it in one’s calendar won’t work. An engaging read, Edmark …

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