One of my favorite parts of Robert A. Heinlein’s Expanded Universe is when he revisits the predictions he made in 1950 for the second half of the 20th century. He updated his predictions in 1965 and then again in 1980. I once wrote an article looking back at his predictions (Heinlein died in 1988 and never got to see how well he did) but it disappeared into the Spam Event Horizon. I’m going to write that post again before moving onto Part II, where I will revisit similar predictions I made in 2000. I’m obviously no Heinlein, as you’ll see. My predictions were stunningly mundane. But it was a fun exercise.
Heinlein Prediction 1: Interplanetary travel is waiting at your front door — COD. It’s yours when you pay for it.
We aren’t paying for it. Our space program has been a mess since Apollo, with various Administrations touting different plans — Mars, the Moon, Mars, an asteroid, Mars … and getting nothing done. Our robotic probes, however, have been a stunning success, with the recent visits to Pluto, Ceres and Comet 67P as a reminder of what can be done. But the planetary budget has been gutted. I’ll score this one a hit for Heinlein, since, by the end of the 20th century, we had sent probes to every major planet, landed men on the moon and had an active shuttle program.
Heinlein Prediction 2: Contraception and control of disease is revisiting relations between the sexes to an extent that will change our entire social structure.
This was a huge hit for Heinlein. Contraception has defused the population bomb and given women nearly equal economic opportunities (which, in turn, has dropped the marriage rate). 2-0
Heinlein Prediction 3: The most important military fact of this century is that there is no way to repel an attack from outer space.
This is still true. Space has not been militarized. But if it ever is, the country that does it will instantly be the world’s dominant superpower. Reagan’s threat to use “star wars” technology to change the Cold War was a big reason why we won it. 3-0
Heinlein Prediction 4: It is utterly impossible that the United States will start a “preventative war”. We will fight when attacked, either directly or in territory we have guaranteed to defend.
Heinlein thought this prediction was faulty after we left Vietnam. He didn’t live to see the stunning success of the Gulf War. Or the “preventative” Iraq War. Or our victory in the Cold War. I’ll count this as a hit though because we got through the century and the Cold War without a preventative war. 4-0
Heinlein Prediction 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.
This has been a huge miss. Our houses are still custom-built using old techniques. 4-1
Heinlein Prediction 6: We’ll all be getting a little hungry by and by.
Heinlein admitted in 1980 that he’d missed this one, which is more than you can say for other overpopulation doomsayers. Overpopulation had been massively overestimated and the Green Revolution massively increased food production. It’s even more of a miss now. 4-2
Heinlein Prediction 7: The cult of the phony in art will disappear. So-called “modern art” will be discussed only by psychiatrists.
Miss. And it’s even more of a miss if you go beyond art. Thomas Pynchon and David Lynch are considered great. 4-3
Heinlein Prediction 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.
I don’t know enough to really say, but our efforts to treat mental illness is far more focused on biology. Call it a hit. Even in Heinlein’s day, Freud was regarded as archaic. 5-3
Heinlein 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.
A miss, but not one that far off. Tooth decay has been significantly reduced but cancer has proven to be far more complex and tenacious than we thought. We’re making progress. And regenerating tissue is a growing interest. But I can’t count this in his favor. 5-4.
Heinlein Prediction 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.
If you define “explore” as with robots, yes. But I don’t think that’s what he meant. And we aren’t anywhere near interstellar travel. Miss. 5-5.
Heinlein Prediction 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.
Yep. A huge hit. By 1980, Heinlein admitted this prediction had been too timid. I think he’d have loved smartphones. I now have the entire world in my pocket. 6-5.
Heinlein Prediction 12: Intelligent life will be found on Mars.. Ouch. 6-6. However, I will point out that it’s likely some form of primitive life did exist there. And I think it’s very likely we will find some form of life in the solar system during this century.
Heinlein Prediction 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.
The first part is sorta-true if you scale to the 1950 penny. The second wasn’t, despite Elon Musk’s efforts. We’ll call it a miss. 6-7.
Heinlein Prediction 14: A major objective of applied physics will be to control gravity.
Physics has made amazing strides. Controlling gravity hasn’t been one of them. Miss for a 6-8 record. There is, however, a funny bit regarding this in Expanded Universe, when scientists predict that the quark will never be detected.
Heinlein Prediction 15: We will not achieve a “World State” in the predictable future. Nevertheless, Communism will vanish from this planet.
It’s a pity Heinlein died right before communism collapsed. Hit. 7-8.
Heinlein Prediction 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.
Heinlein admitted this was a miss. He didn’t anticipate how easy it would become to transfer voter registration. 7-9.
Heinlein Prediction 17:All aircraft will be controlled by a giant radar net run on a continent-wide basis by a multiple electronic “brain.”
This wouldn’t be such a bad idea but air traffic control has managed to keep up using current technology. Most planes are landed by autopilot these days but I’ll still call it a miss. 7-10.
Heinlein Prediction 18: Fish and yeast will become our principal sources of proteins. Beef will be a luxury; lamb and mutton will disappear.
Miss. Overpopulation again turned out to be a big load of bad predictions. 7-11.
Heinlein Prediction 19: Mankind will not destroy itself, nor will “Civilization” be destroyed.
Well, we got to 2000 intact. That’s no guarantee of future returns, of course. Hit 8-11
Heinlein Prediction 20: Here are things we won’t get soon, if ever: travel through time, travel faster than the speed of light, “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, Nor a permanent end to war.
All of these were right. It turns out it’s a lot easier to predict what won’t happen than what will. 9-11.
So Heinlein has a losing record, overall. But you know what? By the standards of prognosticators, that was actually good. His biggest misses were on space travel and overpopulation. The first has been hampered more by politics and money. The space revolution may just be delayed, not prevented. The second was a faddish panic that, by 1980, Heinlein admitted has been overstated.
But contrast that against, say … Paul Ehrlich. Or a hundred other prognosticators who predicted economic collapse, overpopulation, the triumph of Communism or the collapse of civilization. Where Heinlein went right was when he was optimistic about human progress. Where we went wrong was when he was pessimistic (or, in the case of space travel, underestimated the monetary and political cost).
Predicting the future is hard, even for very smart and deep-thinking people like Heinlein. It’s the reason I am deeply skeptical when I see predictions that economic inequality will explode or that environmental destruction is inevitable or that some political development is a fait accompli. Think about how badly people do predicting elections. And that’s just a year or even months in advance.