One of the highlights of the past fortnight’s jollity was a six-minute clip, placed by the BBC Archive on social media. A class of teenagers in 1966 attempted to predict what life would be like in the year 2000.
The footage from Tomorrow’s World, a BBC television programme, was viewed close to half a million times in its first four days online and attracted about 4,000 comments. It is fascinating for anyone interested in futurology.
The children of 1966 were a profoundly gloomy lot. Pessimists outnumber optimists by six to one. The miserabilists are principally worried about a nuclear apocalypse, which several regard as inevitable.
Overpopulation is mentioned repeatedly, as is unemployment caused by automation and computers (“Something has to be done about it,” says one). Factory farming comes up, as does boredom occasioned by uniformity, rationing — and the prospect of having to live on food pills.
Climate change is fretted over, after a fashion, by two children. A boy argues that orbiting satellites are interfering with the weather and will cause sea levels to rise “by 300ft to 600ft”. A girl believes the sun will burn out and start an ice age.
Another boy takes a different tack: “People will be regarded more as statistics than as actual people.” Another imagines: “I may be at the funeral of a computer, or if something goes wrong with a nuclear bomb, coming back from hunting while living in a cave.” I like that.
The outnumbered optimists speak of racial harmony, of rich and poor still existing but getting on fine, of medical advances, and of better architecture (“more rounded and less boxy”). One girl’s optimism is non-specific: “People think the earth will explode but it won’t,” she says.
For the most part, those viewing the clips have taken from it exactly what they wished.
If their big worry is climate change, they seize on the 1966 interviewees’ mention of the weather as being super-perceptive. The child who says we will all be mere statistics by 2000 — not a particularly brilliant point — is hailed as a veritable seer by those who believe we are all helpless subjects of Google and Amazon.
“These kids are so right,” says one Twitter commentator. “Pretty much spot on with nearly everything they said!”
“Some very clever kids,” writes someone else on Facebook, “that can see what the future for animals and mankind is going to be very clearly. They can even think for themselves.”
The Tomorrow’s World children seem serious and articulate, but their speculation mirrors only the stock dismal concerns of the day. I am of a similar age to those 1966 teenagers. As children, we were aware of the nuclear arms race, as I recollect, but we were mostly talking about “Americanisation” and of politics. Also missing is much of the era’s upbeat stuff on space exploration, technological marvels and cultural changes.
As for the children’s predictions proving accurate, I am afraid I do not agree — albeit as a perennial optimist and enthusiast for the 21st century.
The boy concerned about automation and its effect on jobs — a hot topic today — may seem unusually prescient. Perhaps he was and thought about it all on his own. But again, automation was widely discussed in newspapers and on television in the 1960s. Even aged 11, I remember family discussions about it.
An important book in 1966 was the University of Massachusetts economist Ben Seligman’s Most Notorious Victory: Man in an Age of Automation. Among its chapter headings: “Work Without Men” and “The Trauma We Await”. President Lyndon B Johnson even established a priority National Commission on Technology, Automation, and Economic Progress in 1964.
马萨诸塞大学(University of Massachusetts)经济学家本?塞利格曼(Ben Seligman)所著的《最臭名昭著的胜利：自动化时代的人类》(Most Notorious Victory: Man in an Age of Automation)是1966年颇为重要的一本书。该书的章节标题包括：“无人工作”(Work Without Men)和“我们等待的创伤”(The Trauma We Await)。时任美国总统林登?B?约翰逊(Lyndon B. Johnson)甚至在1964年成立了科技、自动化和经济进步国家委员会，并将其放在优先地位。
For me, the Tomorrow’s World clip has highlighted how we should be wary of basing prognostication on what is currently fashionable. Modish concerns rarely turn out to be on the money.
The late Adrian Berry, a British science writer and Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, the Royal Geographical Society and the British Interplanetary Society, went so far as to argue that humans fret over imaginary dangers, and that the degree of panic tends to be in inverse proportion to real peril.
已故的英国科学作家阿德里安?贝里(Adrian Berry)是皇家天文学会(Royal Astronomical Society)、皇家地理学会(Royal Geographical Society)以及英国星际航行协会(British Interplanetary Society)的成员。他甚至认为，人类对想象中的危险感到担忧，而恐慌程度往往与真正的危险成反比。
My nomination, then, for the leading misplaced fear of 2018 is artificial intelligence, which has dominated the future-gazing agenda for the past year.
There are many reasons for believing AI will not turn out be the monster so many fear. Frontline AI experts I have met, such as Ralf Herbrich, Amazon’s head of machine learning, believe claims made for the technology are overblown. AI, Mr Herbrich and many others say, is machine learning, which in turn is advanced pattern recognition — and is neither designed nor capable of “taking over the world”.
Without meaning to be flippant, a good reason for not giving today’s popular concern about AI much credence is precisely that it is a popular concern. If you are predicting what will really trouble us in the future, I commend you to look elsewhere.