25 years ago, L.A. Times predicted 2013: E-mail? Yes. Robot dogs? No

March 18, 2013 | 1:42 p.m.
The 1988 Los Angeles Times Magazine featured illustration by futurist Syd Mead. A detail from one work shows 1st Street looking west. (Los Angeles Times)

The 1988 Los Angeles Times Magazine featured illustrations by futurist Syd Mead. A detail from one work shows 1st Street looking west. (Syd Mead)

Do you enjoy waking up in your self-functioning house, coffee already prepared, your “personalized home newspaper” printed out and your robot cheerfully scurrying about the house doing chores? No? Then it turns out several of the L.A. Times Magazine’s predictions in 1988 of what 2013 would be like haven’t come true.

That’s not to say that this bit of archival gold isn’t without merit – after all, the notion of a “personalized home newspaper” rings especially true amid the outcry over Google’s decision to end its news-aggregating Google Reader. But we haven’t yet seen the likes of home robot Billy Rae.

“With a twitch, ‘Billy Rae,’ the Morrows’ mobile home robot, unplugs himself from the kitchen wall outlet … then wheels out of the kitchen and down the hall toward the master bedroom for his first task of the day. Raising one metallic arm, Billy Rae gently knocks on the door, calling out the Morrows’ names and the time in a pleasant, if slightly synthesized Southern drawl: ‘Hey, y’all — rise an’ shine!’ “

Thirteen reasons to fear the sci-fi future

Like many prognostications, it’s the general idea of the predictions that rings true. The ease with which fictional man-of-the-house Bill Morrow teleconferences with co-workers in Japan reminds us how far-out an idea the now commonplace Skype once was. “A sonar shield” to protect cars is basically here. The technology that senses when a car becomes alarmingly close to nearby objects is becoming more widespread, and GPS and traffic-sensing devices are as ubiquitous as the smartphones that house them.

Even more familiar — Bill’s wife, Alma, telecommutes to work in the mornings to avoid traffic (apparently not at Yahoo). And she communicates with co-workers remotely through the magic of “electronic mail,” the contents of which include “messages, graphics, illustrations and animated figures,” signaling that the L.A. Times Magazine may very well have predicted the rise of GIFs.

But scattered among the semi-correct predictions are the far-fetched looks into the future. No children excitedly wake up to the nuzzling of their robot dogs.

“Down the hall, 11-year-old Zach feels a gentle tugging on his sleeve. It’s his dog, “Max,” waking him up for school.  Although Zach thinks of him as a real dog, Max is a robo-pet.”

Sony’s AIBO proved to be a highly advanced failure, with production ceasing in 2006. And the idea that a family could have a 4-foot-tall robotic helper for just $5,000 seems as unlikely now as it did then, despite many advancements in robotics. The real 2013 robots are more along the lines of unmanned aircraft than Rosie from the Jetsons. And don’t expect to be putting on 3-D glasses to take part in business meetings, unless you’re working on the “Avatar” sequel.

And beyond consumer demand, another limiting factor to the dreams of 1988 are the all-too-familiar limitations of budgets. School desks with desktop-size computer screens — and the ability for teachers to display images from lessons on “the walls, ceilings and floor of the classroom” — would be wonderful. But in today’s world, most school districts are just struggling to maintain the status quo amid budgetary pressures.

As for the makeup of Los Angeles, predictions in 1988 hypothesized that the population under the domain of the Southern Californian Assn. of Governments would reach 18.3 million in 2010, 40% of whom would be Latino. That includes Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, San Bernardino, Riverside and Imperial counties.

And according to 2012 Census estimates, those numbers aren’t too far off the mark. The area’s population hit an estimated 18.4 million, with 45.7% identified as Latino.

As with any list of predictions, those presented by the L.A. Times Magazine are intriguing to look through, telling us as much about our past (you might notice the fixation on Japanese, not Chinese, business figures) as it does about our future. Sometimes it’s right — digital tours of the Louvre do exist — and sometimes it’s wrong, particularly with robots. Take a look, read through the article for yourself, and see which guesses you think are bunk and which ones might just be taking their time arriving.

One prediction, however, can be ruled out wholesale. Neither the kids of today nor the kids of tomorrow will be listening to whatever “futura-rock” is.

– Morgan Little | @mlittledc

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