What Isaac Asimov got right about today's robots

Not all the writer's predictions from the 1964 World's Fair came true

Published: April 28, 2014 04:00 PM

Fifty years ago when science fiction writer Isaac Asimov attended the 1964 World’s Fair he imagined a 2014 world in which people ate pre-prepared “automeals,” cars traveled above the ground on jets of air, and robots helped around the house and yard. “Gadgetry will continue to relieve mankind of tedious jobs,” Asimov predicted. As Consumer Reports’ tests have shown, some of Asimov’s musings were spot on while others seem as remote today as they did then.

“Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence,” Asimov wrote in The New York Times. That has been borne out in our tests in which a robotic vacuum cleaner shut itself in a room, a robotic gutter cleaner got mired in the muck, and the blades of a robotic mower continued to spin dangerously well after its mowing task was complete.

Fortunately, in our most recent tests of robotic vacuum cleaners, we found two good enough to recommend. The Roomba 760, $450, was excellent on carpet and bare floors and not too noisy. And it was a cinch to set up.  The LG Hom-Bot Square LrV790R, $800, was very good at cleaning carpet and floors, easy to use and quiet. We also had success with the Winbot 710 and 730 window cleaning robots. They cleaned fingerprints, dust, and streaks, but sometimes missed a spot. The Winbots saved work but not necessarily time, averaging nearly 30 seconds per square foot of window cleaned compared to  8 seconds when cleaned  by hand.

In Asimov’s vision of 2014, “Kitchen units will be devised that will prepare 'automeals,' heating water and converting it to coffee.” And indeed, most of the coffeemakers in our tests can be set at night to brew in the morning. Although, he underestimated today’s zest for home cooking when he said, “I suspect, though, that even in 2014 it will still be advisable to have a small corner in the kitchen unit where the more individual meals can be prepared by hand, especially when company is coming.” As it turns outs, today’s kitchens are bigger than ever.

Asimov also predicted the trend towards cordless tools when he said, “the appliances of 2014 will have no electric cords, of course, for they will be powered by long-lived batteries.” But here’s an area where there’s still room for improvement. In Consumer Reports tests of outdoor power equipment, cordless mowers typically don’t perform as well as gas-powered mowers but we’ve seen advances in cordless string trimmers and leaf blowers.

While Asimov’s visions of cities with moving sidewalks, cars that zoom along two-feet off the ground, and colonies on the moon are still the stuff of dreams, he was right about flat-screen TVs, Skype, and solar-power farms. Sadly, he was also right that we’d have “underwater housing,” just not in the way he envisioned.

—Mary H.J. Farrell

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