The future is ours to create

Randy Riley - Contributing columnist

In the mid-1980s, I attended the annual conference of the American Association of Respiratory Care in Washington, D.C. There are always numerous lectures and abstract presentations about the latest research and developments in the practice of respiratory therapy. A few thousand therapists always attend the conference.

The conference is held in a different major city each year. The keynote address is usually given by a nationally recognized speaker who excels in either healthcare or science.

At that mid-1980s conference, it was slightly different. The keynote address was given by a Russian-born biochemist and prolific writer. He was also famous as a futurist, someone who could predict future lifestyle trends and scientific breakthroughs based on recent scientific developments.

A futurist does not make predictions like a psychic or a clairvoyant. A futurist often tends to be a science fiction writer.

Then, several years after they have published a book, short story or a movie script, people realize that many of the details in their fictional writings have become reality.

For science-fiction to later become science-fact, there always needs to be a lot of substance in the fiction that was written as part of the story. That is exactly what a great science fiction writer does.

Isaac Asimov was a great science fiction writer and an excellent keynote speaker. In fact, Asimov was one of the most prolific writers of the past century. He wrote well over 500 books and novels, as well as thousands of scientific papers and essays on almost every topic imaginable.

It has been said that he never had a thought that he did not write down and eventually have published.

In the 1960s, after a lifetime of using a slide rule for complex calculations, Asimov became frustrated because there were so many confusing opinions about how to use a slide rule. To solve the problem, he wrote an instructional book on what he thought would be the final word on the subject of slide rules.

He wrote an entire series of stories about robots and the laws of robotics. In one of his stories, he wrote about the captain of a spacecraft who needed to do complex calculations while flying around in outer space.

Asimov described in detail what the calculator looked like. He described the little display screen near the top of the calculation device. He described the numbered buttons on the front of the device. He even described the rubberized little green feet on the bottom of the calculator that kept it from sliding around.

In 1955, he perfectly described a small desktop calculator.

During his keynote address, Asimov stated that it was overwhelming to be considered a futurist. He affirmed that he had no special gift for predictions. He didn’t own a crystal ball.

To illustrate this, he pointed out to us that his book, “An Easy Introduction to the Slide Rule,” came out in 1965.

Several months later, Texas Instruments started mass production of their first handheld calculator. It was small, portable and could be placed on any countertop or desktop. It was almost exactly what was described by Isaac Asimov 10-years earlier. It even had little green rubberized feet to keep it from sliding around.

Laughingly, he told us that his books usually sold in the thousands. His book about the slide rule sold about eight copies. He said, “If only I had known…”

Many books have been written about the future. Many of those stories have had dismal endings. I have heard people say that what we are living through right now could be crafted into a Stephen King novel.

It is scary, but as with most dark times that are filled with fear, there are also beams of hope that shine through the darkness and brighten the world.

I’m encouraged by the outpouring of donations to our various food pantries. People are committed to assuring that our friends and neighbors are fed. People are committed to attending church on Sunday, even if the service is held on YouTube or Facebook. People are logging in and worshiping with others. That is good.

Even if we must struggle to maintain our optimism, it will be worth the struggle.

The Wilmington Optimist Club used to meet weekly. Every week we would recite the Optimist Creed. Part of that creed is that we should, “Forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future.”

One of the concepts I have always adhered to is that; “Our children’s future should be better than our past.”

We owe that to our children and grandchildren.

Randy Riley is former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.

Randy Riley

Contributing columnist