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No robots in our homes, but many predictions about 2013 come true

USC students are studying forecasts that were made in the L.A. Times Magazine 25 years ago about life in Los Angeles in 2013.

By Bob Pool

9:32 AM PDT, March 14, 2013

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Jerry Lockenour couldn't predict what lay ahead for him 25 years ago when he stashed the Los Angeles Times' Magazine on a cabinet shelf.

The April 3, 1988, magazine's cover illustration showed bubble-shaped cars traveling in "electro lanes" on a double-decked, high-rise-lined 1st Street in downtown's Civic Center area. The cover's headline was "L.A. 2013: Techno-Comforts and Urban Stresses — Fast Forward to One Day in the Life of a Future Family."

Inside was a lengthy essay that described a day in the life of a fictional Granada Hills family in April 2013. Shorter secondary stories explored experts' opinions about future transportation issues, pollution, crime, overpopulation, computerized education and use of personal robots.

DOCUMENT: 1988 'L.A. 2013' essay

At the time, Lockenour was a 43-year-old engineering director with Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems in El Segundo. He tucked the "L.A. 2013" magazine away, figuring that it might be fun to compare its predictions with the way Los Angeles actually turned when the real 2013 rolled around.

He retired from Northrop Grumman in 2009, began teaching at USC and — 25 years after the article was published — he found himself in charge of a graduate class in technology development and applications at the school's Viterbi School of Engineering.

He realized that he already had a teaching aid. "I kept the article thinking it would be great to pull out 25 years later and see how we did," said Lockenour, 67, of Manhattan Beach.

"In class we study emerging science and technology that can change the future," he said. The magazine helps students see the relevance of the developments they are reading about in textbooks and professional journals, he said.

The magazine pieces were written by Nicole Yorkin, drawing from interviews she conducted with more than 30 futurists and experts. Yorkin, daughter of television producer-writer Bud Yorkin, went on to become an Emmy-nominated TV writer-producer herself. Her credits include the 2009-10 science-fiction series "FlashForward."

The make-believe family in the essay had two robots in their high-tech home. "Bill and Alma Morrow" had a housekeeper robot that not only cleaned but cooked and washed clothes. Their 11-year-old son "Zack" had a robotic pet dog. The only thing old-fashioned in the Morrow home was Bill's 70-year old mother "Camille," who had reluctantly embraced life in a household filled with video phones, a refrigerator that kept a running inventory of its contents and telecommuting equipment.

Lockenour provided his 25 students with electronic copies of the magazine and they divvied up the articles to determine which of the 1988 predictions came true. To their surprise, the students — some of whom weren't even born when Yorkin's look into the future was published — found that many predictions have become reality.

Yorkin's experts had foreseen smart cars that would drive themselves by 2013. The luxury cars that she wrote about zipping eastbound in the 118 Freeway's "electro lanes" were outfitted with "inductive couplers" — something that isn't on the market yet. But the technology exists: Google engineers are testing driverless cars that are equipped with a laser radar system.

"You find some cars that will help park themselves now, so parts of it have already happened," said Mohammadali Parsian, a 23-year-old USC student from Iran. "Electro lanes? It makes sense.... It takes 25 or 30 years for new things to come into place."

Classmate Chiraag Dodhia, 24, of Kenya, was also startled by how many of the 1988 transportation predictions were on target. "Things like every car will have computers. Back then it wasn't common for cars to have diagnostic features and low tire-pressure alarms," he said.

Other things forecast by the magazine — magnetic induction that lifts cars off the road, car computers that talk to other cars' computers — may be on the horizon, Dodhia said.

The 1988 forecasts saw a high-tech revolution occurring in public schools by 2013. There would be neighborhood satellite campuses of about 300 pupils with high-resolution computer screens for walls and ceilings. Desks would have built-in computers operated by smart cards.

"Her prediction was not that far off," said graduate student Nikolaos Vagias, 26, of Greece. "We don't have smart cards, but we have smartphones and tablets with all these applications. Just like the article said, the price of computers is going down so every kid can afford one."

Hitendra Mistry, a 25-year-old student from India, noted that even Lockenour's course is live-streamed to students elsewhere through USC's Distance Educational Network.

Walter Glaeser, a 50-year-old Boeing systems engineer who lives in St. Louis, is one of nine students taking the class through the network. Some of the magazine's predictions were far-fetched, he said, but then again, "I've never actually met any of my USC professors face to face in the time I've been pursuing my master's degree."

Yorkin's experts' predictions that inexpensive household robots would hit the marketplace in the late 1990s seemed the most off base.

"Maybe they'll be common in 2023," said graduate student Alexander Zeng, 24, a Santa Barbara native. "The closest things we have now are those little vacuum cleaner things that move on their own."

But classmate Leonidas Pavlos Kyparissous, 25, of Greece argued otherwise, citing automated devices that control things like heating and air conditioning, stoves and coffee makers.

"These smart systems can do lots of things and can be controlled many ways — over the Internet, with phones," he said. "But the technology out there today is far better than what we're actually using."

The magazine also predicted more crowding, heavier traffic and more pollution in the year 2013. Population and traffic congestion have indeed increased, but air pollution has lessened, said student Matt Petros, 28, of Tarzana.

"They actually underestimated the growth of the Latino population. And manufacturing here decreased a lot more than they thought it would," Petros said.

"People back then thought Los Angeles in 2013 would be strangled by crime," said classmate Duwarahan Rajendra, 30, of Sri Lanka. "Things like that are very hard to predict."

As for Yorkin, she's surprised that people remember the magazine issue.

"I'm amazed that someone decided to save a copy of it," she said. "At the time, 2013 seemed so far away."

bob.pool@latimes.com