Isaac Asimov, the Power of Psychohistory

Asimov is one of the great precursors of science fiction. His Foundation series is developed around a key concept: psychohistory. Could this science be left to tangible reality?

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Isaac Asimov has been seen as one of the fathers of contemporary science fiction. Author of more than 500 volumes, which were written and edited by him, his work is invaluable.

Born in Russia, but trained in the United States, Asimov was always a faithful defender of applied science. In addition, he firmly believed in the power of science fiction as a precursor to real science.

Two of his most important sagas are Yo, Robot and Fundación. The first is centered on Three Laws of Robotics, an ethical code that governs a fantasy world.

But, perhaps, Asimov’s most popular work is the Foundation series. In it, Isaac looks at the concept of psychohistory, a scientific discipline completely invented by him. Psychohistory is the combination of mass psychology with high level mathematics in order to predict the behavior of a society.

In this article, we will try to get closer to Asimov’s work and his great contributions to literature and science. How did psychohistory go from being a fictional discipline to becoming a possible branch of social psychology?

Isaac Asimov, the life of the genius

Isaac Asimov was born in Russia in the year 1920, although, early, he moved to Brooklyn with his parents. In New York, Asimov proved to be a young man with incredible talent; At the age of five, Isaac had already learned to read in a self-taught way.

Shortly after learning to read and write in English to perfection, Isaac would also learn Yiddish, the language of the Ashkenazi Jews. At age 15, Isaac graduated in high school and entered Columbia University. At only 19 years old, Asimov had already graduated from university.

Like many young people at the time, just after graduating from the University, Asimov would enter the ranks of the army. At this time, specifically during the year 1939, the career of Isaac Asimov as a writer of science fiction begins to develop.

During the Second World War, Asimov worked at the Naval Aviation Experimental Station in Philadelphia, United States. In this place, he would come into contact with other people who, like Asimov, would end up becoming recognized science fiction authors, such as Robert Heinlein and L. Sprague de Camp.

After the war, Isaac would continue his academic career, returned to Columbia University to pursue a PhD in Biochemistry in 1948. Upon graduation, as a Doctor of Science, Isaac Asimov joined the faculty of Boston University .

Over the course of a decade, Asimov contributed by publishing several columns in different science fiction and fantasy magazines. These columns were the development of the stories that make up its two major series: Me, Robot and Foundation. The stories that Asimov captured in his columns had a certain relationship and, thus, they were compiled to conform the titles that we know today.

Foundation and psychohistory

Inspired by the fall of the Roman Empire, the Foundation series started in the last days of the Galactic Empire. Asimov presents us with a reality that, although chronologically takes place in the very distant future, is chillingly plausible.

In this future, the fall of the Empire would imply an Age of Darkness -in clear allusion to the Middle Ages-, which would last 30,000 years. Hari Seldon, inventor of psychohistory, determined that this period could be reduced to only 1,000 years if it brought together the brightest minds of the Empire on a single planet. The chosen planet would be Terminus, the wise will be in charge of storing all the knowledge acquired in recent years.

Although Asimov’s narrative is active and immersive, it is not his literary ability that interests us at this moment. The science of psychohistory is perhaps one of the greatest predictions that have been given since science fiction.

Psychohistory is, basically, the harmonious union between mass psychology, anthropology and high level mathematics. A skilful psychohistorian could predict the pattern of behavior of an entire society in the distant future.

Fortunately for humanity, every so often science manages to bring to reality many inventions that had already been described in science fiction literature. Psychohistory seemed to be an attractive concept, but not feasible in the real world.

However, the new century brought with it countless technological advances. The use of the internet and all the platforms that are hosted in it translates into an enormous production of data. But what would happen if psychohistory used this data to become more than just an illusion of science fiction?

Psychohistory and reality: big data analysis

The data we are talking about can come from a huge number of sources and measure almost any online phenomenon. The amount of time a user invests in a web page, the most attractive content, the most popular colors, the life time of a product, the dynamics of a trend… In short, the flow of data is infinite.

At present, that data flow is known as big data or, in other words, a set of data of great variety. These data are stored at a very high speed and arrive, each time, in larger quantities.

Big data constitutes all those data that humanity generates electronically and that can not yet be processed by traditional databases.

Various social scientists, mathematicians and engineers are working hard to find an adequate way to process all the data. Many of them recognize that although processing can be hard work, the fruits are immense.

The books allow us to look at the past, towards a specific moment in our history, also at our present and even to consider possible futures that would derive from it. The Internet, on the other hand, gives us a broader view of the present, but the analysis of data would allow us to look to the future in a more objective way.

However, Asimov’s psychohistory is clear at one point: not everyone can exercise it and discover patterns of behavior in the future. As with psychohistorians, finding true value in all useless data can be an almost impossible task.

The process of discovery and psychohistorical calculation requires, for Asimov, a group of professionals. These professionals must specialize in data analysis, theories and social history, business experience, executives and scientists. Only a large group can ask the right questions, predict behaviors and recognize the precise patterns.

Isaac Asimov was a pioneer, one of those figures in history who has managed to expand our vision of the world, project it into a future. Through works of fiction, it has opened the way to something more tangible, more real and with practical applications.