Back to Apple’s Future

Apple's 1987 promo video forecast the world 25 years hence. Hey! That's now!

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Editor’s Note (added 7 March 2013): The Knowledge Navigator sequence of this video was created in 1987 and presented at an educational computing trade show by then Apple CEO John Sculley. The introduction was appended later, in the 1990s.

Back when Apple made the original Macintosh, the company created videos predicting what computing might be like in the future. In hindsight, the results were both eerily prescient and embarrassingly risible. IEEE Spectrum editors Stephen Cass, Steven Cherry, and Jean Kumagai affectionately recap the highs and lows of Apple's 1987 vision of a world with a futuristic “Knowledge Navigator” device—including talking tablets, life without cellphones, and loads of family issues.


Jean Kumagai: So, what are we watching today?

Steven Cherry: Apple’s prescient vision of the future.

[Onscreen title]

Knowledge Navigator

Apple’s 1987 vision of the future

Narrator: Sharing information on the Internet is profoundly changing how we communicate.

Stephen Cass: From the 1990’s, when the future was beige—when earth tones will rule the world.

Narrator: In the near future using the Internet will be as common as using telephone services we have today….

Stephen Cass: Of course the telephone will be eaten by the Internet.

Narrator: ...I suspect we’ll hardly even notice when we’re online. To give you an idea of how different things may be in just a few years, let’s take a look at the future….

Stephen Cass: Now we call it SkyNet.

Narrator: ...you’ll see a professor who is collaborating with a colleague. Now the technology he’s using doesn’t really exist, but it’s based on capabilities we have today: network file sharing, voice recognition...

Stephen Cass: Still working on it, Apple, you’re still working on it.

Narrator: ...even intelligent agents. Although you may not have realized it, those of you who have conducted database queries or explored the Web using a search tool like Yahoo...

Jean Kumagai: Yahoo!

Steven Cherry: Mommy, What was Yahoo?

Stephen Cass: Yes, the beginning of the sentient Internet: the Yahoo search bar.

Narrator: ...in the future, they’ll be able to do a lot more.

Jean Kumagai: In the future, there will be chamber music.

Steven Cherry: And paper.

Stephen Cass: And a seismograph?

Stephen Cass: And clearly the set designer from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” will still have a job.

Steven Cherry: We do still have sport jackets. They got that right. Looks like a tablet.

Intelligent Agent Bob: You have three messages....

Stephen Cass: Now intelligent agents I can believe, but three messages in the morning?

Intelligent Agent Bob: ...Robert Jordan: a second semester junior requesting a second extension on his term paper.

Stephen Cass: Which you are too lazy to read.

Intelligent Agent Bob: And your mother reminding you about your father’s…

Stephen Cass: Oooh! Touch screen!

Professor Bradford: …surprise birthday party next Sunday.

Intelligent Agent Bob: Today you have a faculty lunch at twelve o’clock. You need to take Cathy to the airport by two…

Jean Kumagai: Why can’t Cathy take herself to the airport in the future?

Steven Cherry: Mommy, What’s an airport?

Intelligent Agent Bob: ...a lecture at 4:15 on deforestation in the Amazon rain forest.

Professor Bradford: Right. Let me see the lecture notes from last semester.

Stephen Cass: Because I’m too lazy to come up with new ones.

Professor Bradford: No, that’s not enough. I need to review more-recent literature. Pull up all the new articles I haven’t read yet.

Jean Kumagai: Because I need to plagiarize.

Intelligent Agent Bob: Journal articles only?

Professor Bradford: Fine.

Intelligent Agent Bob: Your friend Jill Gilbert has published an article about deforestation in the Amazon and it’s effects on rainfall in the sub-Sahara. It also covers droughts’ effect on food production in Africa and increasing imports of food.

Professor Bradford: Contact Jill.

Steven Cherry: Why not just ask the agent to write the lecture?

Intelligent Agent Bob: I left a message that you had called.

Professor Bradford: Okay. Let’s see. There’s an article about five years ago. Doctor Flemson or something.

Stephen Cass: I’m glad his students are getting the up-to-date research

Intelligent Agent Bob: John Fleming, of Uppsala University.

Jean Kumagai: Now how could he know that?

Intelligent Agent Bob: He published in the Journal of Earth Science of July 20 of 2006.

Stephen Cass: And why is the agent such a nerd?

Professor Bradford: Yes, that’s it. He was challenging Jill’s prediction of the amount of carbon dioxide being released to the atmosphere through deforestation. I’d like to recheck his figures.

Intelligent Agent Bob: Here is the rate of deforestation he predicted.

Steven Cherry: He got the trend right.

Stephen Cass: Yeah, but he didn’t use the dots.

Professor Bradford: ...He was really off. Get me the university research network.

Stephen Cass: Ah, Canada, we knew you well before the zombie apocalypse of 2013.

Steven Cherry: So they foresaw the iPad, but not iPhone?

Professor Bradford: Show Brazil.

Stephen Cass: That’s Brazil all right.

Jean Kumagai: Oh, yeah.

Professor Bradford: Copy the last 30 years at this location at one-month intervals.

Jean Kumagai: Is that a mag stripe?

Intelligent Agent Bob: Excuse me. Jill Gilbert is calling back.

Stephen Cass: All these cutting-edge icons.

Professor Bradford: Great, put her through.

Jill Gilbert: Hi, Mike. What’s up?

Professor Bradford: Jill, thanks for getting back to me. Well, I guess that new grant of yours hasn’t dampened your literary abilities.

Jean Kumagai: Jealous much?

Professor Bradford: ...you’ve just put out the definitive article on deforestation.

Steven Cherry: Flattery still exists.

Jill Gilbert: Is this one of your typical last-minute panics for lecture material?

Stephen Cass: Yes. Yes, it is Jill.

Professor Bradford: ...if you were available to make a few comments. Nothing formal. After my talk you would come up on the big screen, discuss your article, and then answer some questions from the class.

Jill Gilbert: You know, I have a simulation that shows the spread of the Sahara over the last 20 years. Here, let me show you.

Steven Cherry: Couldn’t she and the agent just cut the professor out of the process?

Professor Bradford: Nice. Very nice. I’ve got some maps of the Amazon area over the same time. Let’s put these together.

Stephen Cass: He’s so happy that the disaster of millions makes his lecture easier….

Ah, yes, because as we all know, correlation is causation

Professor Bradford: Interesting. I can definitely use this. Thanks for your time. I really appreciate it.

Jill Gilbert: No problem. But next time I’m in Berkeley, you’re buying the dinner.

Professor Bradford: Dinner, right.

Steven Cherry: Dinner, then collaboration.

Jill Gilbert: See you, 4:15.

Professor Bradford: Bye-bye.

Intelligent Agent Bob: While you were busy, your mother called you again to remind you to pick up the birthday cake.

Professor Bradford: Fine, fine. Print this article before I go.

Stephen Cass: But blow off my mother

Intelligent Agent Bob: Now printing.

Professor Bradford: Okay, I’m going to lunch now. If Cathy calls....

Stephen Cass: So his entire workday consists of 4 minutes of getting other people to do his work? Truly a bright future.

Steven Cherry: That’s Apple’s being prescient: full-time limo driver, part-time professor.

Intelligent Agent Bob: Hello, Professor Bradford is away at the moment. Would you like to leave a message?

Jean Kumagai: Because in the future they don’t have cellphones

Professor Bradford’s Mom: Michael, this is your mother. I know that you’re there. I’m just calling to remind you....

Stephen Cass: Wow, whoever made this video was dealing with some serious family issues.

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