Tom Selleck's scary accurate tech predictions from '90s AT&T ads

When we think of the visionaries who foresaw the tech marvels of the new millennium, one name is always at the tip of everyone's tongue: Tom Selleck.

Yes, that Tom Selleck. Icon of all things mustache; sex symbol for 1980s housewives; and, in hindsight, crazy accurate futurologist. Back in the early 1990s, before Google was a company and when Mark Zuckerberg was still in the fifth grade, Tom Selleck voiced a series of ubiquitous AT&T commercials touting that company's place in the coming communications revolution. And, as it turns out, Magnum P.I. (and the ads' writers) was spot-on with many of his predictions.

Here's a score card based on three of AT&T's "You Will" ads from 1993, which — as you'll see — comes out surprisingly in the company's favor.

Before we get to scoring, let's take a look at those ads all in one tidy video:

"Have you ever borrowed a book from thousands of miles away?"

Right on the money, Tom. Of course, while we've been able to buy electronic versions of a bunch of books and magazines on Amazon since '07, the visuals of the commercial specifically hint at the ability for a college student to peruse through an ancient text from a remote library. This is basically accurate.

In 2004, Google announced its Google Print Library Project (now Google Books), where the company scanned thousands of public domain books from libraries around the world, converted the images to text and stored the result online. Also, in a more literal sense, Barnes and Noble's Nook allows users to actually "borrow" a book via that device's LendMe feature.

Score: +1 Point

"Have you ever crossed the country without stopping for directions?"

Quigley Down Under is correct again. Also of note here, the special effects crew crafted a fairly accurate rendition of the interface that GPS units such as a Garmin would end up utilizing (check it out around the :10 mark). We've even outpaced this prediction with our smartphone mapping apps — this tech now fits in your pocket.

Score: +1 Point

"Have you sent someone a fax… from the beach?"

Never done that, and I don't think I ever will. And I'm okay with that. The last time I faxed anything was my lunch order to Chipotle a few years ago, but then I discovered the chain's online ordering system.

That being said, services like eFAX allow you to fax directly from your computer, which theoretically could be anywhere, including a tropical beach bungalow. But, really, why? Especially when you have a very iPad-like tablet device at the :20 mark.

Score: +1 Point, -1 Point

"Have you ever paid a toll without slowing down?"

Sure have! However, both Tom and I are a little behind the times on this one. Electronic Toll Collection (ETC) was already being utilized in Norway in 1986. This tech is now common throughout the world including 14 regional toll systems in the US that allow you to fly through a toll while a sensor reads a tag fixed to your windshield.

Score: +1 Point

"Have you ever bought concert tickets from a cash machine?

Nope. I have bought tickets on my iPhone and from strangers on StubHub. I'm not sure why Tom is insistent on placing an unnecessary middleman on this one, especially when a world of mobility is stressed throughout the "You Will" ads. We can buy concert across any number of devices, sitting on a beach or wherever.

Score: +1 Point, -1 Point

"Have you ever tucked your baby in from a phone booth?"

Phone booth? What is this, Dr. Who meets 3 Men and a Little Lady? Webcams have actually been around since the very early 1990s. The latest example he might be hinting at might be Apple's FaceTime, which allows video calling from just about anywhere (score one for you, AT&T). Once again, there's an unnecessary step here. So, I'm awarding partial credit.

Score: +1 Point, -1 Point

"Have you ever opened doors with the sound of your voice?"

A rare miss for Tom. This tech is probably possible now, but it hasn't been implemented on any large scale — certainly not as a replacement for traditional locks and keys. Personally, at this point in voice recognition software's development, I wouldn't entrust my ability to escape a thundering downpour to the same tech that transcribes phone messages for Google Voice.

Score: -1 Point

"Have you ever carried your medical history in your wallet?"

No, but that's not technology's fault. When you go to any doctor's office today, you will find a massive wall of paper files. It's a problem. This massive dead tree bureaucracy adds enormous costs to our healthcare and more, besides being just a hassle. The concept of Electronic Medical Records (EMR) has existed for decades, but no one seems to have found a way to integrate it on a universal scale. But the tech is possible; you certainly could store it all on the cloud or on your smart phone.

Google launched Google Health (a way to store your medical history on Google's servers) as a beta version in 2008 and has even given it a makeover as recently as September 2010. It's not widely used, though — ultimately more because of a lack of leadership rather than technological shortcomings — so this one only gets Selleck partial marks.

Score: +1 Point, -1 Point

"Have you ever attended a meeting in your bare feet?"

Me personally? No. I did have a boss who was known to take off his shoes and put his feet up on the table during meetings, but that wasn't technology's doing, that was just a deplorable lack of class. In this instance, Tom is referring to web conferencing. So, yeah, if I really wanted to, I could do some business via my laptop from a Wi-Fi enabled location while my feet were all nekkid. So, I'll give this one to Mr. Baseball.

Score: +1 Point

"Have you ever watched the movie you wanted to, the minute you wanted to?"

This is close to being true, but isn't there as of December 2010. Not every movie is available instantaneously and anywhere (legally or illegally). Still, Netflix and similar streaming services boast a sizable library despite some very conspicuous holes. It's not out of the realm of possibility that every major studio film will be available for streaming in the next three years.

However, Monica from Friends' age-inappropriate boyfriend claims that I will be able to watch any movie, not just any movie from a large pool of movies. So, I'm going to have to mark him down on this one, even if that will likely change soon enough.

Score: -1 Point

"Have you learned special things from far away places?"

"Distance learning," they call it. You can be told all about the history of jazz while you sit in your computer chair in a robe. Internet classes have been around for a while, and just about everything is a Google search away, besides. Still, even without the Internet offering us a wealth of free information, online universities — and even universities that simply put select lectures online for anyone to see, such as MIT — make this a spot-on prediction for Selleck.

Score: +1 Point


(+9 points, - 6 points)

Not too bad for a group of ads from 1993, eh? Nowadays AT&T ads and the like are all about reassuring consumers that the company's network is fast and powerful, not about all the cool stuff we'll be able to enjoy in 10 years. Maybe the future has finally arrived after all?

For the latest tech stories, follow us on Twitter at @dvice