Stephen W. Browne Rants and Raves

January 4, 2018

It’s 2018, where’s my flying car?

Filed under: On Thinking,Science,Social Science & History — Stephen W. Browne @ 7:02 am

Oh my goodness it’s 2018. I used to read science fiction set in 2018!

Who am I kidding, I used to read science fiction set in 1970.

Wasn’t I supposed to have a flying car by now? And 2001 was 17 years ago, where’s that lunar base? We do have a space station, but it’s disappointing compared to Stanley Kubrick’s. What happened?

SciFi author Robert Heinlein once wrote a set of predictions in the 1950s about what life would be like in the early 21st century, then revisted them twice at long intervals to see what happened, what washed out and why, and what might yet happen.

His colleague Arthur C. Clarke once examined predictions made around the year 1900 to see what was expected, what wasn’t, and what was absurd.

Did you know Thomas Edison spent a lot of effort on a telegraph device to communicate with the dead?

Or that cars and airplanes were expected, but X-rays were not?

So what about us, well into the first quarter of the 21st century? What did we think was going to happen, what took us by surprise, and what might we expect?

Well flying cars, pardon the expression, never took off.

Lots of them were designed and work well enough, but frankly aren’t really good for much. What you get is generally a clumsy car and an underperforming light plane.

The fact is we’ve got an infrastructure for cars (roads) and one for light planes (small municipal airports), but they don’t combine very conveniently.

Portable computers though really weren’t expected. And when they did show up at first the biggest problem was finding something to do with them.

Remember when the early Apple was called, “The world’s most expensive Etch-a-Sketch”?

Then software developers started inventing things to do with them, became billionaires, and now we’d be hard put to do without them.

Consider the Internet. In 1982, Heinlein wrote a novel “Friday” in which he described the Web and the marvelous possibilities for research therein. He predicted that was going to happen about a hundred years later.

On the other hand, he was quite premature when he said in the 1960s that by the year 2000 we’d have visited all the planets of the solar system and would be building the first starship.

What went wrong?

For one, many predictions failed to take into account economic lead time. Space travel for example. It became technically possible before it became affordable. Working out the technical details was time-consuming and expensive.

For another the future is created by humans, and we are a cussed, ornery, and unpredictable lot.

Science fiction writers usually thought we’d build space stations first, establish a presence in orbit and go to the moon from there.

Then President John F Kennedy, smarting from a political embarrassment nobody remembers now distracted the attention of a nation with a bold plan to go to the moon within ten years.

We did, and it was magnificent. But in retrospect the SciFi writers may have been right. The economic return from space comes largely from orbit; communications satellites and such.

And there is the difference between developmental and breakthrough technology.

Computer power has been following Moore’s Law pretty reliably for decades now. The number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years. This happens by building upon existing technology in a systematic way.

Breakthrough technology however happens when it happens and cannot be predicted from what we know. Practical fusion power and strong AI (a computer you can discuss the meaning of life with) were “just around the corner” for a long time before we admitted we just didn’t know when or even if it would ever happen.

So what can we expect?

Well we know that technological change is happening faster than ever before, and the rate of change is increasing. But we don’t know if it will continue to speed up, or slow down and eventually level off.

But if it does continue some say we will reach what’s called the Singularity, beyond which it is impossible to predict what will happen.

But being human, that won’t stop us from trying.

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