Friday, May 29, 2009

The future is here today.

There is an article on CNN.com today entitled, Why our 'amazing' science fiction future fizzled.

It features a shot from the new "Star Trek" movie, and then reads,

(CNN) -- At the 1964 New York World's Fair, people stood in line for hours to look at a strange sight.

They wanted to see the "Futurama," a miniaturized replica of a typical 21st century American city that featured moving sidewalks, computer-guided cars zipping along congestion-free highways and resort hotels beneath the sea.

Forty years later, we're still waiting for those congestion-free highways -- along with the jet pack, the paperless office and all those "Star Trek"-like gadgets that were supposed to make 21st-century life so easy.


Well, I couldn't disagree more.

First off, let's forget "Star Trek" because Star Trek is set in the 23rd century, not the 21st, and I suspect that if you check back in 200 years you will see things that no one alive today has even imagined, although even today modern cell phones bear an uncanny resemblance to those old Star Trek communicators. True that the communicators worked even deep underground on planets where there were no satellites or cell phone towers, but it's hard to imagine that in 200 years people won't solve that problem.

The article does go on to mention that some of the futuristic devices (like jetpacks to fly around with) have been invented, just not put into practical application.

It also points out that teleportation has been carried out in a laboratory on the scale of subatomic energy particles (photons), but is not in practical use. Again, even Star Trek transporters aren't due for another 200 years if you believe the series and it is certainly reasonable to think that early research going on today could well lead to practical application (say to transport a human) in 200 years or less.

What about the moving sidewalks and computer guided cars and undersea hotels? I could certainly take the easy way out and point out that the 'typical 21st century city' is presumably more in line with the mid 21st century than the early 21st century (keep in mind that television would certainly be an example of what nineteeth century dwellers would have called a technological marvel but which was 'typical' in the 20th century; however Philo T. Farnsworth didn't invent it until 1922 and didn't apply for the patent on it until 1927.)

However, I would suggest that we won't see the moving sidewalks much beyond where they already exist (such as airports and some luxury hotels, where people often need to walk long distances carrying luggage) and while there may eventually be a few undersea hotels they will be very limited, and the reason has to do more with twentieth century perceptions than twenty-first century lack of progress.

In 1964 when the world's fair was held, nobody cared much about pollution or the environment. The earth's resources were there for man's exploitation, there seemed to be an almost limitless supply of "Wilderness" (especially in the ocean) and pollution like the fossil fuel-fired smoke that made streetlights burn at noon in places like Pittsburgh was seen as a sign of industrial progress, not anything to be concerned about. In fact, people were so dismissive of the health effects of breathing all that smoke that the majority of the adult population smoked tobacco so that they could get all the benefits of a walk in the smog without even going outside. Energy wasn't thought to be a big problem (especially with the limitless energy of the atom being harnessed by mankind.)

Things have changed a bit since then. Quite a bit.

We have become much more aware of the environment and the need to limit our impact on it. And we've done a great deal to clean it up. I live a couple of miles from a major coal fired power plant and the day and night sky here are clearer than they probably would have been in 1964 even if the plant didn't exist then (which in fact, it didn't.) Nuclear energy causes different-- but no less severe-- impacts on the environment and since Three Mile Island and Chernobyl it's not the magic bullet for solving our energy problems that it was thought to be in 1964. Moving sidewalks in every city would be a tremendous waste of energy (besides, we've become much more aware of how much the couch potato ideal of the 1960's-- then called 'creature comforts'-- was damaging our health-- not even having to walk from one point to another is yet another fantasy that many of us wouldn't even want even if it were practical.) Where they make sense (airports) they exist. Elsewhere, they are not consistent with today's urban plan. I bet the people who thought of the 21st century city never foresaw bike paths and hiking trails (and certainly they did not foresee so much open space) in the middle of major metropolitan areas. And if you really do hate to walk on the sidewalk, then the answer is to buy a Segway.

The undersea hotels won't exist, for a similar reason. We've learned that the ocean is a very delicate ecosystem and there is already a lack of sustainable coral reefs in the world (presumably you'd want to build a hotel where there would be something to see.) Clearly it would also be expensive to build an undersea hotel, but that's not to say that there will never be one, though I'd be surprised to see anyone undertake a venture like that during a recession.

In regard to the computer guided cars, we already have computers in our cars that can determine the best path to go someplace, and computers monitoring traffic that help set traffic signals to best direct it. Mass transit requires a human operator but in many cases is mostly run by a computer, and the human takes over when necessary. I don't doubt that it would be possible to devise a traffic engineering system in which you could get in your car, punch in (or pronounce) where you want to go and then take a catnap. The problem I see with that is that it would require 100% participation. If you didn't have it then you would still have some unpredictable human drivers (likely including some drunk drivers, chronic leadfoots, hot-tempered road rage candidates and some plain old bad drivers) mixing in with your computer flow. And when all of a sudden the guy next to you swerves into your lane, I doubt if most people would be comfortable with the explanation that 'the computer did everything it could to maneuver the car to avoid a collision,' especially if the collision happened anyway while you were dozing off. And getting 100% participation in such a system would require a major change in the American psyche, people turning over their personal freedom to decide where they want to drive to a computer controlled (presumably) by the state. Somehow I don't see that happening.

Robots? There are already a variety of robots, including some commercially available that can carry out a number of household tasks. The Japanese, who are pioneers in the field, have even developed robots that can perform virtually all household tasks and communicate with their owners, and have also developed simpler robots that look and sound like humans (for some reason they always build them to look like a young oriental woman though.) I don't doubt that by the mid-21st century we will have fully functional robots in most homes to conduct ordinary household chores. I might caution though that if you've seen the movie, I, Robot (based on a futuristic Isaac Asimov novel by the same name from, yes, the 1960's) you may wonder whether you'd want one-- and the movie makes a pretty good case as to why you wouldn't want that computer run traffic system as well.

My own belief then is that the future is getting here, right on (or maybe even ahead of) schedule. It may not be fast enough for some people, but it is coming plenty fast enough for me.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

I believe a contributor to the limitation of growth in technology can be attributed to the patent process. Although this system has great intentions of protecting intellectual property, it is abused and overused by corporations and special interests.

Take for example NiMH battery technology. This battery technology was used used successfully in all-electric vehicles by Toyota (Rav4-EV), with 120 mi range and a five hour re-charge time. Toyota was able to sell a few hundred of these onto the market before Chevron-Texaco sued them for 30 million, brought a halt to production and put a gag order on the court proceedings. Chevron-Texaco now only allows NiMH battery technology in batteries small enough NOT to power vehicles.

I would propose a 10-year pause on all corporate owned patent rights. Lets open source the patent office and see what the ingenuity of humans can come up with. I believe this would lead to exponential growth and yesterday's tomorrow just might lead to today's reality.

Anonymous said...

I agree. Patent law as written holds us back. We need some mechanism to prevent the technology hold up. I think shortening patent times to 2 years would be a good start. We also need to create a watchdog that elevates disgusting decisions like the Chevron-Texaco one in to the public, so we can boycott their products, and force them to deal.

Eli Blake said...

You folks have a point.

I myself invented a new and innovative device some years back that would have controlled termites and ants in homes without the need for chemicals, but when I looked into getting a patent for it I discovered that it would have cost me $6000 right off the bat.

Not having thousands of dollars to throw around I shelved it. Maybe someday someone else will invent it.

King Bentley said...

Sooner or later everything that has once been imagined, will become reality.

We just don't know when.

May said...

One of the lesser known ideas the Federal Government had was to put those who invented cool things like what you did Eli in contact with manufacturers to make and market the product.

This was first done under Clinton and then done in a small form by the Bush Administration. This is something that the Fed should get behind because all they are doing is ensuring capitalism happens.

Of course the Right Wing disagrees with the government doing anything outside of bombing brown people so that would have been a problem...

Eli Blake said...

maybe they did that, but they sure didn't advertise it if they did.