Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Future Is Not Yet

This month's cover story in Wired magazine is about inventions that many people expected but that never came to pass. In other words, what happens when technology flops? The article is titled The Future That Never Happened, and it has a lot of fun facts, including some keen insights about the limits of technology.

I've mentioned it before and will likely mention it again, but I still remember looking at the back of my Cheerios box which had an illustration of a car that travelled on a cushion of air. This wonderful technology would be here in twenty years, it promised. To think you could go on both land and lakes... and never get a flat tire! Well, I believed it. But as far as I can tell, Michelin and Goodyear are still in the game big time when it comes to tires.

The Wired piece begins with a futuristic chart grouping the various "marvels of tomorrow" into causal categories for their failures. Some concepts were simply impractical (Jetpacks) and some have safety concerns (Laser guns). Food in a pill defies the laws of nature and some (Invisibility and Vat-grown meat) haven't happened because the technology doesn't exist yet, though I suspect the ability to make people invisible would give new meaning to the phrase, "Big Brother is Watching You." For this reason alone I personally am not in favor of this technology ever becoming existent, thank you.

Funny man Will Farrell is featured throughout with snippets of his own wish list for the coming century, including an Automatic Dog Translator so we can communicate with man's best friend, Edible Beards, a Ray Gun that can bring mannequins to life... and a Birthday Cake with a burrito inside. (I think we can do that last one, Will.)

Jetpacks get a little ink here. Besides costing a small fortune, they have too many limitations... like the small amount of fuel you can carry, and the problem of potentially setting the back of your legs on fire. (I bet you never thought of that one, did you?) In order to steer the thing you need both hands on the controls, which makes carrying a briefcase impractical. In short, we won't see a lot of commuting via jetpack any time soon.

The self-driving car also gets a little ink. Seems like we have heard about this one for a long time, too. People could set their GPS and say go, then mind their own business, doing paperwork, text messaging or reading a little Tolstoy on the way to the office. I guess the challenges aren't worth the hassle. It is a lot easier and cheaper to listen to audio books and make text messaging illegal than it is to design a car that runs on auto-pilot.

What inventions have you been expecting that haven't happened yet?

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