Past Technological Predictions and an Analysis of Our Success Rate

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June 5, 2012

Ah, the flying car. One of those promises of the future that just hasn’t quite come to pass. There have been lots of predictions about the future of and most of them have never quite made it off the drawing board. Others are actually here, just not in the form originally envisioned.

Here are a few examples.

The Personal Jet Pack

We commonly think that the jet pack does not exist, or only exists in early-nineties Disney movies. But, even though you can’t buy one at Wal-Mart, despair not. The jet pack is real–but very limited and mostly in prototype.

The greatest possibilities for Earth-bound jet packs have been the military. And the U.S. military has pretty much relegated the idea of jet pack development to the scrap heap as impractical. Fuel weight and other considerations limit what can be done with a pack under current technology.

Private individuals have built models that do fly, but only for very short times. There are serious safety considerations as well because they don’t get high enough for parachutes to be useable in the case of failure.

Music Box

With the current fascination for all things steam punk, the music box is a hot item once again. This is a technology that certainly did make it into the world, though other developments surpassed it for its intent.

You can find music boxes, built into windup dolls, ballerina jewelry boxes, even player pianos. The spoked cylinder and array of tuned forks in most versions have a sound that is soothing and compelling mechanics. But music boxes were intended to be far bigger in scope. The idea of automated music was to be built on them.

Since then, actual recordings on wax, then vinyl and magnetic media, and finally digitized information have supplanted the music box.

Robot Housemaid

Robotics is largely used for very specific, simplified tasks. A robot that can ambulate, handle multiple tasks, interact with people, etc. is still only a developmental project.

But some of those tasks have been divided up among other technologies. We do have Roomba vacuums, which run themselves on a schedule and return to charge up. We have microwave ovens and timers to automate some of what we used to do for ourselves. We have dishwashers that do the toughest part of the work for us, though they do have to be loaded.

But, for now, there still must be a human element that connects all these pieces.

Hover Boards

Sorry, McFly. This one hasn’t made it off the ground yet. Period. The closest we’ve some is an application of superconductors that have allowed a floating panel to run along tracks in a lab. Nothing anywhere nears the freedom to skate around promised in the movies.

Space City

Another disappointment. Every so often we hear some updated prediction that the very wealthy will be able to vacation in space within a matter of years. But we have seen a slashing of NASA’s budget in the U.S. And it looks like we are still far from building anything in space for the general public. Even SpaceX’s recent success is a far cry from a moon Metropolis.

Portable Telephone

Here’s one that we’ve knocked out of the park! The first commercially available mobile phone was in 1983. Since they have gotten smaller, more powerful, and essentially turned into handheld computers. Many people don’t even own a “home phone” anymore. Check this one off the list.

Time Machine

Time travel is the Holy Grail of scientific discovery. And it is still beyond our grasp, for all practical purposes. Even though the principles of time travel have been documented and discussed many times by serious minds, most of them agree that foreseeable technology is not up to the task. Some even wonder if it is possible at all due to certain natural laws.

The notion of time travel breaks down into two main areas: travel to the past, and travel to the future. Most agree that travel to the past is not possible, and even if it were it would be very problematic due to paradoxes. That “Back to the Future” stuff is based on some serious issues.

As for visiting the future, the usual models for possibility are more about putting people into a stasis of sorts, usually by making them travel at near-light speeds, where time would pass more slowly, then reintroducing them to the world after time has passed. They subjects would have aged far slower and feel that little time had passed. This is not so much “time travel” as “time manipulation”.

But while we wait, movies and books keep coming out about the thrilling possibilities of time travel, the problems inherent in it, and the mind-bending ramifications of actually figuring out how to do it.

The Answer Machine

In 1964, a publication predicted something called “The Answer Machine”. This machine featured a keyboard and a screen that hung on the wall. You typed in your question – Who invented the phonograph? – and the machine gave you an answer – Thomas Edison.

Of course, we have that. It is called Google – or any number of other search engines – and is based around a collection of knowledge called the Internet. Score another for us.

The Flying Car

And now we’re back to the intro. The flying car is representative of all those promises and predictions about the bold new world of tomorrow that were supposed to be here by now.

Many developers have gone bankrupt trying to develop the flying car. Two even died in a fiery crash while testing a combination aircraft and Ford Pinto. The pursuit of the flying car has never stopped.

Ford Motor Company wanted to get the flying car into the sky way back in the 1950’s. They envisioned it for ambulances, police, military and luxury travel. The biggest issue in their way at the time was air traffic control. The air traffic technology at the time was still on paper. It could not handle the kind of traffic Ford wanted to bring to bear. Many of the applications Ford foresaw have since been filled by helicopters.

There are still active pursuits of a flying car. There is a $65 Million DARPA project called Transformer that aims to develop a car that can take off vertically and fly 280 miles. Several companies have been awarded development contracts in this race.

So, in the end, we’ve won some and lost some. Those that we have achieved have been stellar successes. The others will come if we still want them. It’s just a matter of time.

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