Saturday, December 11, 2010

Whatever Happened to the Future?

Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.~Carl Sagan

As I advance in years, I occasionally hear from those equally as old as I that the world has changed so much in, say 40 years, that we have all this wondrous technology, and who could possibly have imagined it?

Who? Anyone with little or no imagination, that's who.

Consider how much changed between, say, 1900 and 1940, or 1940 and 1980. There were huge scientific and technological advances. In the former period, you have the creation of the automotive industry and telecommunications, not to mention the General Theory of Relativity and quantum mechanics. In the latter period, you have television, space travel, and the Big Bang theory. Now consider, say, 1970 to 2010. And no fair mentioning computers, the Internet and cell phones.

[crickets]

If you were really sharp, you might have mentioned String Theory (which is still the theory of nothing). But, almost anything else you might mention would only be an incremental technological advance. Computers, the Internet and cell phones? Thank the transistor, invented 20 years before. The exploration of space? Werner Von Braun would recognize every technology we're using (in fact, Robert Goddard would, too).

There used to be lots of articles predicting what the world would be like in the year 2000, which generally featured monorails and art deco buildings all over the place. Frankly, I never thought that would happen, because to generate that sort of metropolis would require tearing down existing cities. While that may be a nice idea in some cases, it's not very practical.

There were, however, a lot of ideas floating around that one would have thought would be in place by now. Here are a few that I can't believe are nowhere in sight.

Cheap alternative energy sources - Where are the economical nuclear plants or the solar-power options? No one even thought about wind power back in 1970. Yet, in 1970, the oil companies began strangling us (using OPEC as their stalking horse), giving us a taste of the future. Yet, 40 years on, we're only marginally closer to alternative energy. And, to make matters worse, all we hear is that alternative energy will be more expensive.

Autopilot cars - Get into your car, punch in or, better yet, say your destination, and the car takes you there. All the pieces for this technology are available, yet there's no advance in sight. Why? Well, it would require some sort of infrastructure change, because the simplest model would plant cables in the road. That would take money, which, of course, can be better spent fighting useless wars.

Real Artificial Intelligence - Those of you who think computers are so bleeding amazing ought to think about this one. We don't even have reliable voice recognition systems, much less a computing platform that can actually figure out what to do next. We do, however, have cool semi-transparent windows.

Bases on the Moon and Mars - Von Braun figured we'd be on Mars by 1985. Arthur Clarke pictured us sending a manned ship to Jupiter in 2001. So what have we got? Well, some interesting satellites and planetary probes, to be sure. But manned flight? All we got is $200,000 roller coaster rides, maybe, someday soon.

A REAL space station - In the 1950's, for crying out loud, the idea of a massive, permanent space station (or two or three) orbiting the Earth seemed like a given. What do we have? A cobbled together mess that may become completed a year or two before it's decommissioned.

The 32-hour work week - The old cartoon show, The Jetsons, had a running gag about George's miniscule work week. Jokes aside, though, economists and - ugh - futurists believed that the work week would be shortened by improvements in productivity. Also, by having a short work week, people would have more time to go out and buy stuff, which would increase the need for workers. A shorter work week (yes, at the same pay) would generate greater employment. The computer was supposed to figure heavily in this. Instead the computer has generated so much time-wasting, that people are putting in more hours just to get their actual work finished.

Y'know, it's amazing to think that if someone had been put to sleep in 1970 and awakened in 2010, their first reaction would probably be, "Hasn't anything changed?"

He'd probably just roll over and go back to sleep.