Don't look now, but the future is here!
- 07 September, 2015 13:36
In the first half of the 20th Century, a wide range of futurists, science fiction writers and others predicted what life would be like in the Year 2000 and beyond. Many of those concepts made such an impact that they left an indelible mark on the public's imagination.
In fact, many people assume that we're still slowly progressing toward that future. But I'm here to tell you that the real future has already arrived. More than that, the predicted future is boring and inferior to our amazing reality.
Let's compare elements of yesterday's future with what's actually happening now.
Pet robotsIn the future-obsessed 1920s, '30s and '40s, futurists commonly believed that robotic pets would become normal. A few prototypes were even mocked up and displayed at World's Fairs. One robot dog called Philidog was created in 1928. The most famous was Sparko, a robotic dog created in 1940.
They were actually mechanical contraptions that responded in limited ways to various inputs. They achieved slow, clumsy movement with internal gears and wires. Futurists no doubt assumed that computers would eventually be involved, and that mechanical dogs would evolve into robot dogs.
But no futurist could have predicted the massive computer power controlling today's home robot pets. The most recent example is the BB-8.Unveiled last week by Sphero, the $150 BB-8 is a pet robot modeled after a droid in the upcoming Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, which opens in December.
Sphero worked with Disney on the design of the robot featured in the movie, then got the rights to make a branded toy pet based on the movie character.
The BB-8 has a magnetically attached head. (Sphero's marketing material says the head is attached not with magnets but with "the force" -- or a "pseudo-inverted pendulum mechanism.") As the ball-shaped body rolls along, the head stays generally on top of the BB-8 while at the same time appearing to look around nervously and curiously.
The BB-8 rolls around on its own and can be remote-controlled or run through user-determined programs. It even responds to voice commands. (Hilariously, it runs away in a panic when you say, "It's a trap!")
Sphero's droid is also capable of simulated "holographic communication," which you can see as an augmented reality feature via your phone's camera and screen.
The "brains" of the BB-8 is your Android or iOS smartphone running the BB-8 app, which will no doubt gain new powers and abilities with each new update. The processing power for the BB-8 (your phone) vastly exceeds anything imaginable until recently.
In comparison, the mid-century futurists could not have predicted or imagined even the IBM Deep Blue supercomputer that beat chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. Deep Blue was capable of 11.38 GFLOPS (a GFLOP is 1 billion floating point operations per second), which is puny compared to the 115.2 GFLOPS that the iPhone 6's A8 SoC delivers.
So when your BB-8 is rolling around amusing the family, it's being powered by the equivalent of more than 10 IBM supercomputers of the late 1990s.
So yeah, we have the predicted robot pets. And they're probably way more advanced than the futurists predicted.
Jet packsFuturists also envisioned jet packs -- apparently believing that lashing a high-powered engine to your back would be a viable form of transportation. The jet pack idea was so compelling, in fact, that it was brought to fruition decades ago. The jet packs that, say, Nick Macomber flies in demonstrations are essentially perfected versions of the concept from the 1960s and '70s.
The jet packs based on the decades-old predictions keep you in the air for 30 seconds or so. They're also dangerous. The new version of the old jet pack vision is off-limits to the public.
Compare that with the much-better jet-pack-like concepts that are a reality, and are available to anyone who has the money and courage to use them. For example, check out this video of Yves Rossy and Vince Reffet, who fly jetpacks combined with hard-wing wingsuits to fly like Superman.And next year, if you've got $150,000 to spend, you'll be able to buy the world's first commercially available jet pack, the Martin Jetpack.
Flying carsDozens of actual flying car products have hit the market, or will soon. Most of these are more accurately described as "roadable aircraft," because they're basically airplanes that have fold-up wings and can be driven on roads.
The creation of flying cars hasn't solved the problem of where you can fly them. Pilot's licenses and advanced training are required. Airspace, weather, obstacle avoidance and all the standard factors involved in flying planes apply. So the long-predicted dream of escaping traffic jams by taking off from the freeway and soaring into the sky can't happen because it's both dangerous and illegal. So most people who could own roadable aircraft don't. These vehicles are inferior airplanes and inferior cars. It's much better, it turns out, to buy a real car plus a real airplane.
But one of the core predicted attributes of yesterday's flying car of the future was the ability to fly to places where there's no airport or runway. And that vision is quickly becoming a reality.
Two companies are working on vertical-takeoff airplanes for the consumer market. One is the TF-X from Terrafugia. The other is the TriFan 600 from XTI.These airplanes will both let you fly as you would in an airplane and land in your front yard (regulations permitting) -- or on a helicopter pad on top of a building in a major city.
Food in pill formAnother favorite idea of the 20th Century futurists was technology that would free us from the problems and hassles of eating. The concept was that all the nutrition you might ever need could be delivered in capsules, thus relieving us of the need to expend time and energy on shopping, cooking and cleaning up.
A Silicon Valley venture-backed startup called Soylent is selling that same vision in powder and liquid form. It explicitly touts the benefit of saving time. And it's enhancing that vision by promoting the environmental friendliness and low cost of its product (you can survive on Soylent for about $70 per month).
But we have something now that's far better than food pills or even Soylent: We have real food that's really good. A '50s-era futurist wouldn't have been able to imagine the quality and variety of food we have today. (Turns out people enjoy eating. Go figure.)
The reality is that much of our world today meets or exceeds the expectations of yesterday's futurists.
We're growing food in space, developing drone air-traffic control systems (all computer-automated, of course), developing advanced kitchen computers, mass-producing robot vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers, and sending robots to preschool to learn the way babies do.
I'm not sure exactly when the future happened, but it did. So I'm going to say it: The future is here. And it's vastly better and more exciting than anything anyone predicted.