Dude, Where’s My Flying Car?

23 02 2010

The following piece appeared on the 12th February, 2010 @ http://bostinnovation.com. Edited with a watchful eye by Kyle Psaty, each week I shall be assuming the mantle of the Neo-Luddite on their site. Reproduced with kind permission of Greg Gomer of the groundbreaking www.pinyadda.com.

The success of Avatar and its CGI depiction of a dystopian future had me thinking this week about classic science fiction movies. I shudder to think that many of my favourites were set in a time period that is not too far away from 2010 with technology that appeared so radical and beyond the realms of reality when they were released.

 So having watched Bladerunner, I Robot, Logan’s Run, Westworld, Demolition Man and Back to the Future, I want to know why the skies over Boston are not filled with flying cars. And why don’t I have an android butler?

Although having reached the age of 41, I am happy that I never had to experience the  flawed expectation of  renewal through Carrousel.

According to the author Robert H. Heinlein, the science fiction genre is “realistic speculation about possible future events, based solidly on adequate knowledge of the real world, past and present, and on a thorough understanding of the nature and significance of the scientific method.”

 In other words, all the stuff that we see in these movies or on TV probably has some basis in fact and research.

 In 2006, Viacom reportedly won a lawsuit proving that the idea for flip phones, or the less-sexy-sounding “clamshell design,” came from Shatner-era Star Trek communicators, and George Lucas owns the word “droid,” which Motorola pays dearly for the use of in branding the Droid mobile phone platform.

Light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation (aka laser) battles in space are a fantasy, but the technology exists in medicine, industrial application and cosmetic surgery. When you go grocery shopping, the bored clerk at the checkout is scanning your goods with a laser. Pink Floyd have been using lasers for years; take a trip to the Magic Kingdom and the mouse will keep you enthralled for minutes with a spectacular light show.

The same goes for androids and robots. Nine years before the film Bladerunner is set, synthetic organisms like Boston Dynamics’ Big Dog are not yet commonplace. Robots can appear human, but the possibility of a machine as perfect as the Nexus 6 seem to remain more the stuff of dreams rather than reality. Artificial Intelligence is currently limited by the capacity of the engineers to accurately synthesize a walking, talking Data.

But how difficult can it be to produce a flying car?

 The closest thing I could find for mass consumption was the DeLoraen Time Circuit iPhone App  and that’s $1.

 But I want more than a glorified alarm clock. We have the relevant technology, we understand the principles of flight and the invention of the car is widely considered to be one of the most significant events in history.

 But in 2010, which is incidentally when we are supposed to make alien contact according to Arthur C. Clarke, mass production of street legal flying cars is sadly not on the horizon. Even the boffins at MIT have been struggling with the concept, and the work by Woburn-based Terrafugia seems to be the nearest we have to be able to take to the skies from a standing start.

The Transition: Awesome  

However commuting to work by flight is not cheap. Terrafugia calls its machine The Transition but the basic model will leave you with very little change out of $195,000 which is still beyond reach for the ordinary person. That’s hardly a manageable transition. The fact that the website asks for a $10,000 deposit prior to anticipated purchase also highlights another small problem. The Transition is still being tested. It is street and air legal in marketing speak only.

So we are a long way from the police spinner cars of LA 2019 and light-years away from having to watch out for flocks of birds or oncoming aircraft when we pop out to the shops.

 When Dr. Emmet Brown flies his time-travelling DeLorean to Hill Valley in 2015, he claims that he doesn’t need roads. That is only five years from now.

We certainly haven’t mastered time travel yet, and I’m still waiting for my flying car.

Is that too much to ask?

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