'Future That Never Was' looked fantastic
Jul. 25, 2013
Flying cars. Waterproof living rooms that you clean with a hose. A pool on every rooftop.
Many of the old dreams and schemes about daily life in the 21st century didn't come true — at least not yet. Author Gregory Benford has gathered them — along with more successful predictions — in a book, "The Wonderful Future that Never Was" (Hearst, 2012). Some of the imaginative ideas just weren't imaginative enough, he says.
"Failures usually assumed that bigger would always be better — vast domed cities, floating airports, personal helicopters, tunnels across continents," Benford says.
Forecasters didn't realize that being able to invent something wasn't enough.
"Just because high-tech change is possible doesn't mean we always want it," says James B. Meigs, editor-in-chief of Popular Mechanics magazine, noting the slow-food and handmade-crafts movements as high-tech counterpoints. "Sometimes affluence gives us the options to choose more traditional things. We choose clothing out of wool rather than synthetics."
Two well-known failures: flying cars and jet packs. George Jetson kissed his wife then flew his car to work in the TV cartoon series launched in the 1960s, while TV's Buck Rogers thrilled kids of the 1950s by fighting evil invaders wearing a jet pack.
Such depictions created a hunger for personal flying devices, but that wasn't enough to make them a reality.
"People have produced (both) those," says Benford. "It's just that neither is particularly good at being a plane or a car."
A physics professor at the University of California at Irvine and a science fiction writer, Benford culled scientists' predictions from the early 1900s through the late 1960s from Popular Mechanics for this and another book, "The Amazing Weapons that Never Were" (Hearst, 2012).
"In the year 1900, everyone knew that technology drove their world and would drive the future even harder," Benford writes. "That was the single most prescient 'prediction' of the 20th century."
At mid-century, plastics seemed to offer all kinds of possibilities: Take the magazine's 1950 prediction that housewives in the year 2000 would clean house with a hose. Everything — rugs, drapes, furniture — would be waterproof, and the water would run down a drain in the floor.
Among the idea's many drawbacks, which include how uncomfortable such decor would be, forecasters forgot one vital detail: Electricity powers our homes, and it doesn't mix well with water.
Remember how we used to think we'd have robots cleaning clean our homes, cooking our food, tending to our children? Sadly, that one doesn't look promising, Meigs contends.
Robots do fine on an automated factory line with one, simple task, but the home environment requires an adaptability that robots can't muster.
"Getting someone to do the dishes, butter toast, organize the shoes in your closet. Those are doable but really tricky for a robot," says Meigs. "They have to improvise, and you know if humans are involved, you'll open the refrigerator and the butter won't be in the same place."
Yet 50 percent of the predictions that Benford unearthed in the magazine have come true, at least in part.
The "picture phone" was predicted in 1956, for example; see today's Skype calls on the Internet.
And those rooftop pools? They were proposed in 1928 as a way to cool homes. Air-conditioning later proved them unnecessary, but Meigs says the theory behind them exists in practice: as evaporative coolers on home and office rooftops.
What are these experts' own predictions?
Benford says smart homes and self-driving cars are in the future; the technology exists for both. Smart homes, for instance, will respond to human presence in a room by turning on lights and adjusting the temperature, making them energy-efficient, he says. With Internet access, homeowners also will be able to lock and unlock their homes and turn on or check appliances remotely, says Meigs. (We won't worry about whether we left the coffee pot on.)
"That stuff will seem pretty routine, at least in new houses in the next 10 to 15 years," he predicts.
He also thinks we'll have three-dimensional, hologram TVs in 20 or more years.
Benford says human relations could be transformed by Google glass — a computer worn like eyeglasses that thousands of early adapters were trying out this summer; future models will have facial recognition software, he predicts. "It means you can walk around a cocktail party and know who everyone is, never mind those nametags," Benford says. "Two people will be wired so they can exchange information — phone numbers, email . You will have a digital record of who you talked to at the party."
Meigs says it'll go farther: We'll have the functions of Google glass without the device — they'll be imbedded in our heads.
"It sounds like crazy science fiction but the neural interfacing is coming along," he says.