Thursday, January 28, 2010

Part 1 of "Prediction is difficult . . .

. . . especially about the future." Niels Bohr

With all due respect to Professor Bohr, I think some things are easy to predict. Take the latest stab at the air car. For at least a century, futurists have been predicting that we'd be flying to work eventually. Check out the video below to see NASA's late air car idea. I feel like it's pretty easy to predict if and when these sorts of things will be commonplace.

I'm going to try my hand at futurism for a bit. I plan to throw some cold water on a few predictions, and highlight a few others that I think are feasible and likely. Because there're so many things to talk about, I thought I'd make this a semi-regular column. Today's topic: NASA's Puffin Air Car and the Holodeck - Future Tech or Dead End?

Flying Cars - You might prefer to call them "personal aircraft" or some other buzzword. People have been working on them since airplanes were invented. In fact, we already have some personal aircraft that work pretty well - ultralight planes, powered paragliders, and autogyros, to name a few. None of them have become popular commuter vehicles.

The biggest problem problem I see with the NASA concept and so many other air car designs is that they are basically "fail dangerous" designs. In case the term sounds odd, a "fail safe" system is one that leaves you intact if something goes wrong. "Fail dangerous" systems are ones that go terribly wrong if there's problem.

Early elevators were an example of fail dangerous devices. If a cable broke in an old fashioned elevator, you'd be in trouble. A fellow named Otis made elevators fail safe by incorporating brakes that automatically kicked in UNLESS the elevator cables were intact. In other words, if a cable broke, the elevator would freeze in place. Now when elevators fail, they get stuck rather than falling to the basement. That is, they are now fail safe systems.

Consider the engine in a land car as opposed to one in an air car. If the engine fails while you're driving to work, you come to a stop (it fails safely). If it fails while you're flying to work, you plummet out of the sky (it fails very dangerously).

There are lots of ways that land cars can fail dangerously, but few as dramatic as being left hundreds of feet in the air with no power. Solve that problem, and you might have a viable air car. My proposal would be to make sure they fly low and slow, which means turning them into plain old cars. Otherwise, personal aircraft will remain toys for hobbyists and adventure seekers, and will never be practical daily transport.

Holodecks - Guess what? They're already here. Sure, we have a long time to go before we can flip a switch and find ourselves dueling renaissance musketeers. But I can already sit down at a table and be instantly transported to a board room in Portland. At home, I can play tennis, go bowling, and practice batting in a major league-sized stadium from the comfort of my living room. Haptic devices ( things like the Wii handset) can even simulate the sproing of a ball hitting a racket.

At the pace this stuff is developing, it won't be long before we have virtual reality so convincing that it'll be hard to tell reality from virtual reality. In fact, virtual reality will probably be the best way to enjoy a personal aircraft. Then your air car will be both fail safe (if the server crashes, you don't die) and exhilarating.

Next Time: invisibility cloaks and hydroponic people grown from conception to birth outside the womb. Do either of these seem likely to you?

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