FUTURE BOY: If the Future Is Here, Why Live in the Past?

Future BoyFuture Boy likes to ask questions. Such as, if the future’s so great, why don’t we just go there right now? In a way that’s what my last post was about – the Road to the Future is paved with many small steps and few if any large ones. But what if our perspective were one of space rather than time?

When we look across our planet, in a way we’re looking across time as well. Many cities feel like the Future has already arrived, with advanced communications, robust economies, factories full of robots and streets navigated by self-driving beer trucks. Yet many other towns and whole countries (sometimes even neighboring ones) feel locked in a past century, streets teeming with goats, poverty and disease.

But we already know how to fix all that, don’t we? Why not just leap to the glorious Present, where lifespans are long, hunger and smallpox are eradicated and every kid gets an education and has a roof over their head. Why not just Leapfrog?

Leapfrogging is a concept for quickly bringing underdeveloped nations to a higher plane by just skipping ahead to the latest and greatest technology. For example, while much of the world built up their communication networks a step at a time from the telegraph to the telephone to the mobile phone, in recent years many third-world countries skipped all the intermediate steps and went directly to mobile phones. Leapfrog!

But that woman with the cell phone just took a crap in the field next to the school. The phones will come in handy when summoning doctors, but will be little help in preventing the village children from getting dysentery in the first place.

Some things just can’t be Leapfrogged. Public sanitation requires investment, can take many years to build and requires steady public funding for upkeep and maintenance. Even high-tech solar-powered outhouses need regular attention, and you would need enough of them to service the entire population. Leapfrogging can be cheaper, but it’s not free.

Physical laws must be observed. Until someone invents an industrial-sized Star Trek transporter, goods must be physically moved to market, and doing that quickly and cheaply requires not only modern transportation systems but all the 21st century logistics expertise that the Amazons and Walmarts of the world provide. Leapfrogging delivery drones can only carry so much stuff so far. Infrastructure is everything.

And don’t forget the requisite 21st century political and social systems. Where caste systems prevail, personal freedoms are repressed, or civil wars rage, those cell phones are only good for posting pictures of fresh corpses. They won’t feed you, clothe you, protect you or heal you. A 21st century society can’t exist without the underpinnings that support it – institutions, social systems, the rule of law, taxes and all the rest.

So leap away if and where you can – but the intermediate steps can’t always be skipped.

FUTURE BOY: Which Way to the Future: Big Steps or Small?

future-boyFuture Boy dreams big. World Peace. Prosperity for All. Vacations on luxury cruise ships to exotic galaxies. Robots that bring cold beer and juicy cheeseburgers.

But how do we get from Here to There? History is full of larger-than-life political and business leaders. Jefferson and Madison fathered the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution, Watt gave us steam power, Edison gave us electric power and light, and Ford gave us the automobile. And Google’s giving us the driverless car.

Or are they? Their cute little pods putter around Palo Alto sans drivers, steering wheels and brakes. More than just cars without drivers, these are something quite different. Google envisions a Big Step. Why waste time with little steps – take a big leap directly into the future of transportation. One day we’ll all decide to scrap our old-fashioned vehicles all at once and suddenly no one ever has to drive again; we’ll be living in a new Utopia of effortless transportation.

To the mathematical mind of an engineer, it’s a perfect plan. Efficient. Zero wasted effort. Zero wasted time or money.

But has the Future ever arrived in an instant? Plenty of times it seems that way. Sputnik suddenly orbits the earth. Automated teller machines appear on every corner. The Berlin Wall falls. Everyone gets a mobile phone.

In reality however, the path is never a short straight line – it’s a long and winding road littered with dead ends. Edison tested hundreds of materials before finding a suitable filament for the electric light. Then it took huge investments and thousands more experiments and prototypes to create the lights, the wires, the dynamos, and all the sundry pieces of equipment to deliver power to homes and businesses.

It’s the same with every other “sudden” innovation – it’s long, hard, backbreaking work peppered with one disappointment after another. In these cases, the effort was eventually rewarded. But we rarely learn of (or soon forget) the work and expense put into the effort and the thousands of competing efforts that failed. The one winner takes all the glory.

Only in hindsight does the eventual path to success seem obvious. There are no shortcuts to the Future. It must evolve from the Present.

The “horseless carriage” presented innumerable problems to its users. But one by one people found ways to address the problems. Electric starters, brakes, transmissions, headlamps, windshields, windshield wipers, cup holders – one by one new components were added or invented. Bit by bit, model by model, the horseless carriage evolved into the modern automobile.

And with each little step, people gradually got used to the new way of doing things. And with each step, the manufacturers learned a little bit about what worked and what didn’t. New features evolved while others withered and died.

People are happy to take little steps. They fear big leaps. Would YOU have wanted be the first passenger to ride in the first elevator (or lift, for our British readers)? Would you take the word of the engineers who tell you their new product is perfectly safe? Would you be the first to ride alone on a busy highway in an autonomous car? Or would you rather have an engineer with you to man the controls?

Those engineers riding along in today’s self-driving vehicles are the modern equivalent of early elevator operators. Passengers felt safe with an attendant there to keep them company. Were they needed to operate the machinery? Not really. Passengers could have learned to do that themselves, and today we all do. But those operators were a vital step in the evolution of the invention.

So I see few Big Leaps to the future in any area of our lives. The Future will sneak up on us, one evolutionary baby step at a time, like it always has.

How Do You Pull Over a Self-Driving Car?

A question popped into my head while driving to work one morning: How do you pull over a self-driving car?

I‘ve since put this question to dozens of friends and had an interesting conversation each time. To clarify, we’re talking about a fully autonomous vehicle with no human in a position to quickly take over. Maybe it’s your car and you’re occupied with a conference call or binge-watching a favorite show. While driving along, minding its own robot business, a policeman decides to pull your car over. His reason could be a routine inspection or a life-or-death situation. But there’s no driver to signal to – so how does he do it?

Does he have a device that communicates to the car? Sounds reasonable. But think it through – now someone could have the ability to stop in its tracks any car at any time for any reason. Grumpy this morning? Stop ‘em all. Would you want to live in a world where that’s possible? Mind you, we hand over our lives to technology and other people all the time, whether we’re traveling in an elevator, airplane, or amusement park ride. But it feels different when it’s YOUR vehicle.

One response was basically, “A human can recognize the cop and pull over, so why can’t the car?” I hadn’t thought of that, but I like it. The cars will be trained to recognize roads and obstacles, so why not train them to pull over for waving cops? That’s Driving Academy 101 (for Robots).

Questions like these often beg other questions. That’s what Thought Experiment is about – asking seemingly simple questions about the future, and thinking them through, some of us for the first time. We won’t have all the answers, but once The Future finally arrives, maybe it won’t be such an unfamiliar place. And maybe we will have had a hand in building a piece of that future, inspired by a thought experiment.

Reader comments and suggestions are always welcome. Ideas for future Thought Experiments? Love to hear them. Drop me a line at wayne@thoughtex.org

Welcome to Thought Experiment

We all wonder about the future.   We fret about it.  We fear it.  We’re wary of the unknown.  Yet we also hope and expect the future will be better somehow.  For us.  For our kids and grandkids.  For the world.

Thought Experiment is my vehicle for preparing for an unknown future.   And helping to shape it.

Call me an optimist.  Or call me a fool.  But I believe that each of us has the power to shape our future for the better.  Sure, new technologies, gadgets, fads, and movements will come and go whether we feel ready for them or not.   But how we react is what will make the difference.  And how we react is shaped by how we think.

Thought Experiment is a platform for thinking about the future.   Often we’ll start with a question, sometimes inspired by current events or new products or discoveries.   Where we end up may surprise some of us.  And infuriate others, particularly those who blindly embrace new technology or old political ideology.

The future is out there waiting for us.   Let’s get ready, and get busy making it better.