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Games, Tech

5 Sci-Fi Technologies We Still Don’t Have (and Why)

The goal of sci-fi has always been to paint a picture of the future based on our understanding of the present. But technology often unfolds in ways we never could have predicted. Relatively few sci-fi stories from the ’60s have anything like the internet or smartphones in them, but they often have technology that seems ludicrous to us even now. Here’s a look at why the present doesn’t resemble The Jetsons in the slightest.

1. Jetpacks and Flying Cars

A jetpack demonstration in Melbourne, 2005

The dream: Who wouldn’t want to have their own personal flying machine? It’s the apex of the human desire to get off the ground. Imagine jetting off and laughing at the fools stuck in traffic in their grounded cars. The jetpack is even sexier – no bulky vehicle to control, just you, a backpack and the open air. These inventions permeate the earliest science fiction. With the proliferation of gas-powered travel in the early 20th century, flying machines seemed like the logical conclusion.

The reality: Both of these technologies technically exist, but aren’t feasible for day-to-day use. The problems arising from strapping on a pack full of jet fuel or rocketry are numerous: The packs are heavy and can only carry enough fuel for a few minutes of flight, and they’re difficult to control due to the high speeds they reach. Plus, the human body isn’t designed for flight, so using a jetpack puts a lot of stress on bones and muscles that could be permanently damaging. The US military attempts to perfect the technology in the 1960s concluded that the inefficiencies and dangers outweigh the benefits. So except for a few private enterprises, the world of flight tech has moved on.

Flying cars have the same problems of cost, safety, and fuel limitations. And as aircraft, they would need to be regulated by air traffic controllers (to make sure they don’t interfere with each other in the air), which would be a nightmare if everyone had one. That hasn’t stopped several companies from trying to develop them, but they always seem to be “coming soon”.

 2. Food in Pill Form

The dream: No time to cook? No problem! Just pop a pill or two and get all the nutrition you need for the day in ten seconds. Obesity will be a thing of the past as everyone has access to a balanced diet. And they somehow manage to taste exactly like the food they’re replacing too.

The reality: It’s just not possible to pack everything you need into a little pill. The human body needs about 2000 calories a day, and the proteins, fats and carbs that give you those calories cannot easily be compressed. That’s without considering the balance of vitamins and minerals the pill would also need to contain. Today’s multivitamins are generally large and offer only a supplement to what you should be getting through food. In any case, even if you popped dozens of food pills a day, you’d still be hungry because your stomach would sense that there’s not much in it. I never understood why food pills were considered attractive, honestly. Don’t people like sitting down and enjoying their food?

3. Virtual Reality

I have to admit I kind of wanted one when they came out.

 The dream: If you grew up in the ’90s, you knew this was the next big thing. Computers and video game consoles were just starting to saturate the home market, and everyone expected we’d soon be trading our clunky CRT displays for a sleek pair of glasses and haptic gloves. The late ’80s and early ’90s saw a glut of game devices intended to create a VR experience, from the Virtual Boy  to the Power Glove to more obscure offerings.

The reality: And those devices are not remembered fondly, for good reason. Their motion detection was clunky at best, completely unresponsive at worst. The Virtual Boy’s unorthodox display and searing red-on-black colour scheme gave gamers eye and neck strain after just a few minutes of playing. These devices were seen as junk and novelties, and are a large part of the reason the old ideal of VR faded away.

But it seems a renaissance of this technology is beginning. Microsoft’s Kinect is the best controllerless motion-control scheme we have. Its 3D camera tracks your body position in real time and people have made it do some pretty cool things, like virtual guitars and lightsabers. Meanwhile LCD screens have become small and cheap enough that head-mounted displays are starting to sound like a reasonable option. We’re slowly approaching different ways to create a more immersive virtual experience – we just need to put them all together.

 4. Rise of the Robots

And they definitely will not rise up and fill our homes with deadly neurotoxin.

The dream: Everyone can live like a millionaire when we all have robotic servants to do our busywork. They’d clean our houses, cook our meals (uhhh, the non-pill ones) and read us the morning news every day. They’d be smart, acting like a friend or at least a respectful acquaintance.

The reality: Well, we can get machines to vacuum and tell us the news, but strapping an iPhone to a Roomba is not what most people have in mind when they think “robot butler”. (Sure makes a good DJ though.) The problem with humanoid robots is that they need to be able to navigate human spaces, which is notoriously difficult. They need sensors telling them how to move, and you can’t program for every possible surface the robot will move over and every object that might get in its way.But surely a true artificial intelligence wouldn’t have that problem? Well, we’re still a long way away from that. AI development has been much slower than computer scientists could have predicted. We don’t have a very good grasp of how our own intelligence works, so nobody really knows how to approach the problem of creating an artificial one. For now, there’s very little demand to create a robot that can do everything when we’re much better at producing ones designed for a single, repetitive task.

5. The Final Frontier

The dream: We were supposed to have space colonies by now. This is something I know in my heart of hearts. When I was very young I assumed we had at least been to Mars, and was extremely disappointed to find out that we had not. In the heyday of the Apollo moon missions, it must have seemed like only a matter of time before space travel became routine.

The reality: Like most on this list, space exploration has been hindered by its cost and the toll it takes on the human body. Astronauts have been exposed to bone and muscle degradation due to the lack of gravity; radiation from solar activity; and the negative psychological effects of being locked in a tiny capsule for long periods. For scientific purposes, it’s much more efficient and safe to gather data using unmanned probes.

Which doesn’t mean no one is interested in sending people to space anymore. NASA may have cancelled the space shuttle program, but several private companies have proposed space travel programs. Space Adventures hopes to send people to the moon for the low price of $100 million US. And several scientists have proposed manned missions to Mars – with the caveat that the astronauts involved don’t get to come home. We might still get our space colonies – just not in the extremely rapid timeframe past generations envisioned.

Concept image of a Mars colony

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About Courtney

Postgraduate student in book and magazine publishing. My geeky areas of specialty are video games, TV, and webcomics. I like discussing philosophy and politics, playing piano, and drawing, those last two poorly. ;)


4 thoughts on “5 Sci-Fi Technologies We Still Don’t Have (and Why)

  1. Technology has a long ways to go, but I guess we have to concentrate more on saving the Earth. We have to stop destroying our Planet, we have to stop pollution via oil & gas, harmful production. I really wish we could keep what we already have!

    Posted by Alex@Fatcow | February 18, 2012, 1:12 am
  2. I really like your writing style, great information, regards for posting : D.

    Posted by Larisa Mcghee | February 29, 2012, 5:29 pm
  3. Great article Courtney! You should consider referencing a few “books” readers might like if they read your articles on geek girls.
    I would reference Isaac Asimov, Robot Dreams here.

    Looking forward to more futuristic posts soon.

    -Your fellow automaaton friend

    Posted by automaaton | March 21, 2012, 11:23 am

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