the future soon

I heard a story on NPR a few days ago (it turns out I actually read it on boing boing but for some reason I remember it as NPR audio...weird) about a boy from Malawi who read in a book about using windmills to provide energy, and who set out to build one for his family/village farm.

So, awesome, great job*. And it makes you wonder what might be in a book from the future, if you could find one, that would represent a similarly daunting, yet achievable leap. Imagine finding instructions for making petroleum out of algae, or for spinning carbon nanotubes. Or imagine reading about the network protocols and wireless power strategies that will be the foundation of the pervasive wireless internet: the outernet. If you were a determined dude or lady, you could change the world with that kind of technosauce.

But we don't have those books, so we go on scratching around, trying to figure it out on our own, without the benefit of the knowledge that "this idea changed the world." I find it staggering how much easier it is to learn something that it is to discover or invent that same thing. But when you think about humans as clever monkeys instead of rational beings, it makes more sense... Our imaginations, as amazing as they are, are only just barely good enough to lift us out of the dirt, because that's exactly how good they had to be to get us this far. (Or, if they were better, we'd surely have flying cars by now)

AND it raises the question, is there a complexity frontier beyond which we can make no progress? Where it takes so long to get up to speed that no forward progress can be made? Or will we simply continue to build more sophisticated tools and sweep the details under the rug?

...In conclusion, humans are so great.

*This sounds like both an incredibly sad and an incredibly hopeful story, doesn't it?


  1. Boredom-on-the-train-inspired overly-long comment:

    Let's say some smarty pants actually built a flying car today and showed us how to manufacture one for every adult in the world, on the cheap.

    Is the widespread adoption of Flying Cars really such a good idea?

    Ground-bound cars are already rather dangerous[1]. The FAA heavily regulates US airspace and traveling by plane is a major inconvenience due to security regulations; private pilot training is fairly lengthy; airplanes burn way more fuel per mile compared to the equivalent n separate Prius trips for n passengers on said flight, etc.

    Now put all of those problems together: who would fly them? Trained pilots? The average adult?

    I guess I'm just not a Flying Car Future believer.

    Actually I think flying cars are a great example of futurism being a detriment rather than a help since the idea distracts engineers from day-dreaming about things that are helpful in the near future. Do you really think the lack of flying cars is purely a technical problem? It seems to me more like the crazy technical problems pail in comparison to the human interface design, social engineering, political, or civil engineering issues.


    I like the "book from the future" thought experiment. I just asked myself the question earlier this week, "if I could travel back to the time of the Egyptians and bring a laptop with a crank-powered recharger and any arbitrary store of human knowledge (Wikipedia, every scientific, mathematical, medical, and technical journal, textbook, map, etc.) how much technology could I build using all that knowledge?"

    Think of all of the bootstrapping, culturo-technical-literacy issues and human-mind-share debt, superstition, etc. that would need to be overcome just to build another laptop (or a printer?) to leave a single copy of the Info Store behind, much less create a laptop manufacturing plant.

    You'd have Ancient Egyptian to learn, the alphabet and all of mathematics to teach, all sorts of machines to build, energy sources to harvest, mining industries to build, and so much infrastructure just to get started on the interesting engineering issues. And that's if the pharoh protected you and paid you to work on it full time (and you didn't have any major medical or dental problems).

    Hmm ... speaking of carrying loads of books on a portable device, I still need to read Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court on this here iPod touch.



    "The total worldwide historical number of car accident fatalities is difficult to estimate. Figures around 17 million have been suggested in 1991, and would have to be significantly higher now, making car driving one of the deadliest undertakings in the history of mankind."

    Other interesting links:

    Also, have you any idea how hard it's been for countries like India to adopt the automobile in their poor and overcrowded urban areas? My colleagues have plenty of horror stories about Indian or Chinese traffic from living there or even just brief visits. Now imagine flying cars.

  2. Frankly I totally agree with you on flying cars, I threw it in there because it's archetypal futurism.... something we would need mad technomagic to make happen. (Computers drive the cars with P2P air traffic control, the cars can glide if they lose power, they're built with smart materials and schedule their own maintenance, and they're electrically powered with renewable energy. Any one of these advances would be monumental.)

    And yeah the Egypt thought experiment is a good one. :-) Even if you set aside the language barrier there's such a huge cultural weight, on top of the infrastructure gap...

  3. Also dang citing references for a comment.