Flying Car

When Was it Promised: Surprisingly, the idea of a flying car has been around almost as long as the car itself. None other than Henry Ford first tinkered with the idea, attempting to build a a€œplane cara€ as early as 1926. Unfortunately, that early prototype crashed and killed its driver. Never a good sign. But Ford stuck with it, and as late as 1940 continued to believe car and plane would one day be joined. What’s the Holdup: According to Bruce Calkins, general manager of Moller International, which designed the Skycar, the problem has been funding. The technology to make a flying car has been available since after World War II, but there has really been little need for a flying car. Planes were and are better for long distance flight and heavy hauling, and the helicopter has filled in the role of a small aircraft. As a result, there isn’t much of a market left for personal air vehicles, and investment has been hard to come by.

Flying Car [cont.]

“It’s more of a financial issue,” said Calkins, “it takes a lot of capital to get a personal air vehicle to market, and the mood is that people want a faster return on their investment than a personal aircraft can offer.” When Can I Get One: Calkins thinks that public lack of interest is abating. In crowded mega-cities like Mumbai and Mexico City, people have begun refusing to put up with traffic anymore. In fact, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, the traffic has gotten so bad, a number of helicopter taxi companies have sprung up, allowing the wealthier citizens to dodge the gridlock. Prediction: According to Calkins, within 25 years flying cars will be common in traffic-clogged metropolises like Los Angeles and Beijing, but it will be 50 years until you can hail a flying taxi to get across town in a less congested city like Chicago or New York. [At right: In Terrafugia’s Transition driving airplane, the canard wing doubles as the front bumper.]


When Was it Promised: Like rocket flight and jet engines, the jetpack first emerged from Nazi laboratories. Called the Himmelsturmer pack, Third Reich scientists hoped to rain rocket infantry from the sky on unsuspecting Allied troops. The project failed, but I’m sure The Rocketeer would have stopped them had then been successful. In 1960, Bell Aerosystems built the a€œrocket belta€, which allowed someone to fly for about 20 seconds. What’s the Holdup: After decades of research, the Bell Rocket Belt only upgraded from 20 seconds of flight time to 30 seconds of flight time. The problem was imagination. a€œBecause of the popular culture of jetpacks, people focused all of their efforts on jets or rockets, and it just doesn’t work out,a€ said Richard Lauder, chief executive at Martin Jetpack. [At left: The Martin Jetpack]

Jetpack [cont.]

Rockets consume fuel too quickly for prolonged flight, as much as 80 pounds of fuel for 20 seconds of lift. Of course, the more fuel you add, the heavier the pack gets, requiring more fuel, and so on, so the problem couldn’t be solved by simply adding more fuel. When Can I Get One: Why wait? Martin Jetpack already sells a jet pack for $100,000, and just last week former TV stuntman Eric Scott flew across Royal Gorge in Colorado. However, based on the progression of snowmobile sales after its invention, Lauder said there might be a 20-year wait for the price to drop a bit and for jetpacks to become commonplace.

Artificial Intelligence

When Was it Promised: The first artificial intelligence research began in the mid-1950’s, but computer scientists didn’t begin taking a serious look at the concept of artificial intelligence until funding from the Department of Defense began funding projects in the 1960’s. By the mid-1960’s, Carnegie Mellon professor Herbert Simon was claiming that a computer would be a world chess champion by the 70’s and that computers would be as smart as humans by the 80’s. What’s the Hold Up: The problem comes down to funding. After the early promise of artificial intelligence wasn’t met, DARPA cut all artificial intelligence funding in 1974. After a brief revival in the 1980’s, DARPA yet again cut funding for artificial intelligence projects in 1987. [At left: The Simroid dental-training robot.]

Artificial Intelligence [cont.]

In many ways, artificial intelligence has succeeded already. Voice recognition software, an early goal of artificial intelligence, is commonplace, and Gary Kasparov, the world’s greatest living chess player, has been bested by IBM. “To some extent, the success in the field have already become embedded in the computers we use already,” said Richard Korf, a professor of computer science at UCLA, “A lot of the efforts of artificial intelligence have borne fruit and are used every day. AI has a public relations problem. AI is always what hasn’t been achieved. But if you define the goal as ‘simulate a human being’, no, we don’t have that.” When Can I Get One: Korf speculates that no computer will have human-level intelligence for at least 50 years, adding, “Why would you want to make a computer that’s just like a human? What’s the use? We have plenty of humans.” Of course, John Connor will tell you that’s probably a good thing.

Gene Replacement

When Was it Predicted: Amidst much hoopla, the US government and Craig Venter’s Celera Corporation raced to publish a complete map of the human genome. In February 2001 both projects announced that they had completed a rough draft of the human genome, ushering in a new age of genetic medicine and health. Except not. What’s the Holdup: While doctors can now test whether or not a patient is predisposed to a number of diseases, no one has had a faulty copy of a gene fixed or otherwise of anything as a result of genetics. [At left: Genome sequence trace.]

Gene Replacement [cont.]

Not only have very few diseases turned out to be classically Mendelian, with traits that could be traced to a single gene, but getting new copies of genes into the cells that need them has proven to be next to impossible. “As simple as it sounds — take the correct spelling of a cell and put that spelling in the gene — we have hundreds of examples of that not being the case,” said Susan Hayflick, professor of molecular and medical genetics at Oregon Health and Sciences University, “Every time we overcome what we think is an essential barrier, new, pretty substantial barriers appear in its place.” When Can I Get One: Never. Most diseases result from a complex interplay between genes, proteins, RNA and other systems. Replacing genes is simply not the best way to cure diseases. Moreover, stem cells research hold far more clinical promise and is currently receiving the lion’s share of funding.

Gecko Feet Adhesives

When Was it Promised: Researchers first started looking at gecko feet as a possible adhesive about ten years ago, but in a 2000 paper, Kellar Automn, a biology professor at Lewis and Clark University, discovered that the adhesive was mechanical, not chemical, and contained seven features that made the adhesive so sticky. What’s the Holdup: This technology has advanced pretty rapidly, actually. After over 200 years of trying to figure out what made gecko feet so stick, the last ten years has finally seen some progress on the topic. Right now, the main obstacle isn’t science but manufacturing. The gecko feet adhesives stick via thousands of tiny hairs with very specific shapes. Manufacturing the hairs consistently and over a large area has proven challenging, and researchers have tried out a number of different materials from silicon to carbon nanotubes in an attempt to find the easiest way to make the hairs.

Gecko Feet Adhesives [cont.]

However, because the adhesives work by geometry and not chemistry like conventional glue, finding the right material is only a matter of time. “Because there are so many different fabrication strategies and because there are many different useful properties, you don’t need to come up with something that’s going to be the gecko adhesive,” said Automn. When Can I Get One: The last year has seen two major breakthroughs in gecko feet adhesive research. One group showed that the adhesive could be made from carbon nanotubes while the other figured out how to replicate one of the most important of the seven basic properties. At this rate, Automn thinks that gecko feet adhesives will be commercially available within five years, and maybe even sooner than that.

Space Elevator

When Were We Promised It: A Russian scientist named Konstantin Tsiolkovsky first conceived the concept of a space elevator in 1895, but obviously no one took the idea seriously until after Sputnik. Only marginally more feasible in 1965 than it in 1895, the space elevator idea gathered dust until the popularization of carbon nanotubes in 1991 provided a light, high strength material to serve as the tether for a space elevator. What’s the Hold Up: Once again, it’s all about the Benjamins. When countries established an infrastructure for the rocket delivery of payloads, it simply didn’t pay to invest in a space elevator. Private companies attempted to pick up the slack, but a business model that doesn’t promise returns for decades didn’t attract a gaggle of investors. Last year, Liftport, a private space elevator company that had proved its concept by running a robot a mile into the sky along a carbon ribbon, went out of business. When Can I Get One: NASA continues to fund a number of prizes related to space elevators, but don’t expect to get off at the 50,000th floor in the next couple of decades.

Fusion Energy

When Was it Predicted: Nuclear fusion was first observed in 1932, but the first man-made fusion reaction didn’t occur until 1952 when the a€œIvy Mikea€ H-bomb test turned Enewetak Atoll into a giant hole in the Pacific ocean. Then, in 1955, the President of the United Nations Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, Homi J. Bhabha, said that fusion power was only 20 years away. What’s the Holdup: Condensing the power of the sun into a reactor the size of a building is no easy task, and so far, no country has been willing to donate the amount of money needed to overcome the vast engineering challenges associated with fusion. a€œYou have a problem in that you have to get a material to tens of thousands of degrees and contain it,a€ said Charles Seife, author of Sun in a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the Science of Wishful Thinking, a€œOf course, the hotter something is, the less it wants to be contained. Making things tougher, if it works, the instability gets worse. When you’re successful, your success works against you. Even harder than the physics are the politics and the finances.a€ Currently, the multinational, 30 year fusion project ITER is budgeted at around $9 billion, a number Seife thinks doesn’t come close to what would be needed to produce a useful fusion reactor. When Can I Get One: Don’t hold your breath for this one. a€œIt’s been 35 years away for half a century, and it’s still 35 years away. And I suspect 35 years from now it will still be 35 years away,a€ said Seife, a€œIf you look at civilizations in 2500, then I wouldn’t be surprised if they used fusion.a€ [At left: Inspecting a mirror in the Vulcan Laser.]

Quantum Computing

When Was it Promised: Quantum computing was first proposed in the mid-1980’s by none other than everyone’s favorite bongo-playing, drug-taking, safe-cracking, strip-club-patronizing, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. The idea came out of speculation about shrinking transistor size. With transistor size shrinking by half every year, physicists predicted that transistors would get down to the size of single atoms by the year 2020. Feynman predicted that when that happened, computers would be subject to the strange laws of quantum mechanics, and could use them, probably, to solve complex math problems. What’s the Holdup: In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s quantum computing fell into a a€œso what?a€ category. There was no progress because no one could think of any uses for it. Then, in 1994, Peter Shore at AT&T came up with the killer app for quantum computers. He proved that quantum computers would be very good at factoring numbers down to their prime number constituents. And since factoring prime numbers is the basis of most modern computer security, a quantum computer could be the ultimate code breaker. Needless to say, people got interested. Since then, the focus has been overcoming engineering challenges like keeping the quantum particles isolated enough from the outside world to hold multiple quantum states. a€œIt’s not like going from a Pentium II to a Pentium III,a€ said Raymond Laflamme, director of the Institute for Quantum Computing, a€œit’s a very different way of looking at how information is handled.a€ When Can I Get One: Said Laflamme, a€œWhen people do predictions on the scale of 20 or 30 years, 20 or 30 years later others always look back and laugh at them. I think it will take 20 years to really understand the system. But you had asked me 10 years ago, I would have said 50 or 100 years.a€ So I guess we’re at least moving in the right direction. [At left: The first transistor computer. This prototype was operational in 1953.]