Failure to Launch

by Dave Schuler on February 11, 2014

Over the period of the last 50 years by my specific memory there have been several technologies that have been “just around the corner”. Sadly, they’ve remained will o’ the wisps. They’re still just around the corner today.

The two that leap to my mind are practical quantum computing and practical nuclear fusion. Just a little farther than “just around the corner” would be, say, a cure for cancer. That seems to be farther away now than it did forty years ago.

Can anybody name some other emerging technologies that have just never emerged? Or nominate some emerging technologies that are unlikely actually to emerge?

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

PD Shaw February 11, 2014 at 2:04 pm

Emerging: Driverless cars.

Dave Schuler February 11, 2014 at 2:06 pm

Yeah, I think that liability is going to kill those.

... February 11, 2014 at 2:17 pm

Or nominate some emerging technologies that are unlikely actually to emerge?

Practical genetic manipulation of the human genome. We’re not likely to be manufacturing super-geniuses any time soon.

... February 11, 2014 at 2:21 pm

Also, greatly enhanced lifespans will continue to be right around the corner.

One that has been around awhile has been the creation of a ‘true’ thinking machine – just a few years away, any time now, for decades!

I do suspect that we will continue to see the same kind of thing we have seen with chess playing programs, however. Namely, that brute-force algorithmic computational methods can match human intelligence within very narrow constraints.

And sadly, I suspect that ‘room temperature’ super-conductors will remain tantalizingly out of reach. That would be a shockingly useful technology, if cheap enough, so I hope that I am wrong about this.

Dave Schuler February 11, 2014 at 2:23 pm

Yeah, that’s definitely one. I remember predictions of real artificial intelligence going back forty years or more.

I’ve written about room temperature super-conductors here from time to time. If we had ‘em it would make solar power a lot more practical.

As it works out, I was in grad school with the guys who wrote Chess 4.0, the antecedent of all modern chess-playing programs. In many ways the display and input sections of the program were the most interesting.

... February 11, 2014 at 2:25 pm

We could put human colonization of space on the list, but no one thinks that’s happening anytime soon, do they? Unless they count the pitiful space station, in which case, prediction confirmed!

... February 11, 2014 at 2:30 pm

Relatively cheap and durable super-conductors would transform the (developed) world radically. And I would be interested to see how many large corps like GE have designs ready to take to the patent office the moment such things are developed. (Now that would be serious patent trolling!)

Hmm. Perhaps I should talk to some engineers….

(Yeah, don’t bother telling me the problems. I’ve already imagined several technical problems and one wooping huge legal problem. C’est la vie.)

... February 11, 2014 at 2:33 pm

Oh, I’ll add (relatively) cheap orbital space travel for the masses to the list. Even restricting the masses to people worth ten million or more, I don’t think that is happening soon. Those guys out in the Mojave MIGHT get the sub-orbital stuff licked, though, and right quick at that. Don’t know if they will be able to make it a commercially viable transport system, though, as opposed to a really cool thing for rich people to do to conspicuously consume.

Could add the vacuum tube transport rail system they’re talking about for California, too.

Ben Wolf February 11, 2014 at 2:40 pm

I recall an article on genetically engineered bacteria which would replace the plaque-producing bacteria in our mouths. Dentists would be rendered useless overnight as teeth would never decay, and this would happen within ten years. That was sixteen years ago.

michael reynolds February 11, 2014 at 7:09 pm

The liability issues of driverless cars will be worked out. Have to be, because the tech is actually already out there as to lane-change systems, back-up systems, automatic parking and so on. My car tells me when I can or cannot change lanes. Can I sue if the system is wrong? I don’t have the “active” systems on my car, but my wife’s about to buy one that’s active, in that it will brake the car under certain situations. We’re already well on the road to driverless cars. I believe in theory you could drive a Volvo on the freeway using active lane-keeping and active cruise control.

The flying car, on the other hand, remains elusive.

How about technology that is announced, put into use and doesn’t ever actually work? The self-cleaning oven? No, they’re grease-crisping ovens.

Dave Schuler February 11, 2014 at 7:21 pm

Have to be, because the tech is actually already out there as to lane-change systems, back-up systems, automatic parking and so on. My car tells me when I can or cannot change lanes.

That’s being worked out in the courts right now. Toyota and VW are potentially in big trouble over “unintended acceleration” which is almost certainly a software/network problem.

TastyBits February 11, 2014 at 8:04 pm


The self-cleaning oven?

It works great to re-season a rusted cast iron frying pan, but the wife is not impressed.

Dave Schuler February 11, 2014 at 8:41 pm

The self-cleaning oven?

Over the years my cooking style has changed considerably. I’m a much tidier, more precise cook and I clean as I go. Our self-cleaning oven works beautifully but, then, I don’t use the oven for things that splash very often.

I do those outside on our gas grill which, as it works out, keeps a beautiful, even, regulated temperature. I could bake in it if I had a mind to.

michael reynolds February 11, 2014 at 9:42 pm

How about a category for technology they keep saying is improved but never actually is? I refer of course to the toaster. 50 years ago it would toast a slice of bread, usually unevenly. Today it will toast a slice of (larger) bread and still toast it unevenly, but with more buttons.

On the other hand, some things are even better than they said they’d be. The iPhone. I literally never go anywhere without it. Ever. Music, books, the internet, games. I can locate my kids. I can buy movie tickets. I can call the cops. I can text my wife. I can take video. I can check prices on items at the store. I can identify passing ships. It’s a flashlight. I can ask it stupid questions. I can deposit a check. It’s a damn miracle. The greatest thing ever.

Trumwill February 11, 2014 at 11:58 pm

Even if we kill driverless cars here, or try to, other countries don’t have our litigious environment. Once Japan has them, Europe has them, Canada has them… we’re going to demand them. That’s a worst-case scenario.

My answer is Virtual Reality. After computers, it was supposed to be The Big Thing. It’s actually getting closer to happening, in a backhanded sort of way, but it was supposed to be here by now. Instead the Internet kind of sucked all the energy out of the room.

Ben Wolf February 12, 2014 at 11:55 am

Weaponized free-electron laser also comes to mind.

Life extension. Longevity advocates have been promising for decades it’s within twenty years. Ray Kurzweil comes to mind as predicting we’d become immortal by 2025, then 2030 and now 2040. I’d love to be a fly on the wall when he finally realizes he won’t live long enough to live forever.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: