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Just a couple of gadgets shy of utopia

September 08, 2006|Daniel H. Wilson | DANIEL H. WILSON is a roboticist and the author of "How to Survive a Robot Uprising" and the forthcoming "Where's My Jetpack?" His blog is at

THE FUTURE was supposed to be a fully automated, atomic-powered, germ-free utopia -- a place where a grown man could wear a spandex unitard and not be laughed at. Where are the servant robots, the flying cars and the hover boards that we expected? Oh, and that reminds me, where's my flippin' jetpack?!

At the turn of the 19th century, visionaries such as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells spun wild tales of spaceflight and underwater adventure. In 1926, Hugo Gernsback introduced the first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, with the motto: "Extravagant Fiction Today: Cold Fact Tomorrow." By the 1960s and '70s, the Apollo moon missions made a lunar landing look like a trip to the beach. And don't even get me started on "Star Trek" (celebrating its 40th anniversary today) with its tantalizing holodecks, transporters and universal translators.

Every pulp sci-fi tale was a promise of a better tomorrow, yet today zeppelins the size of ocean liners do not hover over fully enclosed skyscraper cities. Despite every World's Fair prediction, every futuristic ride at Disneyland and the advertisements on the last page of every comic book, we are not living in a techno-utopia. Or are we?

I'm not about to launch into why all the gizmos that we already have are actually amazing technological advancements. They are, of course. But computers, PDAs and automatic cow-milkers are also mundane to the point of monotony. Gag me with a DC motor.

Yes, we are up to our necks in half-baked technological marvels of the past. Space vacations are booked to multimillionaires, scientists can teleport blobs of simple particles and rocket-powered jetpacks have been around for decades. (A tank of jetpack fuel lasts about 30 seconds, just long enough to take a big breath for your final scream.)

Science is even delivering on some of the wilder promises of the past, like robot servants (think Rosie the Robot, of "Jetsons" fame). First-generation robo-servants are available off the shelf. Just follow these three simple steps: Find your credit card, imbibe half a pint of whiskey and log on to your favorite shopping Website. In two to four weeks, your filthy studio apartment will be transformed into a gleaming, futuristic paradise populated by robo-vacuums, auto-moppers and robotic lawnmowers. Now that's future-tastic!

If a simple droid doesn't serve your cup of tea, go for a full-on android. Prototypes such as the Honda ASIMO can serve drinks from a tray. The friendly RI-MAN robot can pick up and carry a 77-pound mannequin, and it's getting stronger every day. Faced with a rapidly growing elderly population, the U.S. government is investing millions of research dollars toward the development of robotic caretakers that can protect retirees from a rough, hip-cracking world. Soon enough, cute ASIMOs will be challenging common-law marriage statutes across the country.

The future has arrived and, incredibly, we have prototype robots and space vacations, but something very important has been left in the past: a dream of happiness. I'm talking about the undiluted joy of bounding hand in hand across the moon's surface with a picnic lunch, or having a deep philosophical conversation with a dolphin -- real honest-to-God, life-in-the-future, faster-than-light happiness.

We've got the gadgets but not the utopia. Maybe utter happiness is just too much to ask of technology, or maybe techno-bliss is just over the horizon. Either way, it seems we have lost that overwhelming, calming and possibly fatally optimistic belief that scientists will one day invent the technology to make us all healthy, problem free and, most of all, really, really happy.

They will, of course. Someday.

Until then, we cannot sit idly by while our children walk to school instead of riding hover boards; while newlyweds honeymoon on Earth instead of in space hotels; while our grandparents eat full meals instead of choking down handfuls of chicken-flavored food pills dispensed from a slot in an otherwise featureless wall of solid granite.

The time has come to hold the golden age of science fiction accountable for its fantastic promises. So grab your favorite scientist by the lapels and shake hard. Demand a personal jetpack, a servant robot, an automatic cow-milker or whatever dream of the future makes you happy. The magnificent destiny of humankind depends on it.

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