The question “Where is my flying car?,” Wikipedia tells us, “is emblematic of the supposed failure of modern technology to match futuristic visions that were promoted in earlier decades”. Flying cars have become a symbol of mismatch: the future as imagined in the first half the 20th century seemed a lot brighter than the present we’re living in now.

An exploration of the technical limitations of building flying cars evolves into an examination of the global economic and scientific stagnation that started in the 1970s.

See: Overton Window, The Machiavelli Effect, Energy Maximalism

On nanotechnology

  • The original concept of a telemanipulator, often termed a “waldo”, is a robot arm but instead of being programmed, it is operated via remote control by a human operator. The goal was to produce a series of ever smaller waldoes to operate on individual nerve cells:
    • “Neither eletromagnetic instruments nor neural surgery was refined enough to do accurate work on the levels he wished to investigate. But he had waldoes. The smallest waldoes he had used up to this time were approximately half an inch across their palms — with micro scanners to match, of course. They were much too gross for his purpose… He used the waldoes to create tinier ones… his final team of waldoes used for nerve and brain surgery varied in succeeding stages from mechanical hands nearly life size down to these fairy digits which could manipulate things much too small for the eye to see. They were mounted in bank to work in the same locus. Waldo controlled them all from the same primaries; he could switch from one size to another without removing his gauntlets. The same change in circuits which brought another size of waldoes under control automatically accomplished the change in sweep of scanning to increase or decrease the magnification so that Waldo always saw before him in his stereo receiver a ‘life size’ image of his other hands”

On policy

  • On public vs private development
    • It was not just the opinion of a few futurists such as Robert Prehoda, but the firm consensus of the entire economic and scientific establishment, that more federal money for scientific research could only help economic growth. Yet the evidence simply does not support the conclusion.
    • The great innovations that made the major quality-of-life improvements came largely before 1960: refrigerators, freezers, vacuum cleaners, gas and electric stoves, and washing machines; indoor plumbing, detergent and deodorants; electric lights; cars, trucks, and buses; tractors and combined; fertilizer; air travel and containerized freight; the vacuum tube and the transistor; the telegraph, telephone, phonograph, movies, radio, and television — and they were all developed privately
    • A survey and analysis performed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in 2005 found, to the researchers’ surprise, that although private R&D had a positive 0.26 correlation with economic growth, government-funded R&D had a negative 0.37 correlation
  • “There is a pattern that we see recurring throughout history, when a successful empire expands its borders so far that it becomes the biggest kid on the block. When survival is no longer at stake, selfish elites and other special interest groups capture the politic agenda, The spirit that ‘we are all the in the same boat’ disappears and is replaced by a ‘winner take all’ mentality”
  • Regulation
    • “Over the long run, unchecked regulation destroyed the learning curve, prevents innovation, protects and preserved inefficiency, and makes progress run backward.”

On failure modes

  • Failure of Nerve:
    • Applies when the facts are known: The science is there, the engineering understood, the pathway clear, and only the details remain to be worked out.
  • Failure of the Imagination
    • Occurs when the result is far enough out of the common-sense experience, outside the Overton Window, the mind balks and fails to see it for what it could be
    • “One obvious reason is that science fiction needs to provide characters with whom the reader can identify, and this gets harder to do as characters become less human.”