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My latest Mind and Matter column for the Wall
Street Journal is on how the future turns out:
Last month a crash dummy flew to 5,000 feet above ground level
in a personal jet pack. The inventor, New Zealander Glenn Martin,
has spent decades on the project and is ready to start selling the
device for $100,000 each next year. The gasoline-driven machine can
stay aloft for 30 minutes, thanks to what is, in effect, a pair of
large leaf-blowers. A parachute provides partial reassurance if
something should go wrong.
Mr. Martin's achievement is a reminder that, though we often
underestimate the progress of a technology, sometimes we
overestimate it. Back in the 1950s it seemed almost obvious that by
the 21st century jet packs would be ubiquitous and routine aids to
travel. They featured in sci-fi novels and comics and television
series like "Lost in Space." A time-traveler who arrived from that
era might be impressed by our Internet and mobile phones but amazed
at our lack of working jet packs.
But the Bell Rocket Belt now gathers dust in the Smithsonian's
Air and Space Museum. Its exceedingly short flight time, 20
seconds, was both impractical and unsafe. Unlike airplanes, jet
packs cannot land gracefully when the power fails. Soon even the
comic-book heroes of the future had begun to do without jet
packs.Several jet packs were indeed under development by the late
1950s. One of them, called the Jump Belt, used compressed nitrogen.
Another, the Aerojet, used compressed hydrogen peroxide. A few
years later, Bell Aerospace's Rocket Belt, also using hydrogen
peroxide, seemed the most promising and briefly took James Bond off
the ground in "Thunderball."
Just who will buy Mr. Martin's version is still unclear. He is
pinning his hopes on emergency workers who need to get somewhere in
a hurry. Good luck with that.
There's a general point here. Though communication has advanced
beyond the wildest dreams of futurologists of the 1950s,
transportation has underperformed. Our time-traveling visitor would
be shocked at the absence of routine space travel and the general
scarcity of helicopters in civilian life. He would be surprised to
find that our cars aren't really that different in mechanism or
speed from the things with fins that he drove. In vain would you
boast of electric windows and catalytic converters.
The reason for transportation's relative technological
stagnation, compared with communication, is diminishing returns,
which have blunted our ability to squeeze more out of technology.
The fuel needed to fly at supersonic speeds is prohibitively
expensive, as the Concorde proved. It has been said that if the car
had experienced the sort of cost reductions that computing has
found through Moore's Law-which says that the density of
transistors on a chip doubles every two years-it would travel to
the moon and back on a teaspoon of gasoline.
By contrast, the telephone and telegraph had barely changed
since he was born; radio and talkies had been around since his
youth; only television and (yawn) telex were true novelties. (That
the satellite would do more for communication than for
transportation in the years ahead was emblematic of what was to
come.)An elderly person alive in 1950 would have witnessed
extraordinary changes in the mode, speed and availability of
transport: cars, motorcycles, powered flight, jet engines, rockets,
outboard motors, electric trains, hovercraft, helicopters and
Which technologies today are about to hit the brick wall of
diminishing returns, and which are poised for sudden price
The big question is over health care. In recent times it has
tended to invent effective but expensive new procedures-medical jet
packs, though more useful-such as surgery, scanning and
radiotherapy. But some think it might be on the brink of finding
cheaper therapies through regenerative medicine and genome
sequencing. The latter's cost is down by 99% in about a decade, far
faster than Moore's Law.