Sci-Fi Predictions About Life In 2020 That Fell Flat
If there's one thing sci-fi has taught us, it's that it's way easier to predict technology than people. Writers of the past knew that our computers would only get smaller, and that eventually we'd have screens on our wrists. When it came to guessing how we'd apply that technology, though, they stumbled. Having arrived in the futuristic decade of the 2020s, we now know that ...
Housework Is Way Too Complicated For Even The Best Robot
You can see it in everything from shows like The Jetsons to '80s-era interviews with children. Everyone thought we would have humanoid robots helping out around the house by now. Not just sad little Roombas that vacuum your floors and get hung up on the curled corner of a rug every five minutes, but full-on maids and butlers that do everything from washing dishes to cooking dinner to ironing your sports coat. Rocky Balboa even had one in a movie set in present-day 1985.
But it turns out that mundane stuff like ironing clothes is actually incredibly complex. Let's pick one "simple" household task: washing dishes. Dishwashers exist, of course, though they can cost up to a thousand bucks with installation. But think about what it would cost to get a dishwasher that does the whole task: taking the plates from the table, scraping off the uneaten food, washing them, drying them, then putting the dishes back in the cabinet. A robot capable of just doing that seems to exist only in the realm of Boston Dynamics demonstration videos.
Even if Elon Musk himself demanded such a machine for his home and said money was no object, he couldn't get one that actually does the job without a human having to step in and help it out. You know, it's almost as if futurists assumed the housework their wives were doing was a lot easier than, say, stacking boxes or welding cars in a factory.
The reality is that if you wanted to fully automate your house without having to hire a human to be a butler to your robot butler, you'd have to get a robot for every step of every chore. A machine that just folds laundry costs $980, is still stuck in the prototype stage, and still requires humans at both ends of the process. You'd need a whole slew of support robots to prep the other robots to be able to do your bidding.
But there's probably a bigger obstacle that no futurist saw coming: children. For example, Walmart plans to unleash Bossa Nova on humanity, a robot that makes sure boxes are displayed on shelves correctly and lets humans know if something is out of stock. The problem? It's no match for kids. The robot's sensors are easily overwhelmed by children who try to touch it and even ride it, because as civilized as we get, children will forever remain wild animals. If all-in-one housekeeper bots are still decades away, a version that can't be destroyed by a few rambunctious tots will be decades behind that.
Nobody Wants A Replacement For Food
In 1950, Popular Mechanics predicted that by now, food would mostly come in the form of frozen bricks, sometimes derived from "sawdust and wood pulp." For the next few decades, sci-fi loved to depict citizens of the future replacing meals with some kind of tiny pills, packets, or paste. Soylent Green, set in the futuristic year of 2022, warned of a future in which half of the world ate flavorless wafers made of soy and lentils (and then, when they ran out of that, people).
Now that 2020 is here, you of course can buy protein bars in convenient brick form. We even have Soylent, kind of. Rob Rhinehart, the creator of a meal replacement drink which he actually named after the dystopian film, tried to usher in the food of the future by researching what the body needs to survive and creating a flavorless (and people-less ... as far as we know) drink that would save us the hassle of cooking. But the odds are you don't know a single person who has chosen to replace their entire diet with it.
Old sci-fi writers seemed to be working off of two premises. Firstly, they thought the world would run out of food due to overpopulation. In reality, food production skyrocketed right alongside population. (Did any of them predict an obesity epidemic?) Secondly, they thought society would move beyond the slow, inefficient process of cooking and dining once we figured out how. They seem to have missed something central to human nature. We don't just cook and eat because we have to; it's a social ritual that comes with all sorts of emotional attachments.
Just look at one thing the Popular Mechanics article did get right: We are having meals delivered to our homes. But it's in the form of subscription services like Blue Apron. You know, the bougie service they advertise on podcasts where you have a box full of fresh ingredients delivered to your home so you can yell at your spouse for not dicing onions correctly? More than 14 million households purchased meal kits in the last half of 2018, which means we're not having food sent to us so we can avoid cooking, but so we can cook more. If our schedules or income force us to replace a meal with a nutrition brick, we're usually pretty sad about it.
This will probably also be true in 3020. Food isn't just sustenance, but also an experience, a feeling. And that feeling can never be replaced by efficient, hyper-nutritious milkshakes. At least, not until they learn how to make a nutrition brick taste like your childhood.
Flying Cars Were Never What We Really Needed
In the language of sci-fi, nothing says "This is the future" like a sky full of cars. Back To The Future Part II posited that they'd be common by 2015. In 1988, the video game Cyberpunk 2020 depicted a then-future 2020 full of them. Even Uber got in on the whole "the future needs to have flying cars" movement and promised flying cars by 2020. That goal was set in 2017, giving the company an ambitious three-year window to make it happen. Cut to the future, which is now: It did not.
The closest thing we have to a viable flying car is a helicopter. And in fact, Uber offers a helicopter service, but only in New York, and it's crazy expensive. It'll take you eight minutes to fly from Manhattan to JFK Airport, but it'll also cost you $200, which means it's only really an option if you blow your nose with dollar bills.
The elephant in the room here is that this column is being written in the wake of a superstar athlete being killed horribly in a helicopter accident (which itself reignited the discussion of how safe helicopters are compared to other transportation). They definitely claim more lives per trip than airlines. Whether or not they're more dangerous than cars depends on how you do the math. The key, though, is that every helicopter that crashed was being flown by someone with a whole lot of training. There's a reason it costs up to $15,000 to get a helicopter pilot's license and will probably take a few months, even if you have the skills.
Even Elon Musk, a man who's whole thing in life is to make our world as close to Blade Runner as possible, says flying cars are dangerous. "If there are flying cars, then well obviously you have added this additional dimension where a car could potentially fall on your head and would be susceptible to weather," he told Neil deGrasse Tyson in 2015. "And of course you'd have to have a flying car autopilot because otherwise, forget it."
If that last part sounds like an easy fix, keep in mind that even the most advanced self-driving cars still need a human to take over every time the sensors get confused, and if the human doesn't respond, that car can just roll to a stop. That's not going to be the case if the vehicle is a few hundred feet off the ground in a sudden thunderstorm. The assumption that this wouldn't result in horrific accidents seems to overestimate both the pace of technology and the skill level of your average human driver.
And what do you gain from the increased risk? A whole lot of wasted energy. We're already struggling to make affordable grounded cars that can run off batteries, squeezing every possible efficiency from the design. Now force that electric car to have to expend energy overcoming gravity (note: the battery in a Tesla can weigh in the neighborhood of 1,400 pounds by itself), and you realize the challenge outweighs the benefits. Unless, of course, your goal is to make a cool toy for the super-rich. But the future already looks pretty bright for those guys.
We're Not All That Eager To Live In Space
If flying cars won first prize in a "most overestimated future innovation" contest, space colonization would come in at a close second. Way back in 1997, a Wired article predicted that we'd be living on Mars by 2020. In 2000, Mission To Mars had the first manned mission to Mars occurring that year. Less ambitious writers had the moon serving as a possible backup option to Earth, thinking we'd at least have a base there by now, if not entire shopping malls.
All of these predictions seem even more wildly optimistic when you consider how they came after we stopped sending people to walk on any surface other than Earth. The last Apollo moon walk was in 1972. In all of human history, the closest we've come to colonizing anything other than Earth is planting a flag on the moon, then leaving it there to do nothing and bleach out.
Why? Well, first of all, every sci-fi movie underestimates the everyday challenges at play here. Let's take just one logistical problem they found on the moon: dust. Meteorites hit the surface of the moon and pulverize the rock on impact, turning it into a vapor. The vapor settles on the surface as dust. Each fleck of dust is only around 70 micrometers in diameter, making it as fine as silt ... but it's also rough like sandpaper, because it's jagged. It also has a slight electric charge, thanks to solar wind, which means the whole landscape is static cling central. It's everything you don't want dust to be.
The dust is the reason Apollo 17 astronauts couldn't move their arms during their moon walk, since it settled on their suits. It even wore through three layers of Kevlar-like material on the boot of astronaut Harrison Schmitt. And if you think we've solved the problem in the decades since, keep in mind that moon dust is one of the reasons China's Yutu rover failed. It ruins equipment, and it will ruin humans if it gets in their lungs. And that's just one of many, many murderous little surprises awaiting us wherever we go. Evolution didn't prepare our bodies to live anywhere but Earth. Sure, we could eventually overcome all of these obstacles with enough time and money, but that brings us to the real problem: As a society, it turns out we don't really want it badly enough.
The Apollo program was shut down because it was expensive, and the cost of sending people to the moon hasn't gotten any cheaper. Going back today would cost an estimated $133 billion over 13 years. Actually leaving people behind to live in some kind of base or colony would cost exponentially more (all estimates for that are wild guesses at this point). If you want to get more ambitious and start talking about Mars, just the trip there could cost up to a trillion dollars -- basically the equivalent of shutting off Medicaid for a couple of years. You can already see the problem.
The root of this fantasy was always that we should colonize some other planetary body as a backup for after we trash Earth to death. But while it's always alluring to imagine bailing on your problems instead of fixing them, that's rarely the best answer. Elon Musk's plan to just put a single city on Mars by 2050 would cost $10 trillion. Feel free to spend the rest of the day thinking of all the ways that money could be better spent on Earth.
For more, check out 6 Easy Questions (That Science Has A Hard Time Answering):
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