When I was a kid I read a lot of science fiction. I mean, a lot of science fiction. I was fascinated by the creative and interesting story lines and by descriptions of what the future might look like.
One thing predicted by science fiction back in the ’50s and ‘60s was self-driving cars. But if I recall correctly, every self-driving car in those stories had the same limitation: they all had to follow a wire embedded in the pavement or some other guide to determine where to go.
Fast-forward 50 years to 2012, and self-driving cars actually exist: Google has a self-driving car that has driven 300,000 miles on regular roads in real traffic without an accident when under computer control. The difference – and this is a huge difference – between the Google car and the one predicted by science fiction: there’s no wire in the road. The car looks at the road, the cars around it, pedestrians, bicycles, traffic lights; all the stuff we look at (or should look at) when we humans drive and decides when to start, stop, turn, speed up, slow down.
OK, it also looks at GPS data. I’ll give you that is an external input. But a lot of humans do, to; and if I was going to some place I’d never been before I’d probably at least look at a map before started out. But that’s a huge difference from following a wire in the road.
So, where did the authors of the ‘50s and ‘60s go wrong in predicting the future? They couldn’t imagine that a computer could be made small enough to fit in a car. Back then, computers were the size of a house, weighed tons, and used enough electricity for a small factory. They couldn’t foresee the integrated CPU that would eventually lead to today’s cell phone having more computing power that existed in the entire world in 1960. Shoot, Gordon Moore wouldn’t even publish his paper on Moore’s Law (predicting ever more powerful computer chips) until 1965.
And yet, here we are with self-driving cars that contain computers almost unimaginable 50 years ago.
As amazing as that is, here’s what I wonder: what will things be like in another 50 years? What are we missing now because we don’t think it’s possible? Faster-than-light space flight? Star Trek-style transporters? Anti-gravity shoes?
Maybe I’ll finally get that flying car I’ve always wanted!