The Speculist: Let's Be Unrealistic


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Let's Be Unrealistic

When the SpecuWife and I first started going out, I was something less than the very model of emotional stability and maturity that you've all come to know so well from reading these pages. I had this rather quaint idea that she and I could keep things casual and avoid getting into a a full-blown relationship. In fact, I wouldn't even allow the word "relationship" into our conversations. I insisted on using a euphemism, "the R word."

Well, in the words of John Cleese explaining that the woman should, in fact be burned as a witch because she turned him into a newt -- I got better.

These days, I just couldn't be more comfortable with the word relationship, so I now use the same euphemism to refer to a different word, a word that I think is all too frequently offered up as a pretext for being a total lame-out, buzzkill, or any other variety of foot-dragging techno-progress-a-phobe.

That word, of course, is "realistic."

So it isn't too surprising that when I used the R Word in a recent comment thread, reader and frequent acerbic commenter Mdarling called me on it:

Realistic? really?

How about these for some realistic guys:

- “640k ought to be enough for anybody.” – Bill Gates 1981

- “So we went to Atari and said, “Hey we’ve got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, what do you think about funding us? Or we’ll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we’ll come work for you.” And they said, “No”. So then we went to Hewlett Packard and they said, “Hey, we don’t need you; you haven’t even got through college yet.” – Steve Jobs on attempts to get Atari and HP interested in his and Steve Wozniak’s pc.

You know this area of tech blindness at least as well most, better I would think

I'm not asking for my own personal orbital vehicle nor even my flying car (though I think a flying Segway would be wicked cool and not that hard technologically). I just want enough electric storage to move 1500-2000 pounds for 80-100 miles, that can recharge overnight. The technology exists now- though I admit there is no market and Toyota was right to hide the plug in outlet on the early Priuses. ("Priusi" ?)

So the realism you are urging is on the market- not the technology. And this may be one of those Catch-22's where no one will build it commercially because there is no market and there is no market because the thing is not commercially available.

Well, he's got me there. When I use the word "realistic," I'm talking strictly in terms of what the current political/social/economic infrastructure will allow, certainly not what is technologically possible. Personal orbital vehicles and flying Segways, much less the modest electric car that MD is looking for definitely could be developed in a reasonable time frame. I mean, we've already had electric cars, so all we're talking about doing is tweaking the specs of something that already exists.The Apollo program showed us how fast an idea can become technological reality, and it only scratched the surface. The greater the level of motivation, the longer the list of things that we will allow might be "realistic."

It's kind of like When World's Collide. I think if we had a couple years warning of Earth's certain demise, we could have a substantial population living in space -- maybe in space stations, maybe on Mars -- within that time. But failing that level of motivation, changes are bound to move more slowly. So in spite of warnings from serious people who are looking at issues much more realistically than most of us would ever care to, there is still no space ark under development.

But there would be if there was general agreement that we needed one. Just as there will be flying Segways when the technology is there, and the technology will be there sometime before the world at large is good and ready for it, but long after the good-and-ready point for people like MD (and me, for that matter.) Meanwhile, we can at least take solace in the fact that we do have some early prototype drawings of this technology in old Dick Tracy comic strips. I wanted to reproduce one here, but I cannot find any online. There is a reference to the technology here, however, with some very cool images of a more -- you guessed it -- realistic prototype:


So, what do you want to see in the next five years -- fully electric cars dominating our highways? Personal flying platforms? Personal orbital spacecraft? Personal Star-Trek style replicators? Or better yet, transporters?

Here's a thought to ponder:

Putting all social, political, and (most) economic considerations aside for a moment, what is the most outrageous, unrealistic technological development that we could see in place one year from today. Five years? Ten years?

I think several of the ones I listed above could happen in that period. What do you think?


Time travel. Interstellar wormholes. Impossible to predict when and even if they're possible, and they'd throw a nice little monkey wrench into things if they did.

Forget about Mars, man.
Even if it survives the imminent impact*- it will eventually get creamed.

More later-,0,6729483.story?

MPATHRG footnote:
IMDB should just post the script- they almost have anyway.

Realistic mass-market electric car = 300 miles range + 15 minute recharge + battery pack no larger than 4 cubic feet and no heavier than 200 pounds.

Time to reality under present circumstances = 20-30 years.

Time to reality with "Manhattan Project" for battery technology = 5-10 years.

Fully electric cars dominating the highways in 5 years? Nope. The Mean age of cars on the highway right now is 8.9 years. Assume sales go to 100% tomorrow - in 5 years, you won't have replaced even 1/2 the cars on the highway

I have no idea what's unrealistic. If you had told me in 1980 that I would be carrying my computer and my phone with me by the middle of the next decade I wouldn't have believed it.

It recently occurred to me that the least believable thing about Star Trek communicators is that they don't do video.

The Aptera will (supposedly) be available next year with a 120 mile range, with hybrid 300mpg version (again supposedly) out in 2009, so a 300 mile electric shouldn't take too long.

Unrealistic? How about Bussard Fusion conversion kit for every car on the road. Don't know about the physics of making one small enough to propel a car...

Unrealistic, inconceivable, and impossible mean different things.

Right now, we live in a world with very little skepticism. So many people were wrong in the past about what was 'impossible' that the general feeling is that anything is possible, and that the more that we will learn the more evident it will be that it is possible.

I personally feel that this is a false assumption. We can gaurantee that any given handwavium needed to do the impossible can exist. In fact, reasonably we ought to expect that by its very nature, its unlikely to be possible. Often in the past, people simply meant 'inconcievable' when they said impossible or unrealistic. But in a world of non-skeptics, concievablity isn't the issue. We can concieve of almost anything, but we shouldn't imagine that anything we can concieve is realistic or even possible.

Your hyperlink of the words 'serious people' leads to, the web page for LifeBoat Ministry, Inc.

Did you intend to link to, for the Lifeboat Foundation: Safeguarding Humanity?

[Fixed. Thanks for catching that.


In the next five years we are going to see:

- private corporations (ie SpaceX) selling passenger flights to an orbiting (Bigelow) hotel
- solar power satellites beaming power to a rectenna on the ground (perhaps just as a demonstration in Palau)
- earth-based solar power panels selling for less than fifty cents a watt
- a solution to the protein-folding problem

A cure for this farkin' cold.

An ad for an all-electric car that actually says how fast the thing goes. I mean, range is all well and good, but ... I can throw my hybrid into battery gear any time I want -- provided I'm not looking to move faster than parking lot speed.

Terraforming Mars. Heck, terraforming Afghanistan.

A sociopath-proof lie detector.

A device to look back into the past, ala that Denzel Washington movie. (Best. Car Chase. Ever.)

The batterys! They are just so NOT THERE.

The futrue is turning out to be a whole lot slower than we thought it would be. Unrealistic assumptions.

IN the next five years? Much more powerful hand weaponry, hand grenades that can take out half a city block. Better batteries, but still not good enough.

Twenty years out, an entirely new source of energy, due to the rediscvery of the E8 diagram in physics. Immpossible to predict what else will come of this. Big changes on the long term.

1-3 years
- blog threads that last more than a few days
- home networks for all delivered data (will not have 100% AD conversion capability)
- commercially available electric car with "significant" market penetration (2-5 %?) (The mean age of inventory on the road will go down temporarily- people will accelerate the new purchase to get the ev)
- an implantable cell phone like device that will allow at least 24/7 location
- 99.9% accurate machine translation
- decent robot sex surrogates (>= 5% of single males will have attempted one)
- a cloned human
- verification of the Higgs Boson
- grass that stays green & alive no matter how little water it gets that costs the same or less than current turf)
- an "auto pilot" for cars & trucks that will keep vehicles on the road and separated
- a fuel cell driven airplane

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