Leo McGarry: My generation never got the future it was promised… Thirty-five years later, cars, air travel is exactly the same. We don’t even have the Concorde anymore. Technology stopped.
Josh Lyman: The personal computer…
Leo McGarry: A more efficient delivery system for gossip and pornography? Where’s my jet pack, my colonies on the Moon?
— The West Wing, “The Warfare of Genghis Khan” (2004)
The exchange above is from one of my favorite TV shows of all time. It is not the first time the sentiment has been expressed. It is a recurring trope in television and other media. There is even a rock band of the name We Were Promised Jetpacks. But the question ventures beyond jetpacks to other types of futuristic technologies contemplated in fiction such as The Jetsons and Back to the Future II.
Where are the hover cars and jetpacks? Where is the phantom renewable energy source that can light cities and power intergalactic travel? Progress with the former seems stunted to small planes with retractable wings that function amphibiously on roads. Jetpack flights are still seen as dangerous events undertaken only by daredevils. Both are just too impractical. Technologically, making a car stop in mid-air the way breaks function on roads seems to press too hard against the laws of physics. Logistically, taking plane-cars to a runway every day would not save time or speed up travel as expected, and the FAA’s mandate of 1,000 feet of vertical separation between planes would create serious traffic issues. Plus, the safety issues are many.
As for that alternative energy source, finding it might help speed up things with that hover car mid-air stop. But instead, we are relegated to a fight among solar, wind, hydropower, and a host of potentially controversial alternatives. No mystery source seems any closer. Sure there have been positive strides made with hybrid cars and a concerted effort to reduce our carbon footprint. Public market interest in Tesla is exciting but certainly not determinative in any way. (Remember when First Solar’s market cap was 10x what it is today?)
Of course, there has been progress. This entire conversation seems to forget about the tremendous advances in medicine and life sciences. The mapping of the human genome last decade may eventually prove to be the source of cures and remedies for invasive diseases—even cancer. Outside medicine, even if the rapid exchange of information and communications was not as popular a topic among science fiction writers of 50 years ago, it is hard to deny the impact of the Internet.
The frustration with software-based advances stems from their iterative nature. It is probably true that rapid and repeated improvements made to how we socially network, shop, or are targeted by advertisers do not really move the needle on human progress. But the transfer of everything—all our records, behaviors, and conduct— to digital may help us attain one of those futuristic visions from the past just yet: artificial intelligence.
The demand and investment in data scientists can make us better at predicting behavior baed on past and concurrent data. It can make us better at breaking down unstructured data that does not come with neat labels and meta context (e.g., videos or prose). While I have not spent time with the machine learning folks at MIT or NYU’s Courant Institute, I believe that focusing on these data processes should improve computer generalization, which can eliminate the need for human interaction with data in favor of machines that can navigate new problems or situations simply by learning from experiences with past ones. If this sounds familiar, it should. After all, is that not how we as humans adapt and know how to respond when encountering new, strange situations?
The theory behind artificial intelligence is vast and machine learning is but one aspect, and both are beyond my capabilities. However, the point is that even though the ability to extract raw data dumps about almost anything imaginable might not seem incredibly exciting, the Internet’s and social networking’s facilitation in creating copious amounts of commercially valuable data for analysis may, as a byproduct, jumpstart interest in STEM education and true innovation. And if the improvement in human knowledge and skill that results from this catalyst is to lead to any of sci-fi literature’s promises, it is most logically going to be artificial intelligence.