Wednesday, February 28, 2007

I, Doofus.

I never brought it up in my previous post about the Discovery Channel show 2057, primarily because it wasn't mentioned all that much in the show itself, the prospect of robots. Now, considering how fantabulously cool robots are, the fact that robots were barely mentioned, I think, betrays how non-viable robots are as a real aspect to our near future.

Most of our visions of near-future robots were created decades ago, but great sci-fi writers. What's funny is that their near-future musings placed us IN the near-future. We are in the age of robots, as futurists so many moons ago so thought. Where are the butler-bots, Rosies, and Datas? They're not here, that's where. The best we have is a robotic vacuum cleaner that doesn't do a very good job.

As far as futurists go, the age of robots doing everything under the sun is always just a few years away. The pinnacle of our achievement is still Asimo, who is now seven years old, and his abilities are extremely limited and costs nigh on a million dollars to make. Would you pay a million dollars for a robot with limited abilities or three years for a maid/butler with vast, adaptive abilities?

Robots are not viable today and will not be viable for a long time coming. For the far-foreseeable future, robots will be very expensive, which means that they will be the exclusive domain of people with money, who will be much better served with human servants. Think the prices will come down and allow the working stiffs who could actually use the help to buy robots? Think again.

Crap in today's economy is cheap. It's only getting cheaper, too. Unfortunately, this doesn't apply to mechanics. Cars are getting more expensive, not less. Things like computer printers, lawn mowers, and bicycles all cost the same as they did years ago or more. It's because mechanical products cost a fixed amount to make. You can make manufacture more efficient, you can reduce labor costs, and you can find cheaper materials, but you can only go so far. Our crap is getting so hideously cheap because of a move towards inexpensive, easy-to-make, solid-state devices. This only applies to robots to a degree. What we can easily make cheap in robots has been cheap for a decade; the computer parts. The other parts, the motors, gears, servos, sensors, and the like, are expensive now, they were expensive ten years ago, and they'll be expensive ten years in the future.

Robots will not be cheap for a very, very long time. By 2057, they may only cost multiple thousands (In today's money), but for what end? Will people actually decide that they should get a loan to buy a robot to help them around the house so they can work more to afford the robot? I seriously doubt it. I can imagine a market of lazy people with few financial obligations buying a cleaning robot. Or perhaps robot janitors who can clean 24/7 for corporations who have run out of Mexicans. These are very speculative ideas about small markets. Regardless, the idea of a future full of robots doing things is bunk. It was bunk with Asimov, and it's bunk with Asimo.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Well, What About an A-Bomb?

I know that in certain movies, you can not invade them with certain systems of logic if they function on other, distinct systems of logic. For example, a movie about magic (or majiiiqcck as new-agers say) can not have science brought into it or it all breaks down.

Unfortunately, movies about magic are frequently brought together with modern times. Harry Potter is a good example. Yeah, yeah. All the wizards at Hogwarts are very powerful, but, could they stop an A-bomb? Or, again, any one of the 93,476 modern-day vampire movies where vampires are loaded with bullets and knives and whatnot but keep coming. Well, what about an A-bomb? Like the Grand Poobah vampire in John Carpenter's Vampires, what would have happened if he got nailed with Fat Man.

I'm sorry, but this is actually a knock against movies, for me. If the movie is set in modern times it must be subject to the rules of modern times. Like the bus that picks up Harry Potter in the third book/movie. It frantically dodges people on the road as it drives around at warp 5, and it's explained that people don't see because they choose not to see. Well, yeah, but the bus is still physically there, in some way. So whether they can see it or not they could still walk into it. And what about the tracks that carry the train? Do people just not notice them?

My favorites are still vampires, werewolves, and other such ergot-inspired delusions. I guess ol' B-Dogg Stoker didn't imagine A-bombs. What's more, he didn't need to. But now, if you're writing a movie about magic, vampires, or perhaps magical vampires, I beg you to ask the question, "what about an A-bomb?"

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

My God Man! Do You Sleep?!

Interestingly, Discovery Channel is pairing the "2057" series with another series, the first of which premiered tonight, called Futurecar. It's convenient since my previous post was about nothing BUT the cars. Lo and behold, Michio Kaku is in that too! This guy is everywhere!

In general, I was pretty happy with the show. There was no real fanciful prognostication going on. It was pretty well grounded in actual advances taking place in the world of cars. It didn't offer any commentary on those advances, which would have been a nice touch, but it was entertaining and informative enough.

And, sure enough, Moller and his Skycar tied up the end of the show. The show said, and I quote "[Moller] isn't a realist. He's a futurist." Ok. That's a good thing? A futurist who isn't a realist is an idiot. I could say that in 100 years we'll all have our legs removed and replaced with cybernetic Segways. That makes me a futurist. It also makes me about as far from a realist as you can get. You need to be both a realist and a futurist to make predictions with any weight at all. Without it, you're just blowing smoke out your ass.

It's a Message From the Future-ture-ture-ture!

How many of you saw the show "2057" on the Discovery Channel a few days ago? I knew it was going to be pretty tripe-y, but even I was surprised. I thought we had given up this silly, super-futuristic prognostication back in the days of the World's Fair.

I was blown away by how absurd it was. And also, is Michio Kaku in EVERYTHING nowadays? It seems a documentary can't be made without getting him involved. Does he have any time to teach? Does he have any time to EAT?

Ok, maybe my earlier sentiment needs to be tempered. It was a decent bit of sci-fi/educational stuff. Still, I think it would have been a much better show if the predictions had been less based on how cool the prediction looks with CGI effects and how feasible the prediction actually is.

On that note, I would like to bitch and moan about that dude and his flying car. It sounds like a children's book. A Boy and His Dog, a Man and His Flying Car. Ahhhh. Regardless, I am here to tell people now, and for a very long time, WE WILL NOT HAVE FLYING CARS. Much like Michio Kaku, I see that blasted flying car in every damn documentary about cars or the future I see.

They always hold it up as though it's some kind of proof that we will, indeed, be buzzing around in the stratosphere in fifty years. No. We won't. That guy has been hawking that contraption for years and it's just as unfeasible now as it was when he first got the idea.

Let's look at it and see why. First, the argument that there's TONS of sky up there, and our traffic would never get bad enough to cause air traffic jams is stupid. Yeah. There's a boatload of sky up there, assuming even distribution over an area. But much like traffic now, people will all be going to the same place.

Imagine taking LA's clusterfucked highways and just putting them in the air. Yes, the jam wouldn't extend out as far, but the jam at the actual point of arrival, namely, the city center, would be one thousand times worse. All the people taking off and landing would cause jams and accidents the likes of which we've never seen.

And speaking of accidents, there is one advantage to the flying car. It gets rid of a statistic. We would no longer need to distinguish between fatal and non-fatal accidents. All accidents would be fatal. Much like airplanes, there's really no middle ground. You're either perfect or dead.

And yes, every now and then, airplanes enter a zone that is less-than-perfect, not-quite-dead. But, and this is a big but, they survive because of the immense skill of all involved. Planes that should have gone down land because the pilot is great, forged by thousands of hours and flight and training time.

The average, every-day driver has none of those things and there is no way that we could institute a mass, training program for flying car pilots. Just think about the idiots you meet on your morning commute. Would you actually want those people driving /flying a 3,000 pound bullet at 200mph? It's a recipe for disaster.

Now think about the way people manage their cars. The only reason we don't have planes dropping like flies is because of intense care and maintenance. Large planes are overhauled every set number of miles, and small planes are usually owned by enthusiasts who love to work on their ride. And even then, what kind of plane do you usually read about crashing? The small planes. We have a few small planes go down every year. Multiple that by one million and you begin to grasp the problem.

Imagine all of the broken down cars you see on the side of road. If those had been planes everyone would be dead. And unlike jets or small planes, flying cars would spend almost ALL their time over heavily populated areas like cities. So when a flying car "breaks down" and then "crashes down," it turns into a bomb. Cars are great precisely because they're so forgiving.

There aren't just two states, fine and dead, in a car. Car's can run safely with low maintenance. Look at all the junkers putting down the road. Those are not cars you would want in the air. You can make emergency stops in a car. If you get into an accident, you simply get out and assess the damage. No, 99% of people need that middle ground. It's a buffer between them and dead. The extreme care required for a true flying car is just not feasible. For now, and long time coming, we're stuck on the ground.

Now, that isn't to say we won't have low-level flying mass transit. I think that's very feasible. All of the problems mentioned are gone. A flying bus would have a highly trained pilot, extreme maintenance, and would be forced to fly over specific routes as to prevent mid-air accidents. In fact, a flying bus would be a great idea. Why doesn't that guy get on it?!

On a note about the Skycar specifically and not just a hypothetical flying car, it's a death trap. We have a hard time keeping our cars one engine running. The Skycar has multiple engines, ALL of which must run perfectly to keep the car in the air. Even better, they're rotary engines. Yep. The same rotary engines in Mazdas (Well, not the exact same engine). And yep, the same Mazda engines that have a tendency to blow up under heavy load. Moller's website says

"Wankel-type rotary engines in general are very reliable as a result of their simplicity. The number of moving parts in a Moller rotary engine (dual-rotor) is approximately seven percent of those in a four-cylinder piston engine."

That is a blazing simplification. Go down to the local garage and ask them about the Mazda RX-7's reliability. They'll laugh.

And also, the Skycar, but, as any flying car would probably be, is a Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) aircraft. Think about that. In the military, what kind of aircraft goes (Blackhawk) down all the time? And in airplanes, which extant airplane has the worst safety record in the military? Correct! The Harrier. The only plane with VTOL capabilities (well, it and that absurd looking Osprey).