Just think: a decade ago, the iPhone didn’t exist. Now, we’re all equipped with pocket-sized supercomputer. Or think broader: a mere century ago, we couldn’t take to the sky. Now, we’ve got robots on Mars surveilling the area for our arrival. This ever-encroaching, exponentially accelerating march of progress is enough to make you think that there’s no limit to the feats of human ingenuity and innovation. And you’d be forgiven. We all want jetpacks, after all.
But, sadly, there’s a wall. Some innovations—yes, jetpacks included (and especially)—simply aren’t meant to be. Herein, we’ve cobbled together the 20 most prominent, persistent ideas, popularized by futurists, physicists, and science fiction writers that are definitely never, ever, ever going to happen—whether it’s because of economic realities or the simple fact that the inventions are actually pretty useless or obsolete. So read on and see what wasn’t meant to be! And for some future perfect tech that’s, you know, actually here, check out The 10 Tech Items You Never Knew You Needed.
Jetpacks for regular people.
It’s true: jetpacks do exist, just not in any reasonably marketable or produceable form. Every thus-far introduced version of the tech burns fuel and money in equal measure. They also tend to be obnoxious, both in size and volume. Oh, and they’re also terribly, terribly dangerous. No sane company will take on that risk. For now, you’ll just have to make do watching other people zoom around, like the two dudes who went viral earlier this year with a midair samurai duel. (If you’re wondering: that video is as awesome as it sounds.) And for more on what the future holds, here are the 30 Craziest Predictions About the Future Experts Say Are Going to Happen.
Cool your Jetsons, folks: a flying Corolla isn’t showing up in your local dealer’s lot any time soon—or even ever.
Technically speaking, flying cars have already left conception stages. Back in the early 1970s, two entrepreneurial men, Henry Smolinski and Hal Blake, had the idea to Frankenstein a flying car—literally, by amalgamating a Cessna to a Ford Pinto. During the first flight, the Cessna detached from the car. Both men were killed on impact, and, in the years since, no other mass-produced attempts at flying cars.
In recent years, however, it seems that a new YouTube video with some new flying car concept gets released and makes the rounds, and people all too quickly seem to forget the thousands of failed “flying car” ideas before—and seem to ignore how wildly impractical they are. Seriously: We don’t care if Elon Musk teams with NASA, the Russians, Bill Gates, and Doctor Brown from Back to the Future—and they try launch a flying-car Manhattan Project with a trillion dollars—we are never going to look up at the sky and see anything other than birds and airplanes.
Just this year, automaker PAL-V showed off a model at this year’s Geneva International Motor Show. It retails for $621,500, and will allegedly “hit market in 2019.” Suuuuuuuuure… And for what the future might actually hold, take a look at What Life Could Look Like 200 Years From Now.
Breathing, to put it as simply as possible, works like this: we take in oxygen, and exhale carbon dioxide. Plants, on the other hand, take in carbon dioxide and put out oxygen; it’s a process called photosynthesis. Without plants, we wouldn’t be able to exist; and without oxygen-breathing mammals, plants wouldn’t be able to exist.
But a few years back, scientists at the University of California, Davis, using ultraviolet lasers, found a way to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. The potential uses of this are mind-boggling—we could breath easy in verdure barren regions, for instance—but the tech won’t hit mass market until lasers do. (So, never.) And for a more realistic look at the future, learn What Life Could Look Like 100 Years From Now.
Private supersonic jets.
Per FAA regulation, it’s illegal to break the sound barrier (767 miles per hour) in the continental United States. So even though the technology exists to send aircraft soaring to critical Mach numbers, no company is insane—or stupid—enough to produce, market, or sell a commercially available vessel. Trust me: If you’re a billionaire who knows anything about airplanes, you won’t be so ridiculous as to try to act out your own little personal Top Gun dreams in middle age. You’re going to buy a Pilatus like everyone else. For now, you’ll have to stick to regular air travel, so be sure to bone up on the 30 Secrets Only Airport Insiders Know.
Supersonic speed and light speed both have a “barrier.” For sound, it’s 767 miles per hour; for light it’s 186,000 miles per second. Staggering figures aside, though, even if it were possible to travel at such near-teleportation velocity (it’s not), traveling faster than light is physically impossible.
As the legendary Michelson–Morley experiment revealed, light waves, unlike sound, don’t need to move through anything—say, water, or air—to, well, move. Light waves can just go and go and go. So the light you’re trying to catch up to will always slip through your grasp, further and further away the closer you get, in the same way the horizon persistently eluded 15th century explorers. And for more knowledge, don’t miss these 40 Facts You Learned in the 20th Century That Are Totally Bogus Today.
The theory behind teleportation goes like this. First, you’d have to have an exact mapping of every atom in your body. Per a University of Leicester study, that amounts to about 45,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 gigabytes of data. Let’s put that in perspective: on your current 4G smartphone, which downloads at about 80 megabytes per second, it’ll take you just shy of an hour-and-a-half to download just 45 gigabytes of data. Even with the astonishing rate of advancement in computing, downloading that amount of data could take centuries. You’d teleport from one end and reappear at your destination—a millennia later.
The disintegration ray—also known as a ray gun—is, despite what you may have seen on the USS Enterprise, a purely theoretical venture. Like most good sci-fi innovations, it’s based on real-life science; in fact, in theoretical physicist Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Impossible, he details how even history’s most notorious ray gun, the Death Star, doesn’t violate any known laws of nature.
But scientists have never—nor will ever, since the tech serves no practical purpose—devoted resources to developing it. This means the only “disintegration” we’re ever going to get is The Cure’s seminal 1989 album. (For our money, that’s not only fine but preferable; “Pictures Of You” wins over sweet technology any day of the week.)
The Dyson sphere.
Compared to other energy forms, solar energy is cleaner (it produces no waste), stronger (a typical panel produces about 265kw of power), and less limited (as long as the sun’s around, we’ve got access) than any other currently available form of energy on the planet. All of that is just from what we can harness from the sun’s rays—and only the ones that diffuse through the earth’s atmosphere, at that. Imagine if we could get energy from the entire sun.
Enter: the Dyson sphere, a concept introduced in 1930s science fiction, then refined and publicized by theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson in the 1960s. The Dyson sphere would, in essence, envelop our entire solar system, capturing every single ray and kilojoule (energy from heat) the sun emits.
But this type of power isn’t available to us—not yet, and perhaps not ever. This feat of engineering is only achievable by what astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev calls “Type II civilizations” on the eponymous, three-point Kardashev Scale. (Though physicists of all stripes differ on much, the Kardashev Scale is as close to scripture as science can get.) Type II civilizations are able to harness the total energy of their solar system. Type III civilizations are able to do so with the entire galaxy. Type I civilizations, though, are only able to harness the total energy of their planet.
We’re not even a Type I civilization. Our self-driving cars are still considered unsafe.
Hoverboards that actually hover.
Hoverboards nowadays can do a whole lot: transport you on wheels, explode, and make you look idiotic. (Not necessarily in that order.) Among the things these hands-free Segways can’t do: hover. And if you expect a wholly levitating model to come out any time soon, well, don’t hold your breath.
The closest publicly available product we’ve experienced to a genuinely off-the-ground board is a 2016 prototype from Canadian company Omni Hoverboards. Their first test run hovered off the ground for a record-breaking 900 feet. (That’s four city blocks—or roughly one fraction of infinity of how far a traditional skateboard can travel.) A market ready version was supposed to hit shelves in 2017 and retail for upwards of $25,000. The company’s website, as of this writing, reads “stay tuned for our consumer prototype.”
Yeah. You sound just like our friends who grew up with us in the 1980s. “I totally have a hoverboard, it’s just at my grandmother’s house…” Yeah you do… Oh, and by the way: fake hoverboards are definitely one of the 40 Things No One Over 40 Should Ever Buy.
We know. You can technically travel to the future by blasting off from earth and going really, really fast into space in your rocket ship, chasing the speed of light. (Yes, like the movie Interstellar.) But time travel as a thing—”I want to travel to 2048 and be back by dinner!”—just ain’t going to happen, buddy.
You’ve seen the tech in everything from Predator to Halo, wherein an unseeable, armed-to-the-teeth extraterrestrial sneaks out of the woodwork to wreak havoc on unsuspecting soldiers. And in the real world, Russia’s Future Research Fund—that’s their counterpart to the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—purportedly made headway on creating a substance that could, theoretically, render a solider entirely invisible (as reported by the Russian state-run news agency, Sputnik).
But the truth is that this tech is never going to come to fruition. Here’s why: As researchers out of Tokyo University demonstrated, the pathway to invisibility requires refracting material—something between a projector and a mirror—that diverts the eye’s attention away from the object in question. Also necessary: a boatload of energy, and an intricate system of cameras (for projecting environmentally similar images onto the coat). Carrying all of that gear around would render any attempt at invisibility instantly moot.
Upon the study’s publication, the lead researcher, Susumu Tachi, planned on pushing a “commercially viable” system within a few years. That was 2003. We’ll go check on its progress in our flying car.
The ability to encode our consciousnesses—effectively transcending human biology—is the holy grail of biotech. As such, it pops up high-minded, aspirational science fiction all the time, most recently in Netflix’s super-budget blockbuster, Altered Carbon. (By the way, if that show flew under your radar—which is likely, thanks to a meek marketing campaign and poorly timed Super Bowl-adjacent release date—we urge you to give it a shot. You’re sleeping on a fantastic show with a rare satisfying ending.)
Sadly, according to experts, we’re fated to remain merely human. As Susan Schneider, of the University of Connecticut’s Department of Philosophy and Cognitive Science Program told Gizmodo, “At this point, we do not have a remotely complete picture of what features of the brain give rise to thinking, personality, sensations… If the features involve microscopic, quantum phenomena, then a precise upload of you cannot be created.” In other words: No dice.
Meals in pill or tablet form.
Generally speaking, humans need about 2,000 calories, give or take, to get through the day. No scientific engineering on the planet can condense that amount of calories into a single pill. If you’re looking to optimize your calorie intake, try adopting any of the 50 Genius Weight-Loss Motivation Techniques.
Everyone has, at some point in life (presumably childhood), dreamt of playing with actual lightsabers. And, for a certain group of scientists at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, that dream became venture. In 2013, a joint group of researchers from both exalted institutions banded together and shed light on how lightsabers supposedly function. Briefly: photonic (light) molecules were thought to be entirely without mass, and therefore unable to interact. Turns out, well, they still don’t have mass—but they interact as if they do.
But seriously: Can’t we get these guys working on a cure for cancer or something?
A New York City subway system upgrade.
The New York City subway—an impressive feat of engineering and human ingenuity, to be sure—hinges on a system of archaic computing referred to as signals. Thing is, as The Atlantic initially reported, some of these signals haven’t been updated since the 1930s. (The signals are among the earliest known instances of computing.) Since the computer system is perhaps the most ancient on earth, delays abound; subway on-time performance has declined from 93 percent in 2007 to a pathetic 50 percent, for some lines, in 2017.
But all hope is not lost! As the Wall Street Journal reported, new signal updates are finally underway, and are anticipated to be installed within the next 15 years. Similarly, the Second Avenue subway expansion was initially proposed in 1929. It didn’t get completed until last year, and only partially so—only three stops out of the planned 20 ended up seeing the light of day (or, rather, dark of tunnel).
In the late 1990s, scientists in South Korea claimed to have cloned a human embryo. The attempt was more or less dead on arrival, though, when the cloned specimen never developed past four cells. In 2004, scientists from Seoul National University purported to have repeated the feat. But two years later, as a paper in Science revealed, it turned out to be bunk. According to the National Human Genome Research Institute, other than those instances, “there currently is no solid scientific evidence that anyone has cloned human embryos,” and the tech “still appears to be fiction.”
From Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to Ant-Man—with a spat of Honey, I Shrunk the Kids in between—the notion of shrinking down to fun-sized functionality has been ever-present. Here’s the thing, though: atoms can’t shrink. And molecular distance—that’s the length between atoms within individual molecules—can’t change. Science is in rare agreement on those two.
Half Life 3
Sorry, gamers: this title is never, ever hitting shelves. And before you “Well, actually,” know that the formally named version, Half Life 2: Episode Three isn’t coming out, either. Since the original concept art leak, in 2008, less than nothing has happened; the lead writers left the project, and the developing company, Valve, has redirected resources to other projects, namely the immensely popular Dota 2. The remaining vestiges of this long-anticipated game have been permanently relegated to fringe-Internet meme status. (“Half Life 3 announced!!”) For now, just stick with The Cutting-Edge Video Games That Will Make You Smarter.
Another Valve-manufactured let down: the portal gun, a device that fires, instead of body-harming projectiles, wormholes. (The device was featured in the groundbreaking game Portal and its sequel, Portal 2.) Place a portal on one wall and a portal on another, and you can instantly step across an entire room. Place a portal on the ceiling and one on the floor, and you can free fall forever. Practically speaking: place a portal in your kitchen and one in your bedroom, and you can sneak snacks at any hour.
However, human beings are still totally in the dark when it comes to simply understanding wormholes, let alone creating them, let alone minimizing them for pedestrian use. In other words: you’ll never need to think with portals.
That is, unless we’re already in it…
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