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Book Summary: Where is My Flying Car? by J. Storrs Hall

My Personal Summary

This book explores why technological advancement hasn’t been as impressive as people predicted it would be half a century ago.

Many promising technological innovations such as flying cars, nanotechnology, and clean nuclear energy haven’t become as prevalent in modern society as many of the leading technologists from the 1950’s thought they would.

The author, J. Storrs Hall, argues that this is not because the technology isn’t understood but rather because there are so many governmental and regulatory hoops that innovators have to jump through now that it’s more time-intensive and expensive to develop and test new technology now compared to 50 years ago.

In addition, many of the brightest minds today are drawn to finance and big law because of the big salaries. But these two fields don’t improve the lives of daily humans.

Hall argues that there is a path forward where we can get back to the accelerated economic and technological growth that we saw from the 1880’s to 1950’s, but it will require courage and “nerve” from people that hasn’t been seen in recent history.

Book Notes

  • Following World War ll, many of the popular science fiction writers of the day predicted a whole slew of inventions that would exist by 2010-2050. Some of those inventions, like instant wireless communication around the world and the rise of the internet (“global library”) have come to fruition, but many (like flying cars) have not.
  • In 1962, people looked back on all the inventions that had improved their lives over the past 50 years – electricity, indoor plumbing, refrigerators, microwaves, commercial airplanes, movies, skyscrapers, washing machines, antibiotics – and concluded that the next 50 years were likely to expand on this trend.
  • The biggest problem with developing flying cars is that you need a vehicle that can lift up vertically that doesn’t need a massive runway to take off and land. The helicopter is able to do this but it hasn’t been widely adopted by individual consumers because the rotor hub – the piece that rotates above the helicopter – is extremely expensive to both manufacture and maintain/repair.
  • Nanotechnology is another technology that seemed to have promising prospects as early as the 1960’s and was championed by Richard Feynman and physics shows that it is indeed possible, but few advancements have been made in the field.
  • Cold fusion is a hypothesized type of nuclear fusion that could occur at room temperature instead of under extreme pressure at millions of degrees. Although some researchers have claimed to have achieved this in labs, there have been tons of political reasons over the years for not supporting this type of research and instead most funding goes towards hot fusion research.
  • In his book The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli wrote in 1532 that innovators are often opposed by “all those who have done well under the old con­ditions.” This partially explains why some new innovations, such as cold fusion, have been blocked or faced resistance from people currently in power who don’t have the proper incentives to embrace innovation, either for political, monetary or other reasons.
  • Amazing, increased research funding from the government is associated with lower rates of innovation.
  • “A century ago, all the smart young people had to make their way in the real world, facing all the messy problems of life, work, and production, and some of them had imagination and nerve enough to invent new and better ways to solve them. Today, all too many of their descendants spend all too much time in the ivory tower, ever more dependent on handouts from the bureaucracy, and spend their time, efforts, and ingenuity inventing better ways to write grant applications.”
  • “Measured by journal page counts, the amount of scientific knowledge we’ve accumulated in the past half-century has exceeded by more than a factor of 50 all the knowledge previously discovered. But it may well be that ivory-tower syndrome enhances apparent scientific discovery yet impedes useful application.”
  • The “Great Stagnation” – the time period since the 1960’s in which innovation has flatlined – has coincided with a massive rise in federal regulation and regulatory agencies. This basically means that new technology has to get approval by a myriad of committees and bureaucratic groups before being made available to the public, which obviously slows down the rate of innovation.
  • The 1970’s brought an increase in product liability and an increase in the number of lawyers. One negative side effect of this is “taking more than a million of the country’s most talented and motivated people and putting them to work making arguments and filing briefs instead of inventing, developing, and manufacturing.”
  • “If, in 1900, Orville and Wilbur Wright had faced the regulatory and legal environment that we have now, the Flyer would never have gotten off the ground.”
  • In The Rise and Fall of American Growth, Robert Gordon said that technological stagnation since the 1970’s has simply been due to a lack of miracles. But one counter-example of this occurred after World War ll when West Germany embraced capitalism and removed virtually all regulations in the economy and experienced massive economic growth in the following decade. This was a “miracle” by many standards.
  • Nuclear fission offers clean, abundant energy and yet it hasn’t become a significant energy source because of exaggerated fears over how dangerous it is combined with an endless amount of regulation that makes building nuclear power plants extremely expensive.
  • Many of the brightest minds today are drawn to finance and big law because of the big salaries. But these two fields don’t improve the lives of daily humans. Peter Thiel actually talks about this in Zero to One: Progress has stagnated in recent decades because the most intelligent people have chosen to practice law or finance (due to massive salaries) instead of creating new technology. However, law and finance involve moving around or protecting existing assets rather than creating new things.
  • “The technical problems of building a flying car that could take off from your driveway and achieve airliner speeds are solvable with today’s technology.”
  • Interesting: The Burj Khalifa, created in Dubai in 2010, is the world’s tallest building at about half a mile tall. If humans built buildings that were one mile tall and only placed one of these buildings per square mile, the entire human population could exist in an area the size of Montana. Give people flying cars or underground high-speed trains and you really could turn the whole Earth into a giant park.
  • Nuclear, nanotechnology and AI will likely be the three main drivers of the modern Industrial Revolution.

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