The Jetsons vs. Futurama: Which one will be our innovation future?

Elon Musk announced new details about the much-hyped “Hyperloop” in the same week we got the Jetpack – a potentially revolutionary device that enables people to travel up to 20 feet above the Earth like in those old sci-fi movies (with some other restrictions). The New Zealand aviation authorities have granted an “experimental flight permit” for the Martin Jetpack, a move that could open the door for the first-ever consumer jet pack by 2015. Welcome to the Jetsons future! Right?

A handout photo released on August 13, 2013 by Martin Aircraft Company Limited of their personalised jetpack. (AFP PHOTO / MARTIN AIRCRAFT COMPANY LIMITED)
A handout photo released on August 13, 2013 by Martin Aircraft Company Limited of their personalised jetpack. (AFP PHOTO / MARTIN AIRCRAFT COMPANY LIMITED)
A handout photo released on August 13, 2013 by Martin Aircraft Company Limited shows a model standing next to a newly developed personalised jetpack in Christchurch, New Zealand. The New Zealand developers of a personalised jetpack said on August 13, 2013 that aviation regulators have issued the device with a flying permit, allowing for manned test flights. AFP PHOTO / MARTIN AIRCRAFT COMPANY LIMITED -----EDITORS NOTE ----RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE MANDATORY CREDIT " AFP PHOTO / MARTIN AIRCRAFT COMPANY LIMITED" NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTSMARTIN AIRCRAFT COMPANY LIMITED/AFP/Getty Images (AFP PHOTO / MARTIN AIRCRAFT COMPANY LIMITED)

Well, hold on. While the Hyperloop appears to be something so fantastical, so high-tech (Solar-powered! Tubes! Pods going hundreds of miles per hour!) that even Musk seemed unable to entirely wrap his head around the concept, the Jetpack is going to be a reality as early as 2014. That’s when New Zealand emergency first-responders will have access to this little piece of Jetsons innovation. By 2015, the plan is to have a working prototype available for sale to the consumer market. It won’t be cheap — with initial estimates that it could cost anywhere from $150,000-$200,000. (And, if the Martin Jetpack proves too uneconomical, innovators in Hawaii also have their own version of an Iron Man-like jet pack in the works.)

The Jetsons future, though, is about more than producing a lot of really cool tech toys at outrageous price points, it’s also about resolving one of the central innovation dilemmas of our current era – are we, as a society, becoming more or less innovative? Depending on whom you talk to, we could be facing the death of innovation and the end of growth or the beginning of one of the greatest periods in human innovation ever.

At this year’s TED event in California, one of the most talked-about events was a face-off between Erik Brynjolfsson and Robert Gordon over the future of innovation. On one hand, Brynjolffson argued that we’re approaching another pinnacle of human innovation made possible by our embrace of computers and machines.

On the other hand, the macroeconomist Gordon argued that we’re at the tail end of a remarkable period of innovation, and there simply isn’t anything left to extend this innovation miracle. The days of massive life-changing innovations are over. In other words, we’re doomed to a future of “slightly better” refrigerators, TVs and cars.

From this perspective, the Jetsons future is more like Futurama, a time of ridiculous-but-cool tech gadgets that don’t work as expected and fail to bring any real innovation to the U.S. economy. The Segway – once touted as one of the most remarkable innovations ever – is now something actor Kevin James wheels around on while playing a mall cop. The same thing could be true with the Jetpack – it’s just “two enormous leaf blowers welded together.” Those really cool Google Glasses? Maybe they’re just going to turn into the early 21st century version of 1970s 3D movie glasses.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3LyhVCsad9A

Yet, there’s something very exciting and compelling about a Jetsons future. Think back to the way America imagined the future nearly 50 years ago – we thought of the future as an era in which people would travel around in personal spaceships, walk on moving sidewalks and read tablet-like books with antennas stuck into them.  And those innovations are now coming true. In the half-century since then, it’s almost as if America’s science fiction writers have become our nation’s in-house R&D department, creating a wave of new innovative products and concepts that technologists help bring to life. Who knows? Maybe the science fiction cartoons your kids are watching right now could hold the secret to America’s future innovation potential.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.

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