The Future's Taking Too Long To Get Here

screengrab robot

The story was originally broadcast on May 20, 2007.

Sunday Morning correspondent Bill Geist looks at how far we've come towards a technological Utopia and how far we still have to go.

After decades of waiting, the future has finally arrived. But we were supposed to be living in a techno-paradise with jetpacks, space colonies, and robots waiting on us hand and foot. What happened?

For example, by the 21st century we were all supposed to have personal jetpacks so we could fly to work, go to the store, drop off the dry cleaning.

Dan Wilson, author of the book "Where's My Jetpack?: A Guide To The Amazing Science Fiction Future That Never Arrived," is one of those who thought everybody would be flying jetpacks by now.

"For me the jetpack is a symbol really of all the technology that I thought we should have by now but which we don't seem to," said Wilson.

The jetpack first appeared in the 1920s on the back of Buck Rogers. It really captured everyone's fancy then and it's never let go.

But, alas, there has been little progress since the 1960s, when James Bond took off — and landed safely! — in "Thunderball." And so far it still takes someone like Eric Scott, one of only two living pilots — bold and a bit bananas — who can fly these barely-tamed contraptions

"You have no parachute," said Scott. "No emergency manual for this thing. You get in trouble up there in the air, you're like calling 9-1-1, 'God or something, please help out now!'"

Jetpacks are hot (1300 degrees), heavy (135 pounds), and hard to fly (like standing on a ball with a fire hose), and they can only make short hops (about 33 seconds).

Moreover, what would happen if we all did own jetpacks — I mean, if you had a million people flying around in these things?

"I don't think the FAA is ready for that right now, 'cause they're gonna be peeling people off buildings," said Scott.

Jetpak International has its corporate headquarters in a Denver garage. (Hey, Henry Ford and the Wright Brothers got their starts in garages.)

Eric Scott is the test pilot. He has a big flight today, and psyches himself up by watching 007 fly.

Scott flies at shows, stadiums, casinos, all around the world — and it always draws a crowd, even at unscheduled flights like this one at Red Rocks outside Denver.

God speed: Eric is off, with an 800-horsepower rocket as well as history on his back: part Orville and Wilbur, part John Glenn, part Evel Knieval.

Is he a pioneer or just crazy? "Both," Scott says.

And that's what made America great.

Another futuristic dream that hasn't quite caught up with the present is robots: Household servants to do our bidding. Mechanical doormen signing for packages was to be the future. But to this day robots still pretty much dwell in the realm of science fiction. Oh, we've come up with a few that scoop up crumbs from the floor, but the more ambitious models that can put on dance moves cost millions to build — and then all they want to do is fool around.

Wilson laments such lack of progress.

"I always thought that the future was going to be what it looked like in the World's Fair predictions: humanoid robots that walk around and talk and look like people. And as it turns out, that's really hard to do."

At the University of Washington in Seattle, professor Rajesh Rao and his team are doing sciency stuff with a robot named Morpheus — 'Mo' to his friends.

Mo walks kinda funny — actually the little man of steel sort of sashays — and he is a bit of a klutz. Tables will be knocked over.

But Mo is a sophisticated robot. He responds to thought commands — you think it, Mo does it.

All you have to do is put on a funny hat and have wires poked into your head. Then your brain waves (if any) are analyzed and you're ready to go.

Say you have a red block and a white block. You think hard about the red block and Mo goes for the red block.

Someday it could be a beer!

You think about the table with the white patch in the center … and that's where Mo puts it. Amazing!

That's one small step for Mo, a giant leap for robotkind!