Cars that drive themselves or run on fuel cells! Space tourismand manned missions to Mars! Tunnel-based loops that transport people at high speed in underground pods! Everywhere you look, futuristic whiz-bang technologies that promise to usher in a golden age filled with a higher quality of life are being promoted as potential near-term realities.

Yet there’s a general pessimism about what the future holds. In the U.S., only 37 percent of adults believe their children will be better off financially than their parents when they grow up, according to the Pew Research Center. In Japan, one of the world’s most technologically advanced economies, only 9 percent believe so.

There are a lot of reasons for the simmering discontent about the future in the midst of massive technological promise. It’s not because technology can’t do all the wonderful things its promoters promise. After all, we all walk around with a powerful computer in our pocket, have the ability to get our genome decoded and explained with a simple test, and take driving directions from brilliant navigational tools.

Rather, the dissonance comes when we realize that, for all the technology that promises to replace and displace existing systems, most of it doesn’t seem to be trying to make our existing systems work better — or stop them from getting worse. For example, I read a lot about exciting new projects while sitting on the train that takes me 50 miles from suburban Connecticut to midtown Manhattan, a trip that now takes 15 minutes longer than it did 15 years ago.

It’s great that people are thinking about ways to make many of our existing, annoying systems irrelevant. But what if we could apply some of that engineering talent, imagination, and capital to simply make the stuff we use right now work a little better? We certainly have the tools at our grasp.

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