The new "Futures" exhibition at the Smithsonian showcases inventions that have shaped the world we live in now and ones that will transform the world in the years to come.


The new "Futures" exhibition in the magnificently refurbished Arts and Industries Building at the Smithsonian Institution is the physical embodiment of a stirring toast from Orpheus in the wonderful modern musical Hadestown: "To the world we dream about, and the one we live in now."

Visitors first encounter the "Futures Past" section, showcasing some of the inventions that have shaped the world we live in now. These include an 1844 Morse-Vail telegraph key believed to be from the first Baltimore-Washington telegraph line, the 1909 Bakelizer which produced the world's first synthetic plastic, Robert Goddard's 1935 A-series rocket, and a full-scale Buckminster Fuller geodesic dome.

Under the building's central dome stands Suchi Reddy's gorgeous two-story me + you, an A.I.-powered interactive installation that sums one-word answers from visitors about how they feel about the future in order to produce a collective verdict. It glowed positive when I was there.

The "Futures That Work" section features Alphabet Inc.'s gigantic crop-tending robot and a Hyperloop pod meant to travel in tunnels at 670 mph. (The pod looked a bit cramped.)

The "Futures That Unite" experience enables visitors to collaborate on designing a city and to spend time meditating with Emanuel Gollob's Doing Nothing With A.I., a purple installation that eerily mimics their movements.

The world we dream of, meanwhile, is captured in the "Futures That Inspire" area, which houses the floating Oceanix city model (seasteaders take note) and the sleek Bell Nexus vertical take-off and landing flying taxi. Here are technologies past, present, and to come making human life more interesting.