Cars can fly today, but not as many as in McFly’s world. Video screenshot by Nick Statt/CNET
We’re about to be living in the future, people — specifically, the campy future of “Back to the Future: Part II,” partially set in October 2015, which is 30 years out from the universe of 1985 Hill Valley from which Marty McFly hails.
The movie actually gets quite a bit of today’s technology right.
Flying cars, hoverboards and Google Glass-like headsets aren’t ubiquitous like they are in the movie, but they are very real, which leads me to wonder what advances would be included in another sequel set another three decades forward…in 2045.
Famously, 2045 is the year futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts we will achieve technological singularity, or the point at which artificial intelligence is smart enough to begin improving itself without the need for human help or supervision. The singularity, if it comes to pass, could arguably be so transformative it becomes difficult to even attempt to predict its implications. So it’s convenient that this little thought experiment is only trying to predict what life will be like leading right up to that point but not beyond it.
In addition to knocking on the door of an AI revolution, by 2045 we should have a much better idea which distant planets might eventually be worth a visit based on the likelihood that they host life. I wouldn’t bet that we’ll yet have anything like a warp drive or other means of interstellar travel up and running by 2045, but if the recently started efforts to cure “aging” have begun to bear any fruit by that point, we may be ready to start looking for volunteers to undertake decades-long voyages of exploration beyond our solar system.
8 sci-fi ideas that might become science…
It also seems possible we’ll have a space-mining industry up and running by 2045 that will be able to aid such a mission with fuel and supplies, and perhaps even be able to 3D-print a spacecraft from an industrial facility mounted to an asteroid-based mine.
Does this mean our imaginary “Back the Future: Part II: Part II” is more likely to be set in a colony on the moon or Mars than in good ol’ Hill Valley? I wouldn’t bet on it. Humanity’s actual footprints haven’t extended any further into the solar system since 1985, and while NASA is planning a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s, I don’t see the space agency (or Mars One or Elon Musk, for that matter) managing to get a sizable colony of any sort going beyond Earth by 2045.
Life back on Earth and in Hill Valley could be pretty different, however. While back in the late ’80s “Back to the Future: Part II” accurately imagined a hyper-exaggerated version of a culture that was just beginning to become media-obsessed, it completely omitted the main media that rose to prominence over the past few decades, specifically the Internet and the mobile revolution.
If we look out to 2045 from where we are now, it seems reasonable to imagine that we will continue to become even more hyper-connected and that the dominance of data will only progress and become more powerful, especially as artificial intelligence also becomes stronger.
I’m hesitant to speculate about what forms these advances will take. After all, back around the time “Back to the Future: Part II” was released in 1989, mobile phones already existed (in the now much-mocked “brick” form factor) and the magical power of faxing made us feel like we were on our way to becoming the Jetsons, so the movie and other better-informed prognosticators laughably predicted a future where we would be able to miraculously fax everything to and from everywhere, even the beach.
But there are few things more foolish than the fear of looking foolish, so here are my thoughts on where it’s all heading. Just as the last 30 years have been about becoming more connected and more mobile, experts seem to agree that these trends will continue to grow in the near future as they become not just more powerful, but more invisible.
The Internet of Things will become the Internet of everything as ubiquitous sensors surround us and connect to us via devices that are no longer handheld, but just built into our lives — perhaps through implants or tiny earbuds or contact lenses or something else.
“The Internet will shift from the place we find cat videos to a background capability that will be a seamless part of how we live our everyday lives,” Joe Touch, director at the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute, predicted in 2014. “We won’t think about ‘going online’ or ‘looking on the Internet’ for something — we’ll just be online, and just look.”
Looking back at earlier predictions for the future, it’s clear we have a hard time seeing the limitations of the present and the means by which we’ll exceed them.
We often imagine flashy and fantastic innovations like flying cars, but instead, revolutions are started by seemingly more simple means like Uber and Twitter. The result is that the future we end up living in is often less exciting than we previously imagined it, but it’s also often better. We may not live in fully automated condos in the sky like in “The Jetsons,” but we can watch a revolution unfold on the other side of the planet, all in short 140-character bursts. It turns out that humans seem to want technology to connect us rather than automate us.
When we imagine the future — especially in popular culture — it typically winds up being little more than exaggerated caricatures of the present. I mean, really, despite all the gadgets George Jetson’s life seemed an awful lot like everyone else’s in the 1950s and 1960s, just as the 2015 Marty McFly knew was really just like taking everything laughable about the late 1980s and turning it up to 11.
Yet the future we live in today is pretty cool while still glaringly imperfect. But most importantly, it is occupied by a population that is more empowered than ever through ubiquitous connection (whether via mobile, social or other networks), data and tools to spot the imperfections and work to solve them, whether they’re geopolitical conflicts, or diseases like Parkinson’s that afflict so many, including the actor that brought McFly himself to life.
Clearly, here in the actual future of 2015, we’ve got bigger fish to fry than Biff Tannen. And by the time we get to 2045, everything I’ve written here will probably seem as silly as sending a fax from the beach.
You can read some of my earlier musings about what the future holds here, and be sure to check out the gallery above for eight specific advances that seem impossible today but have a good chance of being taken for granted by 2045.