Welcome to the future. With Marty McFly’s official “arrival date” behind us, Back to the Future joins the likes of Lost in Space, The Terminator, and Looking Backward in depicting a “future” which is now in the past. For better or for worse, none of these visions have come to pass precisely as predicted. We may not have colonized Alpha Centauri…but at least we haven’t obliterated ourselves in a nuclear war. And though we still don’t have flying cars (I blame the FAA), here are 10 things which prove we’re living in THE WORLD OF TOMORROW!
(Okay, yeah, I realize this list doesn’t really fit the “creepy” criterion. But it’s freakin’ “Back to the Future Day.” I couldn’t pass it up. Besides, every DVD store puts the Sci-Fi right next to the Horror. It totally counts. Shut up.)
Believe it or not, this was the very first selection I thought of, and it motivated the list itself. There’s just something so patently “futuristic” about taking a commonplace activity which people have done for years and abruptly replacing it with something new for no real reason. Hoverboards replace skateboards. Why? Because they’re cool and futuristic. Green plastic space cymbals replace brass ones. Why? Because they’re cool and futuristic. And now people puff vapor in place of smoke. This is the list selection I could most see inspiring a “Back to the Future Part II”-style conversation:
“Hey, what are ya doin’, man!?”
“Man, don’t you know nothin’? Smoking’s yesterday’s news. Everybody who’s anybody VAPES, dude!”
[Vaper zips away on his hover-bike]*
2. LONG-DISTANCE KISSING MACHINES
I initially had “video chat” penciled in for this slot. It’s certainly true that futurists have been predicting the advent of “video-phones” since at least the 60s, Comedians speculated that the only reason the technology took so long to catch on was that we cherished our right to talk on the phone in our underwear. But services like Skype and Google Hangout have finally made both seeing and hearing our long-distance interlocutors a part of our everyday life.
Touching them? Not so much. But have no fear, Japan is here. Several companies are hard at work devising ways of simulating physical contact across long distances. Essentially, the way in which a sensor is manipulated at the “transmitter” end is felt at the “receiver” end, and vice versa.It’s not really all that different from the way a telephone works. But you can’t make out through the telephone, and that’s the glaring error these…er…noble inventors are trying to fix. Yes, you really can buy a rudimentary robot mouth to French your cyberspace paramores. The future is a wonderful, terrifying place.
But don’t act like you haven’t thought about it before.
Wait, you mean you didn’t immediately think of the boundless possibilities for “long-distance sex tech” the instant you first felt the Rumble Pak in your N64 deliver that sweet, sweet sensory feedback?
Just me, then? Okay…
3. OCULUS RIFT
And speaking of sensory experiences…
Developers have been talking up virtual reality since the days of The Lawnmower Man, but results have always leaned more towards the “virtual” than the “reality.” The Oculus Rift, however, may finally break the mold and deliver the first fully immersive, 360-degree entertainment environment.
Even if it doesn’t, though, the device still LOOKS stupidly futuristic. Just try to tell me that someone with an Oculus Rift strapped to their face doesn’t look EXACTLY the way an 80s gamer would imagine his 2015 counterpart.
4. NAVY LASERS
The U.S. Navy is testing laser guns. LASER GUNS. And they work really well.
That is all.
5. GLOBAL SURVEILLANCE
When I first read 1984, it made me angry – not necessarily because of the actions taken by The Party or “Big Brother,” but mostly because of the revelation that the bookshop owner who facilitates Winston’s initial act of “rebellion” was deceiving him from the beginning. This twist means Winston’s actions for the entire plot have been meaningless. Not only has his revolution failed, but it never could have accomplished anything to start with. It’s the same issue I have with “predestination” time travel: if characters have no influence on their ultimate outcome, investing yourself in their narrative feels pointless.
What’s more, the scenario Orwell depicted seemed preposterous. Surely no government could come to power which so flagrantly abused its citizens’ liberties. In the years which followed, I came to see the novel as a hyperbolic parable, a teaching tool showing us what could happen, that we might ensure nothing close to it DID happen.
Well, it seems no one else learned that lesson. Edward Snowden’s revelation that virtually all communications worldwide are being scrutinized by the American government, and the public’s apparent apathy in the aftermath of this news, makes Orwell’s vision of the future (now also the past) among the most accurate in fiction.
I mean, one of the secret government programs is even called “Total Information Awareness.”
Geez. I guess this IS a horror post.
6. VOICE AND FACE RECOGNITION
Then again, human surveillance may not be a concern for much longer, anyway. Instead of Orwell’s vision of the future coming to pass, perhaps we should be more worried about James Cameron’s.
Maybe you remember my article from last year about internet musicians Rhett & Link. The YouTuber duo have one popular series called “caption fail,” which mocks the inadequacy of YouTube’s auto-captioning tool. But entries in the series have been less frequent of late…because the software is getting better. As each year goes by, voice recognition programs are becoming more and more accurate. I can send mostly-correct texts simply by talking to my phone. Apps like Shazam can even recognize songs playing in a crowded bar.
Throw in the increasing capabilities of face recognition software which can track an individual through an airport or stadium, and “Terminator vision” is now a reality. Let’s just hope the machines don’t get any funny ideas.
7. SELF-DRIVING CARS
Now for the last of my paranoid hand-wringing. Self-driving automobiles have been on the way for a while now. The DARPA Grand Challenge has awarded annual prizes in autonomous vehicle development since 2004, and a fleet of Google Self-Driving Cars has been prowling the streets of California since 2011. Some estimates predict that a consumer car which is at least partially autonomous will be available by the end of this decade.
This is not good. Without exaggeration, driving is one of the most “active” things I do on any given day. Operating a car requires hand-eye coordination, spatial awareness, and nonverbal communication with other drivers. Removing these activities from our daily routine would bring us significantly closer to becoming the blob-like humans shown in WALL-E, ferried around mindlessly by their hover-chairs. Worse, a government which can already track our cell phones to create a veritable Marauder’s Map of the nation could potentially stop or redirect traffic at a whim. “Your” car would no longer truly be yours.
As the internet might say, DO NOT WANT.
8. MEAT PRINTERS
But let’s wrap things up with a few things I DO want.
Over the past five years or so, “Bio-printing” has popped up in articles relating to a variety of fields. Similar to other types of 3-D printing, bio-printing involves laying down a matrix of proteins layer by layer to produce organic tissue. Many of the foreseen uses for this burgeoning technology are medical in nature: rather than relying on donors, we may soon be able to “print” new organs for the ill or injured.
But we all know what’s REALLY important. Soon we’ll have hamburger printers within arm’s reach, and we’ll never have to leave our computers again. Well, except maybe to buy whatever the meat equivalent of toner is.
This year, spacecraft visited not one, but two of the largest “dwarf planets” in our solar system. “Dawn” has been orbiting Ceres in the Asteroid Belt since March, and “New Horizons” flew by Pluto in July. Both missions were the first-ever voyages to their respective celestial bodies, and both produced a wealth of new, high-resolution images. These breathtaking images raise as many questions as they answer, and hopefully the positive publicity they brought to the space program will encourage further exploration of our solar neighborhood.
Also worthy of note: With Pluto down, we have now officially visited every planet (or dwarf planet) explored by Ms. Frizzle’s class in the pilot episode of “The Magic School Bus.” New Horizons probably spotted Arnold’s frozen corpse. The government’s just covering it up.
Finally, we come to a device which emerged straight from the pages of science fiction. First depicted in “Tom Swift” comic books in the 1920s, functional jetpacks came into being around the advent of the space program in the 1960s. True, they’re still not widespread (their absence is often held up alongside the similar lack of flying cars to show the failure of mid-20th century visions for the future). But they ARE out there. And, as a viral video from earlier this year shows, they’re being put to good use.
The phenomenal video, shot in eye-popping 4K, shows a pair of jetpack pilots freewheeling through the skies of Dubai. They perform dives and barrel rolls, and zip past the city’s towering skyscrapers in a manner which those killjoys at the FAA would probably frown upon in this country. Without any exaggeration, it’s amazing.
The future is now.