Science fiction has a strange relationship with reality. This centuries-old genre and staple of pop culture can seem prophetic, occasionally giving us insight into what is to come. This is often because those who craft your favorite sci-fi medium sometimes borrow from ideas that sit on the fringes of modern scientific research.
Equally, prominent scientists have looked to science fiction for imaginative inspiration. In a 1958 interview with The New York Times, famed astronomer Carl Sagan expressed how his childhood obsession with the futuristic and tech-fueled genre led him to his own path in science. The relationship between science fiction and scientific reality tends to be cyclical, potentially even symbiotic.
The future that was envisioned in many sci-fi works is already here. We can communicate and interact with just about anyone, anywhere on a whim, using a small computer that can fit in our pockets. We can "materialize" useful parts, tools, and even food using a quick and cheap additive process. We can fly vast distances across the globe.
And that's just the beginning. Let's take a look at some of the technology that exists today that feels like it's straight out of a Jules Verne or H.G Wells story, and explore some of the more fantastical ideas that may make an appearance in the distant future.
AR and VR user interfaces
The first inkling of virtual reality appeared in Laurence Manning’s 1933 series of short stories titled, The Man Who Awoke. The stories detail people who ask to be connected to a machine that replaces all their senses with electrical impulses and thus enables them to live a virtual life of their choice.
Today, we're still telling stories about the future of VR. In the movie Ready Player One, the protagonists spend much of their time traversing and gaming in the massive virtual world called OASIS. In this film, characters utilize advanced virtual reality headsets and haptic suits that allow them to live in and experience OASIS from the convenience of their living rooms.
But perhaps the virtual world is not your cup of tea. Maybe you prefer to augment your reality by interacting with objects and computers using interfaces reminiscent of Marvel’s Tony Stark or Minority Report.
In 2021, VR is becoming a powerful tool for entertainment, gaming, therapy, and education. However, that is just the beginning. Companies like Teslasuit are developing haptic suits that also let you feel and interact with your virtual experience.
The full-body human to digital interface of the Teslasuit would provide haptic feedback to any area on the body, from gentle touch to feelings of exertion. The suit is also fitted with motion capture and biometry to track human performance. Aside from immersive gaming, the haptic suit can be used for training and physical rehabilitation. Are you ready, Player One?
AR tech is poised to change the way we game, travel, cook, learn and interact with the world as a whole. Companies like Facebook and Apple have well-documented plans for bringing AR glasses to the mainstream. According to research provided by VXchnge, there are plans to incorporate AR into many new cars, to create heads-up displays that provide drivers with real-time on-road data. It is also being used in medicine to improve medical diagnoses and treatments, and AR-assisted workouts are becoming a thing.
Headsets like Microsoft’s Hololens could be used to improve collaborative working, allowing designers and engineers at different locations to overlay 3D models in the real world and interact with them in real-time. The California-based tech startup Mojo wants to take things further. The tech company is currently developing smart contact lenses that use augmented reality to place information inside the wearer’s field of view. The micro-displays would project data about a person’s surroundings and be less intrusive or obvious than VR glasses. Would you wear AR contacts?
Humans are more mobile than ever
In the Alex Proyas film iRobot, we are presented with a world in which fully autonomous vehicles are the norm, to such an extreme that manually driving your car is considered strange. In Back to the Future II (among many others) viewers are presented with a world with flying cars that soar above our skylines. Hoverboards, jetpacks, and drones are also all staples of science fiction. So, how close are we to making these methods of mobility a reality?
If we have learned anything from the past few CES events, it is that companies are placing big bets on autonomous mobility. Look at GM’s flying autonomous concept car – it looks like something straight out of Westworld. Today there are tens of thousands of vehicles on the roads capable of some form of self-driving, with Elon Musk's Telsa vying to lead the pack. However, cars fully capable of driving without any human input are not here yet. Even your beloved Tesla needs human input, as its self-driving capabilities are far from perfect. Nevertheless, if you compare self-driving capabilities today to vehicles from a decade ago, the technology has zoomed forward.
There's actually a wide range of flying cars already available. Flying vehicles like the PAL-V Liberty and AeroMobil are either available for purchase or for preorder. Uber is even planning to get in on the act by developing a flying taxi. The company is currently developing a VTOL/flying taxi that passengers can hail using an app similar to the way you catch an everyday Uber. The flying vehicle will take passengers across town minutes or to nearby cities. However, the law needed to make flying cars a practical reality may be farther away than the vehicles themselves.
But what about hoverboards? There are hoverboards out there, but they don't quite stack up against their sci-fi counterparts. The closest option we have to a stylish hoverboard is the Lexus Slide. Though it is “hovering,” the device has severe limitations. The Slide works in a similar way to Maglev trains. Placed on a specialized track, the hoverboard relies on superconductivity to magnetically levitate. Without the track, your board would be useless. The good news is that if you want to live out a Marty Mcfly fantasy, Nike now offers self-lacing sneakers.
Interplanetary and interstellar travel
In the 1865 classic From Earth to the Moon, Jules Verne shares the story of three Americans who are fired into space in a type of giant gun, landing on the lunar surface in a vessel that weighed 20,000 lbs (9,000 kilos) and cost $5.5 million ($13 billion today).
Fast forward to 1969, America sent three men to the moon in a vehicle that weighed 26,000 lbs (12,000 kilos) and cost about $16 billion. There is a reason why some people call Verne a prophet. Humanity's first steps on the moon would eventually lead to a global race to reach other celestial bodies within our solar system and potentially beyond. These technologies could help us get there.
Similar to the Ridley Scott movie, The Martian, NASA is currently testing a “home and lab on wheels.” To reduce the number of items needed to land on the surface of a planet, they are developing a pressurized rover laboratory that doubles as a living space. The durable rover would keep astronauts safe and mobile while offering them a place to conduct research.
This technology could also play a role in future missions to Mars as well as the moon. The current iteration of the project, the Lunar Electric Rover, can hold a crew of two people, travel 6 mph (10 kph), and features a rugged mobile chassis that can rotate 360 degrees. The modular rover is designed to allow astronauts to work without constantly wearing a cumbersome suit, for up to 72 hours at a time. It has a chariot-style driving station, a suiteport that allows astronauts to rapidly enter and exit their spacesuits, and space for extra cargo storage.
But, can we warp past the speed of light? Even with our current fastest propulsion system, it still would take thousands of years to get to our nearest star, Proxima Centauri. Unfortunately, we cannot just hop into a spaceship like the Millennium Falcon, push a button, and warp to a galaxy far, far away. We may never get that far. But, that hasn’t stopped the greatest minds from trying.
One proposed method of travel is the Alcubierre warp drive, a speculative idea based on a solution of Einstein's field equations in general relativity as proposed by Mexican theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre. Rather than moving faster than the speed of light, the Alcubierre drive would contract space in front of it and expanding space behind it, resulting in effective faster-than-light travel.
The drive would effectively shift space around the spaceship so that it would arrive at its destination more quickly than light would in normal space, without breaking the rules of physics.
This idea has been heavily criticized. Yet, in 2021, Göttingen University’s Erik Lentz has published a paper that brings us one step closer to faster-than-light travel by suggesting a way to get around some of the energy limitations.
Of course, once we get to our interstellar destination, we need a place to stay. Aside from helping engineer cost-effective rockets, 3D printing technology could be the key to building bases on planets and moons, perhaps using locally-mined resources.
Still, admittedly, some way off in the future, tech company AI Space Factory is working to develop a robotic 3D printing system that is capable of using materials found on Mars and processing them into forms that can then be deposited and assembled into homes and other structures.
NASA has invested large amounts of resources in developing additive manufacturing (AM) technology for use in space. Getting spare parts to an astronaut millions of miles away is difficult, to say the least. AM is a potential solution. So far, NASA has printed tools on the International Space Station (remind you of the replicator from Star Trek?). NASA-funded companies like BeeHex are also working on ways of 3D printing foods like pizza in space, something that we are already doing here at home.
Artificial intelligence and the rise of machines
Do you remember TARS from Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar? In that movie, the AI-powered robot worked with the protagonists, helping them reach new planets. You expected him to go full Hall 9000, didn’t you?
We have already talked about how AI may one day take over the world if not developed responsibly. More realistically, our relationship with AI could be closer to the one conveyed in the Nolan film, something that is collaborative and friendly. AI could help us solve major global issues, reach the stars, assist with daily tasks at home, and aid us in building a better world.
There is a good chance that AI is already part of your life. At this point, it is almost unavoidable. However, you may not realize all the different ways in which AI is already being used. A subset of AI, machine learning, is already used in ridesharing apps like Uber and Lyft to find optimal routes for drivers and passengers. AI is also being used to help sort emails, manage personal banking, and suggest the best movie to stream. The emerging technology is still very much in its infancy, almost literally. Gary Marcus, an AI and cognition expert, and CEO of Robust.AI has argued that the world’s smartest AI is still dumber than a toddler.
Right now, AI is used to automate tasks that are tedious for their human creators. The sentient machines that exist in science fiction books and films do not exist yet, and might not for a very long time - if ever. In a survey featuring 995 experts, researchers expressed that general AI might not arrive until after 2050. Regardless, AI is arguably one of the most important creations of our time. Science fiction writers of the past would likely be in awe (or terrified) of what it can already do.
Though we may enjoy action-packed robotic dystopias in science fiction, the future is likely to feature a lot fewer explosions. Robots are used in everything from manufacturing cars to conducting surgery. They are also making their way into our homes and office. Like your own personal R2-D2, robots are set to become useful companions at home.
Robots like Buddy can interact, educate, and entertain any of your family members at home. Samsung's upcoming robots, which debuted at CES 2021, can clean your house, set the table, and pour you a glass of wine, all while organizing your schedule. During the pandemic, robots have even been used to help keep the elderly company. There is a growing area of research that suggests interacting with social robots can improve people’s well-being.
You have a better chance of falling in love with your robot than it killing you. Our future may well look more like the Jetsons than James Cameron’s Terminator….hopefully.
As seen on TV
At one point, the technology that we currently use every day was just a figment of our imagination – appearing in books, films, and other pop culture references. But many sci-fi technologies, like video calls, hand-held computers and communicators, and self-driving vehicles, have already lept into reality. As we move further into the future, it will be interesting to look back and see what ideas were initially thought of as "just science fiction".