2015 marks the year the beloved Back to The Future: Part II promised self-lacing shoes, hoverboards and giant flat screen TVs. While the latter may have come gloriously true in living rooms across the land, hoverboards still sadly exist only in the realm of science fiction. As for automated laces, the only progress in that department is Velcro straps, which honestly still require too much effort. Despite these hits and misses on the future of mankind, Back to the Future has become a predictive pop culture classic — and in that it’s not alone. Many popular films have predicted events or technologies ahead of their time, and these 10 guessed where the world was heading next with uncanny accuracy.
10. A Scanner Darkly (2006)
A drug-fueled exploration of identity and paranoia, this Phillip K. Dick based surveillance mystery highlights the increasingly sinister nature of monitoring the civilian population. Characters wear “scramble suits” to hide their true identities, and the resulting unstable nature of self is communicated throughout the film. It’s a tense and uncomfortable viewing experience where you find yourself questioning exactly who to trust — and that’s precisely the problem an undercover Keanu Reeves faces, eventually blowing his cover in defiance of the corrupt government while unwittingly in pursuit of himself.
While scramble suits may not exist, surveillance certainly does. Edward Snowden blew up his career by blowing the whistle on the National Security Agency (NSA). In 2013 he brought the public’s attention to the fact the NSA were watching pretty much everything. With co-operation from telecommunications companies and governments around the world, access was granted to personal email accounts, phone records and Internet activity. The so called “Five Eyes” of intelligence across the United Kingdom, United States, New Zealand, Australia and Canada were spying on each others’ citizens and sharing the collected information.
Debate erupted over the appropriate boundaries for intelligence services and Snowden, both praised as a hero and vilified as a criminal, was forced to find asylum in Russia. While the commotion around the revelations may have calmed in the media, it’s safe to assume that the Five Eyes are still watching, keener than ever.
9. Minority Report (2002)
2054 might not be here yet, but many predictions made by this Tom Cruise film are. The accuracy unfolding from this sci-fi murder mystery is unsurprising given the detailed research approach taken by director Steven Spielberg — in preparation for the technology of the film, he held a think-tank summit designed to create a fictional world based firmly in reality.
One such impressive looking piece of tech is the spatial operating environment used by Cruise to interface with his computer. With a wave, pinch or spin of his hand, videos play and files open on his wall-sized screen. Visually captivating, it delighted viewers who at that time were still tied to the physical realm of mouse and keyboard.
Fast-forward to 2010 and Microsoft’s unveiling of the Xbox Kinect. Designed for gamers to interact with their console through body movement and voice commands, Kinect took the next step of the Nintendo Wii’s handheld sensors by making the human the controller. While popularity has been hampered by slow processing times and limited games, it has impressive potential.
Overall, Minority Report did a remarkable job of looking into the future, and with a good few decades still on the clock to reach its full prophesying potential we might be seeing miniaturized spider drones invading our homes yet.
8. Robocop (1987)
Everyone’s favorite crime fighting human-turned-android was always going to be based somewhat in fantasy. Even as technology advances, ethical and moral boundaries create huge difficulties in truly merging man with machine. However, this doesn’t mean some of the imagined future isn’t coming true.
Prosthetic limbs have made huge advancements in both aesthetics and function. Legs can be supplanted with blades to run, and neurological mapping creates more nimble and dexterous replacement fingers each year. In the military, the Lockheed Martin HULC and Raytheon XOS 2 are exoskeletons designed to create soldiers with super-strength. Unfortunately, they haven’t yet reached a level where one would consider them an overall enhancement.
Circumventing the human element altogether, the company Knightscope has a prototype named K5 designed to scope out criminal activity and monitor situations. Dome shaped and mounted on wheels, this computer-cop would be placed in communities to faithfully trundle the streets, gathering all the data it needs to produce a statistical prediction of crime. It can read license plates, conduct thermal imaging and recognize faces. Thankfully, unlike the gun-happy OCP mega-machines Robocop finds himself combating, these robots have no weaponry. Instead, they rely on the presence of their cameras to deter crime.
Meanwhile in Brazil, the iRobot 510 PackBot will be rolled out for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Designed for war situations, the bot is the next step up from its bomb disposing cousin and boasts the ability to climb stairs and function underwater.
7. Inception (2010)
Once in a while a film comes along that makes you wonder if everything is as it seems, and Inception certainly had many people questioning their realities. Leonardo DiCaprio leads a heist through the subconscious in pursuit of the ultimate prize — getting home to his family. The plan revolves around entering unsuspecting sleeping minds to manipulate entire dream states. Thankfully, such hijacking isn’t possible, but what is terrifyingly possible is that others can see your dreams.
At the University of California, Berkeley, fMRI and computational models have led to the successful decoding and reconstruction of dreams. While it can currently only do so for the visual experience of pre-watched movies by recognizing pre-determined input being visualized, researchers consider this the first step in being able to map and share the unique dream patterns experienced by an individual. The only thing worse than a nightmare may yet be watching someone else’s come alive.
Manipulation wise, devices such as the Aurora Dream-Enhancing Headband are being crowdfunded to enable a simple pathway to lucid dreaming. By tracking REM sleep, the headband subconsciously alerts the sleeper with lights that they’re in a dream state. Theoretically, the dreamer can then begin to control the landscape they find themselves in. Its effectiveness is yet to be reviewed, but it marks a strong technological step towards inviting DiCaprio into your mind each night.
6. Demolition Man (1993)
“Murder! Death! Kill!” is the memorable trill from the police computer system in this ’90s Sandra Bullock and Sylvester Stallone action romp. Sentenced to 50 years of cryogenic freezing for a botched hostage rescue, Stallone wakes in a world completely foreign to the one he last saw. While much of the changes are played for laughs — three sea shells replacing toilet paper, the digital helmet sex — there are examples which have become a reality.
Video-calling technology is seen in a few scenes throughout the film. First we have Bullock’s face projected from a now familiar tablet device carried by the cryogenics doctor before he has his eyeball ripped out by Wesley Snipes. Later, as Stallone gets to grips with his new apartment and a subconsciously embedded knitting fetish, he receives a wrong number dial on a big screen TV from a gratuitously nude young lady. It may have seemed fanciful at the time, particularly on a dial-up bandwidth, but now it’s common practice for people to keep in touch over long distances with Skype or Facetime. Presumably the political future of Arnold Schwarzenegger, which is also predicted, was the bigger surprise when it came true.
5. Elysium (2013)
Another film set in the future, another dystopian prediction. It would seem most directors’ vision of future society is bleak, yet one in which technology continues to advance. Elysium is led by Matt Damon, a terminally ill car thief trapped on a rotting Earth who seeks to reach the rich people settlement in the sky run by a stern Jodie Foster. His reason? He wants to enter a Med-Bay, the only way to save his life. This device is depicted as a sunbed type pod which scans bodies for impairment, then heals as required.
The predictions can be seen in two ways. First, there’s the social aspect. Clear discrepancy exists in medical care between the wealthy and the poor. While advanced and prompt treatments are accessible to those who can afford it, less well-off populations suffer and die from easily preventable diseases.
With regards to technology, a full body scan like that of the Med-Bay can be yours for a small fee, picking up any burgeoning illnesses before they advance. It won’t treat them though — for that the fictional Med-Bay uses nanotechnology, which repairs the body at a cellular level. At Harvard Medical School, human DNA was used to produce a nanorobot. It was able to directly deliver molecules to cancer cells to trigger self-destruction. Northwestern University has created nanostars, which deliver drugs to targeted cells with precision enabled by the star shape. There’s also the area of nanofibres, which can be used to close wounds, engineer tissue and anchor implants. These will all be rolling out as treatments in the next 10 years – if you can afford them, of course.
4. Planet of the Apes (1968)
While remakes abound of this classic, it was the 1969 original in which the idea of apes walking and talking just like human beings first hit the public consciousness. Tapping into the fear that we could be overthrown by our primate cousins, Planet of the Apes prophesied a world where humans were the disenfranchised party. Thankfully, a trip to the zoo to see apes being, well, apes, was an easy way to dispel that fear.
But that doesn’t work now that we’ve started to discover just how smart primates really are. Across the world, research projects have shown examples of abilities assumed to be limited to humans such as sign language, syntax comprehension and theory of mind. In Japan there’s a chimp named Ayumu who regularly outperforms humans on memory challenges. A zoo in Wisconsin has begun distributing iPads to the orangutans for cognitive stimulation, which are happily used to watch videos and play on paint applications.
The biggest step towards a planet like that in the movie is with an orangutan called Tilda in Germany. Tilda has begun to communicate with keepers using whistles, clicks and grunted vowels. This requires her to utilize a fine control of lips and tongue, which was previously assumed to only be a human ability.
3. Total Recall (1990)
Total Recall is a tale of false memories implanted to provide an escape from the mundane. So instead of actually flying to Barbados and having a wonderful time, you merely buy the memory of having gone there for a third of the price. Of course, in the film it all goes wrong and adventure ensues as our protagonist battles to differentiate real memories from fake ones.
Back in the real world, memory implants are getting closer to fact than fiction. The New York Times reported on experiments with mice that managed to implant false memories. The hippocampus, shown to be key to memory creation and storage, was manipulated in several ways. In one experiment, a micro-processing chip was inserted into the brain to enhance memory. In another, mice were given a drug which caused them to remember events that didn’t actually happen.
With humans, the most scarily effective method of memory manipulation has no requirement for specialized drugs or microchips, just clever psychology. The power of suggestion can create convincing false memories, which we are then disinclined to challenge because if we remember something, then it really happened… right?
2. The Island (2005)
Clones are the obvious topic when this Scarlett Johansen and Ewan McGregor film comes to mind, but equally as interesting is the presence of touch technology. The Island is uncomfortable viewing at times, because it’s deliberately relatable. The clones, reminiscent of children with curious and innocent minds, are eventually murdered for profitable organs without conscience by the company who created them. There is familiarity to induce impact in the film, but futuristic elements are selectively included.
One such element is the touchscreen desk used by the nefarious Dr. Merrick. Used to keep tabs on his clones, Merrick taps and swishes away with natural animation on technology which was all faked at the time. A huge amount of effort from the production team went into creating the imaginary touch screen interface with lighting effects, Photoshop and clever editing. A decade later, it exists in the majority of our pockets in the shape of our phone.
On a more directly comparable note, there’s functional technology for touchable desks, tables and bartops in the shape of Microsoft Pixelsense. Pixelsense differs from a tablet in its ability to be touched by more than one person at a time and recognize objects placed on it. Visually, Pixelsense is pretty much Merrick’s big clone business desk, except real and filled with ads.
1. Ultraviolet (2006)
Futuristic vampire movie Ultraviolet sees Mila Jovovich at her ass-kicking best. She has some pretty nifty technology to help her out as she battles for survival against a brutal government which has sentenced her to death for contracting a blood disease (aka vampirism).
While it’s never quite made clear how she does it, Jovovich is able to manipulate her hair color and the color of her clothes. This function is used in the film as an indication of character mood, and as a metaphor for particular scenes — the blood on her hands in a fight scene prompts her whole suit to turn red. In the real world, this would be a handy way to escape that awkward moment when you turn up at a party in the same outfit as someone you hate, and such technology can be yours. Sort of.
Spectrachrome crystals, the product of a company called Del Sol, produce color change in materials when exposed to sunlight. Originally developed by NASA, the crystals are prompted into a transition when hit by the sun’s rays. This will make a green t-shirt transform to red when you step outside (unless it’s night time, then you’re stuck with green). The crystals can also be found in nail polish, perfect for the girl who just can’t decide what color of fingertips to commit to.
Sunlight isn’t the only possible trigger for color changes. In Budapest, an artist by the name of Judit Eszter Karpati presented to the world her fabric, “chromosonic.” It’s a material that changes color when stimulated by sound, and while it’s unlikely to be transformed into something wearable the option is there if you want to spontaneously change color at the next concert you attend.
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