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October 21, 2015: Back to the Future Revisited

When Marty McFly and “Doc” Brown burst into 2015 in a time machine, straight from the year 1985, they encounter a brave new world of garbage-fuelled flying cars, self-tying shoes and robot waiters.

This is the day when Marty McFly and “Doc” Emmet Brown arrived in the De Lorean from 1985. By that time cars were flying and the main fuel was garbage. It was an exciting world to imagine wherein the kids used “hoverboards” self-drying clothes, self lacing and tightening Nike sneakers and even drones that walked the dogs.

But many of the gadgets that the script-writers imagined have yet to be realized during this time. But there are realities that was not conceptualized by the same script-writers. Today’s 2015 was not what Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale would have imagined. There were no smartphones in their 2015. Even back in 1985, it was hard to conceive of a smartphone.

“Their capabilities today, including access to all information on the planet, would have absolutely astounded even most futurists of 30 years ago… who didn’t imagine a phone would be for anything other than speaking and texting,” Sydney-based futurist Ross Dawson told Agence France-Presse.

“Back when the movie was made, people looking at the reality of today would find it quite mind-boggling.”

If we were transported to that 2015, we would also be struggling like Marty since that parallel universe did not have Google, Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, GPS and even online shopping.

In the film, Marty, played by a young Michael J. Fox, receives a dismissal notice at home by fax—a now-clunky technology that seemed cutting-edge in the 1980s. The Internet revolution was lurking just around the corner, and the world had yet to receive email.

In 1985, only about a quarter of US households had a microwave oven, and videocassette recorders (VCRs) were the must-have viewing technology.

Today you can buy a home 3-D printer on the Internet for a few hundred dollars, which can produce anything from a gun that squirts water to one that shoots bullets.

We can “download” songs and “stream” films—terms that did not even exist in 1985.

The Human Genome Project at that time was in its infancy so that we could not have imagined stem cell therapy that we have now. We would have not thought of landing a probe on a comet and get hamburger meat from cloned cow muscle tissue.

“Humans very quickly get used to innovations and take them for granted,” said Dawson, founder of the Future Exploration Network, which offers scenario planning services.

Still, the film did get some things right.

We do have flat screens, live video-calling, tablet computers, and portable up-to-the-minute weather apps.

Though not yet in full swing, we also have biometric technology for paying bills or unlocking doors with a fingerprint, and off-the-shelf smart glasses similar to those worn by Marty’s offspring.

“It was actually quite visionary of them to get so many things right,” said Thomas Frey of the DaVinci Institute, a futurist thinktank.

“They depicted it in kind of a comical, goofy way actually, but I think they did quite a phenomenal job back then of anticipating things that must have seemed fairly ludicrous at the time.”

Some predictions were ahead of their time.

Thirty years ago, most futurists would have given flying cars by 2015 “greater than 50-50 odds,” independent futurist Jack Uldrich told Agence France-Presse by telephone from Minneapolis.

“There are some companies that are working on flying cars, but what they don’t have is that take-off (vertical) lift,” as demonstrated by Doc’s DeLorean.

Innovators have drawn inspiration from the movie: California-based firm Hendo is creating a hoverboard which works on magnetic repulsion. Shoemaker Nike is working on sneakers with self-tightening “power laces” like the ones Marty wore.

Sci-fi has influenced scientific advancement through the ages, but the task may become harder as technological development accelerates exponentially.

Will humans be teleporting, traveling in time, or discover the secret to eternal life by 2045? Who knows, the experts say.

“One of the things which we could very easily see in 30 years is… humanoids and other robots just being a complete part of our environment,” Dawson said.

Also likely is “people using their thoughts to control the world around them, even to use their thoughts to communicate directly with other people.”
Dawson foresees a future not with flying cars per se, but rather self-driving pods—a cheaper and safer alternative.

One thing that the movie got right. There are still politicians.

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