7 min read

Science fiction has form when it comes to predicting and inspiring the technology of the future. But for many of these innovations, the future has already arrived.


Science fiction has a long history of inspiring the technology we have today. Things such as mobile phones and sliding doors were first envisioned in Star Trek, and the internet search engine was initially dreamed up in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

2018 already looks to be an exciting year for the genre. What can we expect from Ex Machina director Alex Garland’s new release, Annihilation? Or what about Duncan Jones’ Blade Runner inspired film, Mute? And what about Steven Spielberg’s virtual reality themed Ready Player One? With all the upcoming sci-fi films, there will be plenty more exciting fictional technologies we can look forward to eventually becoming real.

But before we get too carried away, let’s look back at how far we’ve already come. Because in many ways, the future is already here.

1. RoboCop (1987): Crime-fighting robots

PAL Robotics - Reems
Credit: PAL Robotics
  • Name: RoboCop
  • Creator: Omni Consumer Products
  • Function: Helping the Detroit Police Department fight crime

Today’s equivalent:

  • Name: REEM
  • Creator: PAL Robotics
  • Function: Helping Dubai’s police force fight crime

It turns out that RoboCop is real… almost. This crime-fighting humanoid robot is to be deployed around Dubai’s tourist hotspots. It features a touch-screen interface on its chest that allows people to report crimes, submit paperwork and pay for traffic fines, while an inbuilt camera transmits live images back to the police operations room. Dubai plans to have 25% of its police force composed of robot officers by 2030.

Source: pal-robotics.com / cnn.com

2. Logan’s Run (1976): Driverless pod cars

GATEway
Credit: GATEway
  • Name: Pod cars
  • Creator: Dean Jeffries (real-life custom car designer)
  • Function: To transport citizens around the city using transportation tubes

Today’s equivalent:

  • Name: Driverless pods
  • Creator: Oxbotica
  • Function: To transport people around the country

We’re slowly but surely inching closer to having autonomous cars on our roads. Waymo, formally known as Google’s self-driving car project, have started trialling driverless taxis in Phoenix, Arizona. While French manufacturers Navya have unveiled a taxi with no driving seat or physical driving wheel. And while there’s still a lot more to be done in terms of infrastructure, regulation and public acceptance, these vehicles are expected to become the norm by the next decade.

Source: gateway-project.org / oxbotica.ai / eetimes.com

3. Her (2013): Intelligent OS

Siri
Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/iphonedigital/26988770454 (CC BY-SA 2.0)
  • Name: Samantha
  • Creator: OS1
  • Function: Intelligent computer operating system

Today’s equivalent:

  • Name: Siri
  • Creator: Apple
  • Function: Voice activated personal assistant

Apple, Microsoft and Google have made huge strides in their lines of voice-activated personal assistants. These machines have the ability to learn our likes, dislikes and behavioural patterns in order to deliver a personalised service. But for now they lack the emotional intelligence and conversational skills of Scarlett Johansson’s character. Which is probably for the best.

Source: apple.com

4. Wall-E (2008): Trash bots

Volvo ROAR
Credit: Volvo
  • Name: Wall-E
  • Creator: Buy-N-Large
  • Function: To compress trash into small cubes

Today’s equivalent:

  • Name: Robot-based Autonomous Refuse (ROAR)
  • Creator: Volvo
  • Function: To empty bins into a bin lorry

Automation is all about taking the tedious, mundane tasks out of our lives. And what can be more tedious than emptying the trash?

Volvo, in collaboration with Chalmers University of Technology, Mälardalen University, Penn State University, and recycling company Renova, have created ROAR. It uses a drone to scan the area and select certain bins. It then deploys a robot to empty each bin into the back of the lorry truck. The technology is still in its early stages (and looks nowhere as cute as Wall-E).

Source: volvogroup.com / citylab.com

5. Minority Report (2002): Pre-emptive crime fighting

Predpol
Credit: By Hubert Guillaud [CC BY 3.0]
  • Name: Predictive policing
  • Creator: PreCrime police department
  • Function: Mutants use their pre-cognitive powers to determine ‘pre-crimes’ meaning citizens can be pre-emptively arrested

Today’s equivalent:

  • Name: Predpol
  • Creator: Predpol
  • Function: Using crime type, crime location and crime time to predict where and when to patrol

Okay, so nobody’s really using mutant humans to predict crime. Instead, police forces around the world are using data. And plenty of it. Data is being collected, stored and analysed to find patterns in criminal activity, thus allowing police departments to better allocate resources and predict crime.

Again, the technology isn’t perfect. Data has the potential to be biased and reinforce overgeneralisations about gender, race and class. But like most things to do with technology, it’s a stark reminder of why humans still play an important role.

Source: predpol.com

6. Minority Report (2002): Personalised transparent screens

ITRI i-Air Touch
Credit: ITRI
  • Name: Heads-up displays
  • Creator: PreCrime police department
  • Function: To present data without users having to look away from their usual view point

Today’s equivalent:

  • Name: i-Air Touch (iAT)
  • Creator: Industrial Technology Research Institute
  • Function: A see-through display that uses a pair of special eyeglasses

It’s a common feature in many sci-fi films. Like magic, a screen can appear in front of a user’s face, and with their hands (à la Minority Report) or even their minds, users can control what data they see.

With that in mind, Taiwan’s ITRI has created an AR touch-screen device. Similar to Google Glass in terms of look, this technology involves a virtual touch-based interface to determine what appears in the user’s field of vision.

Source: asme.org

7. Back to the Future II (1989): Hoverboards

Hendo hoverboard
Credit: TechCrunch
  • Name: Hoverboard
  • Creator: Someone in the future
  • Function: Levitating device used by Marty McFly

Today’s equivalent:

  • Name: Hendo 2.0 hoverboard
  • Creator: Arx Pax
  • Function: Levitating device

Hoverboards were first written about by author MK Joseph in 1967 and then popularised by the iconic film franchise Back to the Future. Since then, several companies have attempted to recreate this much lusted-after transportation device – all with varying degrees of success.

Now, Grey Henderson and his company Arx Pax have managed to get people floating using proprietary ‘Magnetic Field Architecture’ technology. A lucky ten Kickstarter backers have received their own Hendo board (after spending a neat $10,000 each). For the rest of us, we’ll just have to wait until these boards hit the mass market.

Source: hendohover.com / techcrunch.com

8. Fifteen Million MeritsBlack Mirror (2011): Personal avatars

ObeN Personal Artificial Intelligence
Credit: ObeN
  • Name: Dopple
  • Creator: Future dystopian society
  • Function: Avatar that people can buy food and virtual goods for by riding stationary bikes

Today’s equivalent:

  • Name: Personal Artificial Intelligence
  • Creator: ObeN
  • Function: Realistic avatar that talks and behaves like its human counterpart

Avatars aren’t confined to the dystopian world of Black Mirror. In fact, they’re a part of our everyday, present life – especially in gaming and online communities. But ObeN wants to further change the way we interact with computers, using AI to create avatars that look and sound like their human counterparts.

Source: oben.me

Science fiction, both in books and on screen, has a knack for predicting tomorrow’s tech. And while today’s robots don’t quite experience empathy like Samantha or emotion like Wall-E, thanks to fiction, it’s not hard to imagine a future where they do.