Time keeps on slipping into the future, but somehow the future we get is never quite the one we anticipated. Even when the expected elements emerge, they somehow sneak in under the radar. After all, the modern world bears many of the telltale signs futurists and sci-fi stories described – like dystopian governments, hand-held sensor-communicators and miraculous supermaterials -- but even as we listen to news of how Big Brother is watching us, played on our carbon-fiber-wrapped smartphones, somehow we don't feel like the sci-fi future has quite arrived.
Perhaps the disconnect stems from the fact that we've exchanged Googie buildings for Google architecture and swapped high-speed monorails for information superhighways. And yes, maybe the lack of flying cars has something to do with it, but, considering drunk-driving rates, perhaps we shouldn't rush to see that particular prediction come true. Instead, let us consider 10 equally futuristic alternatives, many of which are closer than you think and others that have already arrived.
Today, linguae francae like English and French ease global diplomacy, and Swahili bridges communication gaps in eastern Africa. But nothing beats the possibility of a device -- or a small, telepathic fish or an uppity golden droid – capable of translating any tongue.
Assuming we ever achieve the gadget, it will likely create as many humiliating moments as it prevents, at least at first. Some languages differ so dramatically in structure and idiom, and retain such culturally rooted words and phrases, that they resist translation even by experts. Nor is translation a neutral act; some Muslims, for example, believe the Quran cannot or should not be translated from Arabic [source: Leaman].
Tech companies and defense contractors, sensing the business potential of universal communication, remain undaunted. Google claims that its Translate app can handle more than 70 languages using voice or text, and that its Goggles app can decipher photographed menus. A Microsoft prototype creates spoken translations in the user's own voice. Meanwhile, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency has a robot called Broad Operational Language Translation (BOLT) that will bolster its interpretations via visual and tactile cues. Several more years likely will pass before programs can do more than word-for-word or phrase-for-phrase translations, however [sources: Bilton; DARPA; Dillow; Google; Microsoft].
Throughout history, the size and grandeur of buildings -- royal palaces, medieval cathedrals, corporate skyscrapers -- have testified to their occupant's power. But modern architects predicted buildings that would not only attain mind-blowing dimensions, but also radically alter our concepts of what buildings could be. While science fiction warned that the one-percenters would retreat to supertowers and form their own corporate countries, architects like Paolo Soleri described population-dense, self-contained architectural ecologies, or arcologies, that sought to change society for the better.
Architectural wonders never cease, they just move forward a bit more slowly and more piecemeal than expected. As Dubai's 2,716-foot (828-meter) Burj Khalifa and its ilk demonstrate, architects and status seekers keep reaching for more sky to scrape, even if they have to use vast, unoccupied spires to achieve the heights their compensatory needs demand [sources: CTBUH; Lecher].
Meanwhile, green architecture and engineering have produced buildings that ventilate like termite mounds, sport rooftop gardens and solar farms, and manage sunshine like a vampire bungalow. Unfortunately, current arcologies remain half-realized showpieces, sufficient only to inspire further development of green technologies that may or may not prove sufficient to power a future world [sources: Biomimicry Institute; Goodman; Kingsley].
Setting aside the ethical and ecological consequences of reintroducing extinct species, who doesn't want to book a dinosaur safari? Even paleontologists probably nurse a secret desire to ignore the warnings of sci-fi Cassandras and pop out the occasional test-tube Tehuelchesaurus.
Cloning technology today advances in great dinosaurian strides, inspiring some to view dino-clones as inevitable. Stories in 2013 of a Lufengosaurus nesting site containing not only eggs and bones but organic residues further fueled such hopes and fears. Alas, the goop wasn't DNA. In fact, it couldn't have been genetic material, because such molecules maintain a shelf life of around 100,000-200,000 years (1 million at most) [sources: Gannon; Kolata; Mabry; Reisz et al.].
Then again, that spread does place woolly mammoths within range. As the saying goes, God never closes a Jurassic Park but he opens a Pleistocene one. In fact, scientists have sequenced mammoth DNA and recreated its blood using E. coli bacteria, and Russian, South Korean and Japanese researchers soon plan to resurrect the extinct mammal by injecting its DNA into elephant eggs [sources: Boyle; Boyle; Nosowitz]. Researchers also have grown plants from seeds buried by squirrels 30,000 years ago, so they might even treat the resurrected beast to a familiar nosh [source: Boyle].
Authors have speculated about undersea cities for centuries, so where's our copy of "Martha Stewart's Undersea Living"?
The seafloor offers a bounty of natural resources and aquaculture opportunities. Unfortunately, the dangers involved in delving into the oceanic depths rival those of space travel, which partly explains why we've only explored an estimated 3-5 percent of the world's oceans. After all, a successful underwater habitat must withstand the following [sources: Gagosian; NOAA; NOAA; NOAA]:
- Little to no sunlight beyond 656 feet (200 meters)
- Dinosaur-on-a-doornail pressures (adding one atmosphere per 33 feet, or 10.06 meters, of depth)
- Possible earthquakes
In most respects, it makes more sense to drill or farm from the surface and leave the rest to robots.
Nevertheless, and true to sci-fi predictions, some companies today eye international waters as a convenient legal limbo for setting up shop. One designer has floated the idea of a buoyant building, or "waterscraper," extending beneath the waves, complete with tentacles [sources: Florida; Fox]. And for those who prefer citizenship in a self-proclaimed micronation built on the remains of a World War II British sea fortress, the Principality of Sealand beckons.
In short, the future looks bright for sea-based supervillains, a bit dimmer for us landlubbers.
Mind-blowing medicine has already built a full head of steam and is barreling down research tracks few ever imagined. In fact, the medical world moves so fast that we easily forget that only a century or so has passed since the birth of germ theory, and only a decade or so since the Human Genome Project sequenced its eponym.
From the beginning, the ideas of transplants and panaceas marched in lockstep with sci-fi horror tales like Robert Louis Stevenson's "Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" and Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein." Indeed, we are daily reminded of the dangers of rampant pharmaceuticals by that most ubiquitous of modern cautionary tales, the drug commercial disclaimer. But we also live in an age of outpatient brain surgery, gall bladder surgeries requiring days instead of weeks for recovery, and full-facial transplants.
Meanwhile, research continues into implantable pharmacies; disease-detecting, nano-sized biocomputers; printable drugs; and photochemical tissue bonding, which uses light to "stitch" wounds and recouple severed nerves and blood vessels. Scientists are also testing light-based neuroscience, 3-D-printed body parts and personalized medicine based on genetics [sources: Binns; Boyle; Boyle; Boyle; Dillow].
Whether you'll want to know your genetic predispositions for diseases, or reveal them to your insurance company, employer, government or potential spouse, is another question.
The moon: It circles so close, yet so far away. We've sent men and probes, even walked and driven on its surface, so why no base? It comes down to shifting priorities.
Constructing a base on a another celestial body, even one a mere 238,855 miles (384,400 kilometers) away on average, would pose an astronomical logistical and technical problem. Still, we could probably make one work by leveraging technology from the International Space Station and combining it with habitats designed by private-sector space companies like Bigelow Aerospace. The problem lies in drumming up the political will to fund it [source: Chang].
Spacefaring countries around the world occasionally float the idea, but their level of commitment remains an open question. In the U.S., the Obama administration nixed Bush's plans for a permanent lunar settlement by 2024 in favor of an asteroid retrieval mission, but congressional Republicans continue trying to force NASA down a lunar path, feasible or not. In 2010, Japan handily sidestepped the need for lunar colonists by proposing an unmanned base built by and for robots [sources: Chang; Dillow; Leary].
Beyond the politics and economics of a lunar base, a central question looms: If, as many argue, Mars remains our true destination, will a moon base get us there faster or sidetrack us?
Sci-fi has long promised some version of bionics, cybernetics or brain-to-computer connection, from the physics-challenged bionic limbs of Steve Austin, the "Six Million Dollar Man," to the cyberspace interface described in William Gibson's "Neuromancer," to the cyberbrains and full-cyborg conversions of Masamune Shirow's "Appleseed" and "Ghost in the Shell." Amazingly, piece by stitched-and-soldered piece, our wired future arrived without us even noticing.
The first artificial heart was implanted back in 1969, although decades passed before a fully implantable and portable version hit the market, and it still falls far short of replacing organ transplantation [source: Parker-Pope]. Artificial pacemakers have regulated heartbeats since 1958, and cochlear implants have helped the deaf hear since the mid-1980s. Today, a chip implanted in the retina, combined with an eyeglass-mounted camera, can restore some sight to persons blinded by retinitis pigmentosa. In 2013, a software engineer from Yelm, Wash., became the first human to control an artificial leg using thought alone [sources: Brewer; Sowton, Hendrix, and Roy; Winslow].
Such examples, combined with rapidly advancing neural implants and nanotechnology, mark the leading edge of a bioscience and biotechnology tsunami. Indeed, as the next section describes, we might now stand on the threshold of a new age, one in which human or machine intellect -- combined or separately -- transcend all known limits.
Mathematicians and physicists use "singularity" to describe a point at which an equation or model runs down the rabbit hole of infinity -- in the heart of a black hole, for example. So it made sense that the technological singularity popularized by Vernor Vinge would describe a future moment when computers, artificial intelligences or human intellect boosted by drugs or technology would zoom into uncharted, here-be-dragons territory. Depending on your viewpoint, it's inevitable or impossible -- a future to embrace or fear, assuming data density limits and the laws of physics don't preclude it.
Then again, maybe it's not a future at all. We already use computers to solve problems too big for us to comprehend in their entirety. We have developed neural networks, learning machines, and AIs like Watson capable of understanding language to a remarkable degree. The Internet, combined with augmented reality devices like Google Glass or even cell phone apps, already enable humans to vastly exceed their own mental capacity for memory and calculation -- although some argue that it also makes them dumber in the process.
Is the singularity already here? If not, who knows where technologies currently under development, including quantum computing and biochemical nanomachines, might lead?
Traffic, fuel costs, speed limits -- isn't it about time we moved through space without, y'know, moving through space? Whether by shifting dimensions, bending space-time or transmitting our matter patterns via "Star Trek"-like transporters, instant relocation would provide the ultimate high-speed commuter service.
On "Dragon Ball Z," Goku called teleportation "instant transmission" -- an apt phrase, considering that instant communication of information would be one of the key advantages of teleportation. From a physics standpoint, we, too, are information, so what's good for the e-mail is good for the female (or the male); just beware those copy errors and packet drops.
So far, the closest we've come to instant transmission involves entanglement, a quirk of physics in which two quantum particles behave as one system. This property, which physicists somewhat confusingly dub quantum teleportation, means that information can transfer from one particle to the other regardless of distance. But even if we could apply this principle to the monumental volume and complexity of human matter -- and that's a big if -- and even if we could create computers powerful enough to process it, memory vast enough to store it and transmissions fat enough to send it, the laws of physics state that it could not break the light barrier [source: Barrow et al.]. So much for instant transmission.
Still, even such limited teleportation, if energy efficient, would offer huge advantages over conventional travel -- so long as the passengers didn't mind destroying their original selves. As we all know, rush-hour commutes can be murder.
Every once in a while, a scientific development, term or technology will set fire to the popular imagination. In the mid-20th century, that word was atomic. Sci-fi television, film and books promised atomic cars, planes, rockets, wristwatches -- you name it. News and opinion pieces held forth about mining ore with nukes, digging foundations with atom bombs and powering the world with nuclear reactors. Unfortunately, we mostly ended up with atomic weapons.
We might not get our atomic roller skates, but recent years have seen renewed interest in once-mothballed atomic energy, powered by safer, more efficient designs; advances in fusion power; and renewed economic and environmental pressure to phase out fossil fuels. But concerns persist regarding the disposal of nuclear waste and the overall safety of reactors, particularly in the wake of the tsunami-triggered failure at Japan's Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in March 2011 -- a grim reminder of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and the fact that, when nuclear power goes wrong, it goes very wrong.
Still, you can't count atomic energy out. In 2013, fusion made a great leap forward when researchers succeeded in the first fusion reaction that produced more energy from its fuel than went into it. If researchers can make the technology efficient, nuclear fusion would provide virtually unlimited power, more safely than fission, with a fraction of the radioactive waste and little to no weaponizable byproduct. That's bound to cause a public reaction [sources: Atherton; Ferro].
Elon Musk is a forward-thinking futurist with a penchant for controversy. Learn 10 intriguing things about Elon Musk in our HowStuffWorks article.
Author's Note: Our 10 Favorite Replacements for "Where's My Flying Car?"
The future never arrives quite as we expect it (well, technically, it never arrives at all, but you catch my meaning). It comes in pieces; parts of expected developments arrive ahead of others, driven by market forces, needs of the moment and pure luck. Meanwhile, we discover that the future we imagined in a previous context -- say, a technology dominated by vacuum tubes -- no longer makes sense in a post-semiconductor world.
Still, I can't help but miss the future I knew from the covers of sci-fi pulps and old Popular Science magazines. That future had style.
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