This year I’m looking ahead by fusing the start of Back to the Future II as a frame. I did not love this movie when it hit theaters, but which features the two main characters visiting the year 2015. I am taking a look at what the movie predicted accurately (and semi-accurately), what it expected we’d have but we don’t, and what it didn’t see coming. Of course I’m not alone in doing this, and a week into 2015 there’s already backlash about all the BttF2 articles. Back to the Future isn’t the only time that authors, filmmakers, or game developers have set their narratives in 2015. In fact, this year is a pretty popular choice of setting in fiction.
Isaac Asimov set a story in 2015, and in that story he laid out his Three Laws of Robotics for the first time. Today in 2015, the developed world makes use of a LOT of robots, but so far none of them have AI advanced enough to need to start applying the Three Laws. So far. More than 150 artificial intelligence researchers rang in 2015 by signing an open letter calling for future research in the field to focus on maximizing the social benefit of AI, rather than simply making it more capable, which is unusually prudent. Either everyone paid attention to SF or the mad scientists are actually thinking about consequences.
Elon Musk was one of the signatories, saying “I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I had to guess at what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that. So we need to be very careful. I’m increasingly inclined to think that there should be some regulatory oversight, maybe at the national and international level, just to make sure that we don’t do something very foolish.”
If there is one overarching theme to 2015 as a setting, it’s that “human-ish” beings—be they robots, aliens, or a time-distorting teenagers—are destined to threaten the lives of “real humans,” even if they are protagonists. – Motherboard RSS
All the SF about 2015 missed that we’d be somewhat obsessed with zombies as a stand-in for the humanish, but in reality we continue to try to deal with the “humanish” who threaten us “real humans” – we call some of them robots and AIs, but our fear of terrorists or cyberattackers is the same fear: Intelligences that are enough like ours to be recognizable, but with motivations we can’t understand and rules that differ from ours.
So, back to the future…
What it got right
Media consumption via multiple screens: A staple of futuristic SF, and I’m doing it right now. I have 3 large computer monitors on: one with this post, one with the source material for it, and one streaming TV shows I need to catch up on. The two screens with webpages are further divided into tabbed browsers and a couple chat windows. At work I have wall of four monitors. I don’t use my giant flat-screen TV (which, yes, predicted in the movie) to display multiple channels (but then I don’t watch sports), although I am often using my tablet to look up stuff about what I’m watching.
Cameras everywhere, including on drones: A “USA Today” camera appears from the sky to take photos in the movie. Of course there are tons of flying cameras now, but you mostly don’t see the cameras that are imaging you in the real 2015; they are on banks, streetlights, other people’s phones, cars, etc. The ones you do see, like store security, you’ve learned to ignore. When my son and I are bored and waiting somewhere, we play “count the security cameras” (just because I’m that kind of parent), but of course he also has his own mini drone with a webcam.
Personal targeted advertising, check. Ubiquitous advertising, check. Only sequels and 3D crap in the movie theaters, check.
TV glasses exist but haven’t really caught on, nor will they. Oculus Rift and similar VR sets just might, with several movies filmed for VR debuting at Sundance this year. The scene with the TV glasses showed the family at dinner physically together but actually separate as they each watched TV or answered the phone or whatever on their own personal device. BIG SAD CHECK.
Tablets: In BttF II, a member of Hill Valley’s Preservation Society holds out a tablet for Marty to sign, probably electronically, to save the clock tower. It’s clearly a tablet, so…check.
Obsession with the 80s: This made storytelling sense for the movie but I bet they didn’t think it would be right…so it’s a little weird that it came true. I am starting to think David Sirota is right, and the 1980s shaped everything about our modern world from the politics to the economics to the rise of terrorism. Check.
And there’s the self-fulfilling-prophecy stuff. You can get Marty’s self-lacing light-up shoes. Sort of. Limited edition and based on the movie, but that’s the paradox, right? Like the shoes, the movie inspired the invention of a Hoverboard. Not by Mattel, however. But even self-fulfilled prophecies get checked off.
What’s kinda accurate and may get traction this year
Video games you play without controllers: I mostly use my Kinect to experiment with 3D modelling, but there are plenty of games you can play with something other than a handheld controller, especially a wired one. It’s not quite the same as using your mind, but we have both that technology to do that and the technology to make someone else play according to our thoughts.
Video conferencing is a yes and a no. We’re still obsessed with it, and I use Skype and Google Hangouts weekly from home. But professional videoconferencing? We all use it, we all hate it.
Compost fuel, flying cars, and dehydrated food all exist but aren’t catching on.
Thumbprint currency and keys: In the movie, Biff pays for a cab by pressing his thumb onto a machine, and the police get Jennifer into her (future) house using a thumbprint instead of a key. Obviously now you can thumbprint your phone open and then use your phone to bump payment. Apple Pay looks like it’s going to lap Google Wallet and make phone payment mainstream this year. While pressing your thumbprint on the cop’s phone won’t give him your deets, he can look at your driver’s license on your phone.
I’ve paid for all my recent cabs by scrawling something like my signature on the driver’s tablet with my finger after he swipes my card via Square. I think that counts as it’s effectively the same thing.
Of course, I’m one of the last people to use cabs rather than Uber.
As for keys, all car keys are, pretty much, and there are a ton of door locks that are Bluetooth/RFID which would allow you to use your phone.
At one point, Doc mentions he left his dog Einstein in a suspended animation kennel. In 2014 human trials started for suspended animation for trauma patients. The technology probably won’t trickle down to house pets or government employees in 2015 though.
Phone glasses: Despite the prevalence of fax machines, Back to the Future Part II did actually have the foresight to recognize that people in 2015 would carry around small, portable, personal phones. Of course, BttFII thought these phones would also be sunglasses, which is close to Google Glass so this is a “sorta.” Wearing your phone on your face is SO 2014. In 2015 it’s on your wrist.
What was totally wrong
Well, the easy shot here is the Cubs have not won the World Series.
Laser discs and fax machines are no longer used. Well, except the US Government still uses fax machines.
Phone booths are no longer ubiquitous. They are so rare that 2600 has a back-page feature where readers submit locations of them.
Size-adjustable clothing: nope. We do have clothing that tracks your activity. And your location. That wasn’t in the movie.
You know what else wasn’t in the movie? The INTERNET. The Internet of Things is sort of assumed in the movie, but they just totally didn’t see the Grand Unified Information Service. If they had, maybe they would have foreseen 2015’s vote on Net Neutrality and how the awesomeness could be brought to a screeching halt.
Also cellphones/smartphones. Back to the Future II fails to predict that most people on the planet have a small mobile phone, and most of those are actually little computers that also make phone calls.
The movie did show lots of customer service robots with great AI: not so much. We have a ton of working robots but they aren’t in people-facing jobs yet. Fast food employees are being replaced with touchscreens worldwide in 2015, but AI is still just a bit beyond us…but just a bit. I’d say the movie just missed this prediction by a couple years.
We do have personal assistants like Siri and Cortana who are getting really good at knowing us, but the price of that human/machine interaction is unknown so far: It’s measured in privacy and ethics, and may make us vulnerable not to the human-ish intelligences of science fiction, but the Other intelligences of hackers and terrorists.