October 21, 2015 was Back to the Future Day. It all began in the 80’s, on Saturday, October 26, 1985: “Marty! You’ve got to come back with me!” “Where?” “Back to the future.” In Back to the Future II, Doc Brown, Marty McFly, and Jennifer Parker climb into the DeLorean time machine and travel to the year 2015 to fix some events 30 years in the future. The technologies and applications they encounter there, best known among them the Hoverboard, are based on the filmmakers’ futuristic vision. What better time to do a reality check and also project out a technology vision for the next 30 years?
Back to the Past – The Technology World in 1985
In order to put the technology vision in “Back to the Future II” in perspective, we will first take a look at the technological reality in the mid 80’s (the movie is set in 1985, continuing where the first movie left off, but was released in 1989).
Desktop computers had made their way into the business world and consumers’ homes. Most users were still using a command line interface on an MS-DOS machine or, if a progressive computer enthusiast, an Apple II which was sold until 1993 . The first computers with mouse and graphical user interface had been launched only a year ago. The Apple Macintosh was introduced in 1984 with its famous Super Bowl XVIII television commercial, Ridley Scott’s cinematic reference to George Orwell’s novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, set in a dystopian future controlled by Big Brother, represented as IBM in the Macintosh commercial . And Microsoft had just started shipping Windows 1.0 in 1895 .
Marty Cooper, Head of Motorola’s communications systems division, had invented the cell phone in 1973, making the first public hand-held cell phone call standing on Sixth Avenue in New York. It took another ten years before the first commercial cell phone service began operating and cell phones cost $4,000 ($9,600 in 2015 CPI adjusted dollars) . Cell phones were not only unaffordable for most back in the mid 80’s, they also weighed as much as a brick and looked like a brick: remember Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko in the 1987 movie “Wall Street” using one of those while walking on the beach?
Other products and technologies that dominated the mid-80's:
- Polaroid instant (meaning within three minutes) camera
- Sony Discman CD player
- VHS tape VCR players (the first DVD wasn’t created until ten years later)
- 8-bit Nintendo NES video game console
- LCD watches
- The Chevrolet Cavalier coupé was the best-selling passenger car in the U.S.
In the mid 80’s, many category-leading products were still based on analog technologies or early digital versions. The technologies that define our mobile, connected, automated world in 2015 were far from even being on the horizon. It is all the more impressive how many of today’s technologies and applications the makers of “Back to the Future II” predicted almost 30 years ago.
Back to the Future – The 1985 Vision
The first technology that the "Back to the Future" time travelers encounter when they arrive in 2015 are flying cars - interestingly flying along fixed lanes with median divider and traffic signs in the sky. Verdict
: No flying cars in 2015.
The most iconic “Back to the Future II” technology is the Mattel-branded Hoverboard, a levitating skateboard. Verdict
: No Hoverboards are commercially available although a number of companies inspired by the movie have developed prototypes and one even launched a Kickstarter campaign. The Omni hoverboard uses propellers and works and handles more like an upside-down helicopter platform or a jetpack. The Hendo hoverboard and the Lexus (the car maker) hoverboard both use magnetic fields. The Lexus board looks most similar to a levitating skateboard, although its superconductor technology cooled with liquid nitrogen doesn’t yet look quite ready for consumer use .
After we got flying cars and levitating skateboards out of the way, we can focus on an amazing number of very specific predictions that actually came true.
Griff uses an exoskeleton to grow taller and stronger in the fight with Marty at Café 80’s. Verdict
: Became a reality. Ekso Bionics has developed a wearable bionic suit that allows paralyzed patients to stand up and walk again.
Biometric door lock:
The house in Hilldale that Jennifer is brought to has a biometric door lock that opens with her fingerprint. Verdict
: Became a reality. A long list of biometric door locks and other access control devices is commercially available.
Voice-activated programmable lights go on when Jennifer enters the living room. Verdict
: Became a reality. Big consumer electronics companies (Philips, Samsung), Silicon Valley tech companies (Google/Nest, Apple), and many other established companies and startups have launched home automation platforms and smart, programmable, connected home devices. And Amazon’s Echo device has now integrated with several major consumer IoT platforms to offer a unified voice interface into the smart home.
Biff pays the cab by authorizing the charge with his fingerprint on a mobile device. Verdict
: Became a reality. Apple Pay, Android Pay, and Samsung Pay provide for a mobile payment experience almost identical to the one envisioned in the movie – including authorizing the payment with the user’s fingerprint. This is one of the most amazing technology visions in the movie, given where consumer technology was in the mid 80’s: in the early days of the analog to digital transition there existed no mobile devices and no cloud-based infrastructure necessary to implement a mobile payment system.
A low flying drone walks a dog in Hilldale. Verdict
: Became a reality (at least without the dog-walking use case). Many companies offer remote-controlled or autopilot-programmable drones that are used for commercial and for recreational purposes. It is quite remarkable that today’s real drones move much the same way the visual effect drone in the movie flies and hover.
Optical head-mounted displays:
Marty's son is wearing connected glasses with voice input during dinner; his daughter is checking an incoming phone call on hers. Verdict
: Became a reality. Google Glass, while only a developer version of a wearable head-mounted display and natural language interface, already provides for the functionality envisioned in the movie and even looks more elegant than the props used.
There is an additional list of technologies that the time travelers encounter, which either have become reality or for which closely related products have been developed by 2015 including holographic projections, avatar personalities, robotic trash cans (Roomba), digital picture frames, voice-operated TV sets, and augmented reality applications.
Forward to the Future – The 2015 Vision
what does the technology vision for our future in 2045 look like? We can expect that technology evolution and disruption over the next 30 years will at a minimum affect the following areas (focusing on engineering disciplines as the driver for breakthrough innovation and leaving out the parallel and eventually intertwined biology-driven progress in life sciences and medicine – predictions in overlapping areas will be discussed below).
Google’s driverless cars can already be seen on the roads around Mountain View (with one car even being pulled over for driving too slow in early November), Tesla launched its autopilot feature in October, Apple is rumored to have initiated the Apple Car program, and most car makers are testing self-driving experimental vehicles or prototypes. While autopilot and driverless features are going to be a reality of the near future, the longer-term implications on car usage, car ownership, automobile infrastructure, and related business models, all triggered by eventually fully autonomous cars, will be even more profound. In a world where cars drive themselves, park themselves, and are connected and networked, car ownership will be replaced by 24/7 access to cars (in a sense an extension of the Uber model in which not even the – no longer required – driver owns the vehicle that passengers summon on demand). Parking structures in inner cities will mostly become obsolete with self-driving cars leaving the city when not needed and returning on time for the next ride, all orchestrated by a big data driven, smart, and learning demand-prediction model. By the way, we probably will still not have flying cars, not so much because the necessary technologies will not be available but because this mode of transportation, despite showing up in most science fiction movies, would not be superior to other solutions.
Fast mass-transit solutions:
A 10x improvement of mass-transit solutions will finally create an attractive alternative to car or plane for medium-distance travel. The Hyperloop concept proposed by Elon Musk and pursued by several companies is expected to take passengers from San Francisco to Los Angeles in 35 minutes for a cost of $30. A pressure less tube system would allow for speeds up to 750mph and for the first time create a better solution than driving or flying such distances .
Manned missions to Mars:
A manned mission to Mars (especially a return mission and not the also proposed one-way mission) represents a more extreme and not really generally applicable breakthrough in long-distance transportation (and exploration). However, the Mars program will enable (and require) breakthroughs in science and technology similar to the Apollo Moon program that will benefit many industries. NASA plans to land astronauts on Mars by 2039 .
Computing technology has evolved from electromechanical devices to relays, to vacuum tubes, to transistors, and to integrated circuits providing for a doubling in performance per cost every 18 months on average (Moore’s Law). Quantum computers handling quantum bits or qubits as the unit of information promise not only faster computational speeds but, more importantly, a qualitatively different approach to algorithms that would allow for turning difficult computational problems into easy ones. Such a new S-curve in computer hardware and programming will have dramatic impact in areas like artificial intelligence, cryptography, decoding of biological information . The underlying theoretical concepts date back to a seminal paper by Richard Feynman from 1982. Academic groups and industry (including companies like D-Wave Systems, Microsoft, Google, Intel) have started to develop practical hardware concepts.
Computers and machines will increasingly integrate complex and diverse input data streams, make sense of unstructured data, and develop self-learning capabilities. This will initially provide for the efficient management of large and complex data sets and will eventually result in self-aware and adapting artificial intelligence. It will also create new interface modalities replacing touchscreen and keypad including virtual and augmented reality applications. How to implement checks and balances that will prevent such a system from turning rogue like Skynet in the Terminator movies, HAL 9000 in “A Space Odysse”, or WOPR in “WarGames” is a separate story.
Man-machine interfaces and hybrids
Implants and engineered replacements or enhancements of biological functions will reach and, in some cases, exceed the natural biological performance. Artificial retinas, organ replacements based on 3D-printed biomaterials, bionic limbs, and other devices will become better alternatives to the transplantation of biological structures and organs.
In areas in which a damaged biological function cannot be repaired or replaced within the human body, external machine components will be wired to people’s brains to integrate man and machine as seamlessly as possible. Initial applications of such interface solutions are already allowing a paralyzed person to direct a robotic arm through her thoughts and intentional modulation of her brain waves.
Several companies (including Alphabet’s Life Sciences subsidiary) are already working on injectable or implantable nanobots that autonomously reside in the human body, measure relevant analytes, and wirelessly transmit data to the outside. As this technology accelerates, data streams from within the human body will become abundant and every organ and biological function will have its own IP address.
The “Back to the Future” vision for the year 2015 was radical, given the landscape of broadly available technology back in those days. The technologies featured in the movie represented 10x improvements over what was the state of the art in the 80’s and must have appeared as an unreal piece of Hollywood science fiction. However, large parts of that vision have actually become a reality 30 years later – and with remarkable similarity in some instances, like for fingerprint-authorized payments on a mobile device. The lesson for our time is that predicting and inventing our own future will also require the spirit of “impossible” science fiction and the desire to pursue moonshots promising 10x improvements over what is feasible today.
 Apple II – Wikipedia
 Macintosh – Wikipedia
 A history of Windows – Microsoft Windows 1982-85
 Martin Cooper (inventor) – Wikipedia
 How the Most Promising Hoverboards Actually Work, Wired Magazine, October 2015
 Hyperloop Alpha, SpaceX, 2013
 Manned Mars Mission Plan, SPACE.com, 2015
 A short Introduction to Quantum Computation, University of Cambridge
 Simulating Physics with Computers, Richard Feynman, International Journal of Theoretical Physics, 1982