‘Back to the Future Day’ arrives at last

Near future: Lexus and Hendo have each developed ‘hoverboards’ using magnets © Universal Pictures

Today is 21 October 2015: the date to which Marty McFly travels in Back to the Future II. Were the film’s predictions correct? Or is trying to guess the future a fool’s game?

‘Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.’ With those immortal words, Doc flew Marty McFly and his girlfriend Jennifer to a world of flying cars and teenagers riding hoverboards: 21 October 2015.

When Back to the Future II was released in 1989, Tim Berners-Lee had invented the World Wide Web, but the first browser still only existed in his imagination. Email would not appear for another couple of years. The first iPhone was almost two decades away. So the most revolutionary development of the last quarter century is noticeably absent from Back to the Future II. Indeed, the fax machines found on street corners now seem like a laughably absurd form of communication.

But some things were closer to the mark. Boston-based company Terrafugia hopes to start selling its electric hybrid flying car, the TF-X, for around $400,000 in the next few years. Meanwhile, Lexus has created a hoverboard prototype, although it relies on an invisible magnet track which has been built into the ground.

Some of the smaller details of Back to the Future II are even more accurate: the Mcfly children’s phone-glasses act much like Google Glass; Nike released limited-edition self-lacing shoes in 2011, and has hinted that they may return by the end of the year; and large, multi-channel flatscreen televisions are a perfectly normal sight.

Developments over the next 25 years promise to be even more extraordinary. Optimistic futurologists describe a world of bionic Olympics, vertical farms, and 4,000 mph trains.

But Moore’s Law, which predicts that computer speed will double every two years, could mean that robotics and artificial intelligence make roughly half of our current jobs obsolete, calling for ever more specialised skills from workers. Meanwhile, scientists warn that the threat of climate change could dramatically affect energy use and food production.

Looking ahead

Predicting the future is a waste of time, say some. The lack of internet in Back to the Future II was its biggest mistake, because the most significant change in society came from something that no one predicted: a universal online platform providing instant information to anyone with the right device. We have no way of knowing what the most important developments of the future will be.

But others point out that revolutions on this scale are extremely rare. The technologies which are being developed now are the most likely to impact the future: it’s simply a case of refining them. Besides, some things will always be important; humans will always want to travel, learn, work, socialise and be entertained. It’s just how they do it that could change.

You Decide

  1. Would you rather live in the current ‘future’, or the future predicted by Hollywood in 1989?
  2. Is there ever any point in trying to predict the future?

Activities

  1. The year is 2040. List five of the most important developments of the last 25 years.
  2. Write an alternative scene for Back to the Future II, in which Marty McFly arrives in the real 2015.

Some People Say...

“The future will only go downhill from here.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Isn’t this just nonsense?
Predictions about the future may not be accurate, but they are based on current trends and emerging technologies. Change is a key part of life, so it is important to think about how we can adapt to the world around us. It might also be a good way to think about your subjects at school: learning how to code or speaking another language could prove to be invaluable skills in your career.
The future sounds scary.
There are challenges ahead, climate change being one of the most significant. But the future is also full of potential: some believe that poverty may be eliminated by 2030, and stem cell research could cure many diseases. It’s important to be aware of how our actions might affect the future, but also to keep an open mind about the benefits it will bring.

Word Watch

Tim Berners-Lee
The British computer scientist invented the web as a side project while working at CERN, the European Particle Physics Laboratory.
Bionic
Electronic technology based on biological science. Scientists have already created bionic hands and legs which can be controlled by signals in the brain.
Vertical farms
A potential solution to food shortages in urban areas, the idea is to create skyscrapers which also act as greenhouses. The world’s largest vertical farm opened in Michigan last year.
4,000 mph trains
Evacuated Tube Transport (ETT) is a proposal which would involve airless tubes which act as vacuums. Passengers would travel in capsules initially powered by motors, which then coast through the tubes at extremely high speeds, using no additional energy.
Moore’s Law
Gordon Moore made his prediction in 1965. Fifty years on, memory chips can store around two billion times more data than they did then.
Climate change
One study fears that, without intervention, climate change will lead to catastrophic food shortages by 2040.

Subjects

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