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Yeah, but in the 80s, we thought we would all be riding on hoverboards by now!


Blood cell sized computers in 30 years? Where's my hoverboard?!?

Remember Back to the Future 2? Marty jumped up onto the hoverboard in the year 2015! Not only that, but cars flew around, there were holographic videos playing in the town square, and everyone was wearing intelligent clothing. What's up with that? How come we don't have all these goodies, and what makes us think the future (30 years from now) will be as bright as we think?

For starters, things are actually going to be far, far brighter than virtually anyone envisioned. Instead of a power revolution, we've had an information revolution. This means that we are connected in ways we didn't think possible during the 1980s. Let's look at some specifics.

In 1989, Robert Zemeckis brought forth a playful, bold vision of 26 years into the future with Back to the Future Part II. In this seminal 80s movie, Marty McFly jumped onto a hoverboard and levitated above the ground, flew around in cars, and watched as his jacket inflated itself and then dried itself off after being doused in water.

26 years hence, there are no flying cars, no hoverboards, and certainly no all-inclusive washer/dryer/jackets. So when futurists like Ray Kurzweil suggest that 26 years hence, in the year 2040, we'll have blood cell sized computers a thousand times more powerful than your cell phone today, what makes us think that actually might be plausible?

For starters, check out my explanation of Moore's Law and how long it's been going on, and why. There is positively no end in sight to the trend of exponential growth of technology, and where silicon fails, another paradigm waits in the wings to take over. This isn't just something that is theorized; it has already happened at least five times previously.

More to the point of this article, though, is that the present is, in many key ways, far brighter than anyone could have imagined a mere 26 years ago. Suppose I had told you in 1989 that in the year 2014, you'd have the ability to reach out to literally billions of people, or that you'd have access to essentially everything ever written down by another human being. What if I had told you that to access this information, you'd need not hours or even minutes, but just seconds? If I told you that you could have a conversation with your phone and ask it to call a friend, you might have believed me, but I'm willing to bet that nobody would have believed me if I had told them that I could dictate, word for word, the message I'd like sent to my friend. If I told you that a supercomputer that had taken up several rooms of space in a home couldn't even do most of the things that a "phone" that fit into the palm of your hand could do, and that essentially everyone you knew would have one of these "phones", and that said phones would be essentially free with affordable service plans, you'd think I was nuts.

Instead of a world where we fly around and have mechanical advantages, instead we have information advantages. We can communicate across the globe at the speed of light, do calculations in seconds the astronauts on the lunar module of Apollo 11 and NASA would take hours to do. Of course, we don't always use our powers for the most noble purposes, but that does not diminish the case that we have them!

Back to the Future 2, intelligence explosion, singularity

Back to the Future 2, intelligence explosion, singularity

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An intelligence explosion will lead to flying cars

So here's the interesting paradox: even though we are so much better off in so many ways than we thought we might be 26 years ago (superintelligent computers in the palms of our hands, instant access to all the world's information for everyone in seconds), and we still don't have the cool stuff we really want from Back to the Future 2 (no hoverboards, no flying cars), the so-called "intelligence explosion" that we're right smack dab in the middle of right now will ultimately result in all kinds of cool stuff for humanity. Here's how: we'll know how to build it affordably and efficiently. In fact, we'll know how to solve many, many problems that have plagued humanity for millennia in the not-too-distant future, thanks to a concept I'll explore very soon in another article on "standing on the shoulders of giants." See you over there.


Fun things about B2F2

All in all, Back to the Future Part II is a fantastic movie. I'm not sure it's fair to call Zemeckis's visions "predictions", because many of the items in the movie were clearly commentary on present-day (1989) American consumerism. At any rate, if you haven't seen this movie in a while, it might be time to rewatch this classic. After all, we who grew up in the 80s are still talking about it today (sometimes even with a straight face). The character acting in it alone make it well worth another viewing.

Tablet computing is pushing us forward beyond what we expected in the 80s


New Comments

Andrew Smith (author) from Richmond, VA on June 15, 2015:

Thanks for stopping by,Tim! You're absolutely right about driverless cars. They're right around the corner for mainstream acceptance. I was thinking along the lines of things we have today, but it's really just a matter of legislation at this point.

Timothy Arends from Chicago Region on June 15, 2015:

Great hub! let's not forget driverless cars, which in many ways are even more impressive than hoverboards! in some ways, technology is out pacing science fiction. Remember that even George Jetson had to drive his own car! Plus let's not forget video games which are almost photo realistic in quality, not to mention virtual reality which can put you into any kind of environment you can imagine. Right now I'm reading your hub and composing this message on the computer about the size of a pad of paper.

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