The movie “Back to the Future Part II” predicted we’d be traveling in flying cars, going to see “Jaws 19” in 3D and of course, gliding in style on our hoverboards by Oct. 21, 2015.
Hoverboards haven’t hit the market quite yet, but some of the movie’s prophesies for 2015 were eerily accurate – predicting video conferencing and wireless video games.
Experts at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign weigh in on a few predictions the movie got wrong – and right – and their own forecasts for future technology.
Drones that walk your dog
In the “Back to the Future Part II” world, dog walking in 2015 should have been completely automated, thanks to drone technology.
Illinois mechanical science and engineering professor Naira Hovakimyan thinks a dog-walking drone is possible – if used in a rural area and not in a crowded, urban setting – except for challenges in regulations.
She predicts drones are likely the next cellphone technology. “In the next 30 years, I can foresee the drones revolutionizing agriculture and solving world hunger, helping first responders in public safety problems, solving problems in forestry, reducing costs of insurance, helping in moviemaking, entertainment and many others.”
We could develop hoverboards, says Illinois physics professor Paul Kwiat. All we need are superconductors. And liquid nitrogen. And a special magnetic skate park.
So, maybe not as easy as Marty McFly makes it look.
One hoverboard that uses superconductors has already been developed by Lexus, Kwiat says. The drawback, he says: It needs to be cooled with liquid nitrogen, and it can only float over a special skate park with lots and lots of magnets. Kwiat says he doesn’t know of any other ideas for hoverboards that would work on any surface.
The most likely technological advancement, according to Kwiat? Room-temperature superconductors, which would be extremely useful for magnetic-levitation trains of the future.
To power the DeLorean in 2015, all Doc Brown needs to do is to open a garbage can and shove a banana peel into his Mr. Fusion.
Illinois researcher Brajendra Kumar Sharma says it’s definitely possible to make fuel from trash. They’re already doing it at Illinois.
“In our lab, we have shown a variety of trash plastics (plastic grocery bags, prescription medicine bottles, milk cartons, straws, bottle caps, etc.) can be converted into alternative fuels, and the fuel quality is as good as our conventional gasoline and diesel fuels,” Sharma says.
Sharma and his team also have been working on converting other waste materials into fuel. They’re taking tires, used coffee grounds, algae, sewage sludge, manure and food waste to create crude oil, he says, but still need additional steps of processing to make it ready-to-use.
By 2015, Nike should have released the Nike MAG (Magnetic Anti-Gravity) shoes with laces that, well, lace themselves.
“To my knowledge there are no self-tying shoelaces, but Velcro fastening has become mainstream and more innovative ways of protective your feet (e.g. Keen shoes, Vibram FiveFinger shoes),” says industrial designer and Illinois faculty member Deana McDonagh.
Those of us still waiting for our power laces shouldn’t be disappointed. Creating the vision for power-lacing sneakers, McDonagh says, is often the impetus for developing the technology.
“For designers envisioning the future, we have to imagine if anything were possible without worrying whether the technology is out there,” she says. “Developing technology to meet existing, emerging and currently unforeseeable needs is the best scenario.”
Personally, McDonagh says, she’s a fan of cult-classic science fiction film “Blade Runner” and its depiction of future design.
“It is probably a more realistic projection of where we are heading with technology, and socially, culturally,” she says. “'Blade Runner' is not a typical Hollywood film; It leaves you wondering if advancements in technology are advancing us as a whole in the right direction.”
"Back to the Future Part II" predicted we'd be communicating with our bosses and co-workers via videoconferencing. How realistic was that kind of technology in the 1980s?
According to business professor and telecommuting expert Ravi Gajendran, it was just a matter of time before video conferencing became reality.
"The mid-80s already witnessed 'Star Trek,' 'Star Wars' and NASA manned space flights with video transmission from space," he says. "In the context of these times, video-conferencing was more a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if.'"
And video conferencing isn't reserved for "stuffy business people," Gajendran says.
"The accessibility of instant, high-quality video on smartphones has democratized video conferencing to include conversations between grandparents and grandkids," he says. "The next step in the not too distant future for such technology facilitated bonding is three-dimensional, holographic communication."
So, when are we going to be able to travel 30 years into the past to guarantee our future?
Ignoring astrophysics and answering only as an archaeologist, time travel is not possible, says Timothy Pauketat, Illinois professor of anthropology and medieval studies.
“Time isn’t an independent variable that exists outside of movement and experience," Pauketat says. (He added that experience involves both cosmic movements and more familiar human bodily movements—sometimes called history.)
Maybe physics has a more hopeful outcome for time travel?
“It seems extremely unlikely that time travel -- meaning travel backwards in time -- will ever be achieved,” says Illinois physics professor emeritus Michael Weissman.
Unfortunately, there’s no real resolution of the obvious science-fiction paradoxes raised by traveling backwards in time, according to Weissman.
“If someone (or thing) were to loop around through time to the starting state, there seems no imaginable way to have all the different versions of that state be consistent,” he adds.
The first U.S. female president
A newspaper from Back to the Future’s depiction of 2015 shows a headline quoting our female president who, of course, hasn’t been elected. Yet.
Why did electing a female president seem so far off in the future to movie screenwriters?
“As the screenplay was being written, Margaret Thatcher was ensconced in power as a re-elected prime minister of the U.K.,” political science professor Brian Gaines says. “From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, the proportion of respondents telling pollsters that they would not vote for a woman running for president from their own party who ‘seemed qualified for the job’ fell from about 40 percent to around 10 percent.
“And the U.S. had already seen the first female running mate (Geraldine Ferraro, on the Democratic ticket, in 1984). On the other hand, it took eight election cycles to move from the first Catholic presidential candidate (Al Smith in 1928) to the first Catholic president (John Kennedy in 1960). So anticipating a female president, at most seven cycles after Ferraro was a mere running mate, was perhaps bold after all.
“In any case, if Blade Runner (1982) had its portrayal of 2019 about right, whoever is president after the 2016 election is going to preside over a very rapid deterioration in the quality of life on Earth, as well as major advances in space travel and robotics.”
And what’s the likelihood we’ll see a female president in 2016?
“If you go by current (overseas) betting markets, Hillary Clinton is still the most likely successor to Barack Obama, well ahead of Jeb Bush, Joe Biden, Marco Rubio and Donald Trump,” Gaines says. “This far out, however, being the favorite is very different from being a lock. Polls now show her losing to various Republicans against whom she was polling very well in the spring, and she's undoubtedly nervous that Joe Biden may yet challenge her for the Democratic nomination.”