“The encounter could create a time paradox, the results of which could…destroy the entire universe! Granted, that's a worst-case scenario.”—Doc Brown

October 21, 2015, was a long way off when Back to the Future, Part II hit movie theaters in November, 1989. That October day was the destination for the film’s time-traveling teen Marty McFly, inventor Dr. (Doc) Emmett Brown, and their flux capacitor–equipped DeLorean car/time machine as they tried to fix a future mess caused by Marty’s nemesis, Biff. Leaping forward 26 years let the makers of the cinematic blockbuster show us a dazzling array of technology—flat TVs! flying vehicles! cold fusion! artificial intelligence!—all of which seemed quite radical in the 1980s. But here we are in 2015 (getting here the slow way, by aging) and it’s time for a reality check on the movie’s speculations. A surprising amount of Back to the Future tech really is a part of our everyday lives—although when it comes to flying cars and cold fusion, not so much.

hover board
Image: Courtesy of Lexus

1.

Hover Boards
In the movie: Marty is chased through town by Biff’s grandson Griff and his gang. To escape, Marty hops on what he thinks is a skateboard, and finds he is cruising without wheels on a hover board.

Where are we now? Marty’s hover board features three qualities that have proved elusive for today’s real-world inventors: ability to hover and fly above the ground, weight-bearing capacity and long-lasting power. A few recent prototypes that use magnetic levitation technology have gotten close to re-creating the movie ideal. In 2011 inventor Greg Henderson’s Hendo Hoverboard used four maglev engines to rise about an inch off the ground with a 135-kilogram payload, but the battery power lasted only seven minutes. In August 2015 Lexus unveiled its Slide hover board. To create liftoff, the Slide required a powerful magnetic field on the ground to repulse the board’s interior superconductor, which was cooled by liquid nitrogen. It couldn’t fly over nonmagnetic surfaces like concrete but it did sport a neat vapor trail, and could rise four to five centimeters in the air with a rider onboard. Canadian inventor Catalin Alexandru Duru set the Guinness World Record for the farthest hover board flight on a device of his own design in May 2015. He flew just over 275 meters, at an altitude of about five meters, over a lake in Quebec before losing power and falling in.

 

  This Week, Back to the Future, Part II Meets Reality Next »
2. Flying Cars

 

[break]

flying cars
Image: Pop Culture Geek
via Flickr CC by 2.0

2.

Flying Cars
In the movie: In the final shot of Back to the Future, Part I the time-traveling DeLorean takes flight. In the sequel Doc, along with Marty and his girlfriend Jennifer, arrive airborne in 2015 in the middle of a sky highway filled with flying cars.

Where are we now? Cars are still grounded but some entrepreneurs are trying to change that. Terrafugia, a U.S. company founded in 2006, is working on two models. One, the two-seat Transition, features foldable wings and a lightweight body that can fit inside a standard car garage, attain a maximum flying speed of around 160 kilometers per hour and also can do about 105 kph on the road. After a successful two-person test flight in 2014 the company announced it will begin delivering the $279,000 vehicles in 2017. The second model, the TF-X four-seater, is lifted by two foldable helicopterlike rotors and can take off and land without a runway. Development of the TF-X is predicted to take eight to 12 years. Another firm, AeroMobil, is producing a super-lightweight flying car for possible sale in 2018 that will seat two and cruise at a maximum velocity of 200 kph in the air and 160 kph on the ground. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s $65-million program called Transformer has awarded contracts to Lockheed Martin and other corporations to develop aircraft that can also drive on a road.

 

« Previous
1. Hover boards
This Week, Back to the Future, Part II Meets Reality Next »
3. Artificial Intelligence

[break]

Artificial Intelligence
Image: Jon Simon/Feature Photo Service for IBM

3.

Artificial Intelligence
In the movie: Marty, Doc and Biff speak to different computerized gadgets and the computers respond intelligently.

Where are we now? AI is all around us—think: Siri, the iPhone-based personal assistant, or Watson, IBM’s supercomputer that famously beat human contestants on Jeopardy! Both are examples of “deep learning” in which a computer absorbs and processes information via artificial neural networks that operate like the human brain. Google made an AI program that combined recently learned objects (animals) with older information (clouds) to create artwork. The attractive but imprecise results showed that the program processes information like the human mind (although not as well as actual humans). IBM is developing Chef Watson to suggest recipes and meals based on human taste information. A Web-based app for physicians called Modernizing Medicine crunches data sets to recommend disease treatments and RealDoll, a company that produces sex dolls, is experimenting with AI features to make their products more responsive. Although current AI applications appear to have consumers’ needs at heart, some, like physicist Stephen Hawking, worry about intelligent machines taking over.

 

« Previous
2. Flying Cars
This Week, Back to the Future, Part II Meets Reality Next »
4. Fingerprint Biometrics

[break]

Fingerprint biometrics
Image:
©iStock.com

4.

Fingerprint Biometrics
In the movie: 1980s Jennifer, trapped in her 2015 home, struggles with doors that don’t have doorknobs. Doc tells her the door will recognize her fingerprints and open.

Where are we now? Biometrics have been used to identify individuals since at least 500 B.C. Advances in computer software and networks in the 1990s allowed the collection of digital fingerprints into huge databases, which led to widespread adoption of fingerprint-ID software in smartphones, government agencies and high-security settings. Apple Pay offers a method for making purchases via the Apple digital stores with a fingerprint ID from iPhones and there are similar systems for some models of Android phones.

 

« Previous
3. Artificial Intelligence
This Week, Back to the Future, Part II Meets Reality Next »
5. "Mr. Fusion" / Biofuels

[break]

biofuel
Image: Macmillan/MARS

5.

"Mr. Fusion" / Biofuel
In the movie: After a visit to the future the DeLorean returns powered by a cylinder-shaped energy source called Mr. Fusion. Several times, Doc feeds stale beer and banana peels into it.

Where are we now? This form of energy is created from nuclear fusion reactions that take place at millions of degrees Celsius, but Mr. Fusion appears to work at room temperature. Such “cold” fusion has never been achieved. There are no nuclear reactors powered by organic material, either, although combustion engines that use ethanol made from corn or other organic material are becoming more common. United Airlines recently purchased a refinery to supply its planes with aviation fuel made entirely from municipal solid waste and Alaska Airlines, Southwest Airlines and British Airways have announced plans to begin using biofuels in the next two to five years. But so far, generating an endless supply of energy from nuclear fusion only exists in the movies.

 

« Previous
4. Fingerprint Biometrics
This Week, Back to the Future, Part II Meets Reality Next »
6. Electronic Visual Displays

[break]

biofuel
Image: ©iStock.com

6.

Electronic Visual Displays
In the movie: Visual gizmos and displays are everywhere in the film’s imagined 2015. An animated hologram of a shark advertises movie sequel Jaws 19. Marty looks at different channels playing simultaneously on the flat-screen television in his living room. At a 1980s theme diner, robotic waiters take the shape of flat-screen monitors.

Where are we now? You can watch Marty and the film at home on your own flat-screen TV, proving that its vision was spot-on. Smartphones and tablet computers use organic light-emitting diode (OLED) technology to produce images and manufacturers are experimenting with thinner and flexible material for use in new products—like fabrics or windows. Higher pixel density is another trend; Motorola’s Droid Turbo smartphone features an ultrahigh-density screen resolution of 565 pixels per inch and the Samsung Galaxy S6 bumps its resolution to 577. High–pixel density TVs are the next frontier. Smart glasses like Google Glass and others focus on “augmented reality,” wherein a user’s live, real-world experience is enhanced with computer-generated interactive information.

 

« Previous
5. "Mr. Fusion" / Biofuels
This Week, Back to the Future, Part II Meets Reality Next »
7. The Internet

[break]

internet
Image: ©iStock.com

7.

The Internet
In the movie: A rudimentary Internet, in the form of fax machines on street corners and in the McFlys’ 2015 home, delivers messages and information electronically. In one scene Marty is fired from his job via fax in his living room.

Where are we now? A limited Internet got started in the 1960s and a much larger network was fully opened to commercial traffic in 1995. Soon after, traffic began to grow by 100 percent a year. Today, the “Internet of Things” describes the increasing integration of physical objects and devices with virtual networks—for example, pacemakers, home thermostats or automated cars controlled remotely—that may improve efficiency and provide economic benefit to its users. Of course, users’ personal data is now more vulnerable to hackers.

 

« Previous
6. Electronic Visual Displays
This Week, Back to the Future, Part II Meets Reality Next »
8. Mobile Phones

[break]

phone
Image: Jana Blaáková/MARS

8.

Mobile Phones
In the movie: Marty’s hometown features telephone booths on every street in 2015, implying that its citizens have the ability to call or be called at any time.

Where are we now? Back to the Future, Part II accurately predicted our constant connectedness, although today’s cellular devices travel more easily than phone booths. Mobile phones had just recently hit the consumer market when the film was in production. The first commercially sold model, Motorola’s DynaTAC 8000x, took 10 hours to charge, offered 30 minutes of battery power and cost $3,995 when it was released in 1984. Since then tech advanced quickly: The first Blackberry was released in 2003, the first iPhone in 2007 and the first Android OS phone in 2008. Now, developers are looking into bendable or foldable touch screens, systems that run solely on wi-fi networks, better battery life and solar-powered models.

 

« Previous
7. The Internet
This Week, Back to the Future, Part II Meets Reality Next »
9. Bionic Implants

[break]

bionic implants
Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Travis K. Mendoza/Released

9.

Bionic Implants
In the movie: After Marty and Doc have a dustup with Griff, Doc remarks, “he’s got a few short circuits in his bionic implants.”

Where are we now? As with the Internet of Things, the interface between the human body and machines is becoming more intimate. Government agencies, research institutes and private companies are developing hardware–software combinations meant to be integrated with the body so that disabled people might regain sensation and patients with neurological diseases can overcome their symptoms. One of the earliest examples is the cochlear implant, a device that harnesses sound frequencies via an external microphone and transmits them to a deaf person’s auditory nerve, restoring some hearing function. About 100 blind people have been implanted with devices using similar technology and have had some of their vision restored. Deep-brain stimulation uses electrodes implanted in the brain to manipulate neurons responsible for tremors associated with Parkinson’s disease. Mind-controlled prosthetics, including limbs, feet and hands, are being used by patients in the U.S., Iceland and Sweden. Researchers are working on prototypes of wearable robotic suits that give paralyzed people the sensation of walking as they control the movement of the suit with sensors worn in a skullcap.

 

« Previous
8. Mobile Phones
This Week, Back to the Future, Part II Meets Reality