6 Signs That Reality is Catching Up with Science-Fiction

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By Toussaint Egan, Aurora University

Albert Einstein once said, “I never worry about the future, it comes soon enough.” He was right—it’s just taken us a bit longer to get there than we expected.

Science-fiction is a genre that is synonymous with the idea of futurecasting—taking contemporary technology and ideas and extrapolating them into a not so distant future to speculate on the what-if's of their most evolutionary extreme conclusions. But what happens when the real world catches up with our imagination?

As the legal, ethical, and societal ramifications of these emergent ideas and technologies become more and more plausible and apparent, the line separating speculative fantasy and our everyday reality has begun to blur in increasingly uncanny ways (and not just when you're shopping for a gift for a sci-fi fan). These are only six signs that our present reality is becoming just as strange, if not stranger than science-fiction.

1. Life-extension research

Extending the longevity and quality of life has been a guiding force not only for modern medicine but a cornerstone of speculative fiction. Anti-aging proponents like Aubrey De Grey argue that "natural death" is not an inevitability but rather a undiagnosed affliction, and that in approximately 20 to 30 years time, the problem of aging as we know it now will be fundamentally "solved" through advances like gene therapy and antibiotics.

"The phrase 'natural causes' is a very strange one really," De Grey said in an interview with Big Think. "Ultimately what it means is someone who dies of natural causes, they die of aging in a way that has not been given an additional name ... so really it’s just a matter of terminology the difference between dying of natural causes and dying of some other specifically named thing that doesn't really often affect young adults."

Anti-aging is far from a fringe technology, and De Grey is certainty not alone in his estimations. Futurists like Ray Kurzweil proselytize the so-called "Death of Death" within the next quarter-century, and even major tech executives like Google's Larry Page have joined the cause to "radically extend the human life-span." How these technologies emerge within our lifetime, how purposefully we act in creating new system to counteract the congestion of space and consumption of resources resulting from these technologies, will change not only our contemporary society but the future of generations to come.

2. Mainstream 3D printing

We may not have the molecular replicator from Star Trek or the the universal constructor from Deus Ex, but 3D printers are becoming a more present reality bridging the gap between commercial commodities and DIY craftsmanship. The machines are being used to construct a wide range of things, including clothingfootwearartificial organsarchitecturetoysvinyl recordsminiature replicasart installations, and even pizza! That's not even mentioning the ways in which creators can mold their creations in real-time, like L’Artisan Electronique's insanely cool virtual pottery wheel. And when you have a Stanford professor ruminating on the future legal ramifications of 3D printing licenses and manufacturing liability, you know it's time to sit up and pay attention. 

3. Modern Metropolises and Emerging Populations

When Joan Clos, Executive Director of the UN said that "the global population will increase from 7 billion to 9 billion [and] the urban population will grow between 2.5 billion and 3 billion people by the year 2050," he predicted the highest rate of urbanization in human history. Professor Geoffrey West of the Santa Fe Institute shares these predictions, characterizing cities as, "...crucibles of civilization [...] urbanization has been expanding at an exponential rate in the last 200 years so that by the second part of this century, the planet will be completely dominated by cities." 

Author Annalee Newitz expands on West's claims in her book, Scatter, Adapt, and Remember, wherein she talks about the lifespan and extinction cycles of species and human cities and how they can be made "Death-proof":

Cities are not static objects to be feared or admired, but are instead a living process that residents are changing all the time. Given how much bigger and more common cities are likely to become over the next century, we’ll need to change them even further. Cities might become biological entities, walls hung with curtains of algae that glow at night and sequester carbon, and floors made from tweaked cellular material that strengthens like bones as we walk on it.

Regardless of how modern cities change throughout the next century, one trait shared between all of them will remain constant. And that trait is, to quote West, "that they are networks, and the most important network of cities is you. Cities are just a physical manifestation of your interactions, our interactions, and the clustering and grouping of individuals."

4. Wide-spread Commercial Robotics

We may not have uncanny artificial companions of Steven Spielberg's A.I. just yet, but make no mistake, the robot Renaissance is nearly upon us. Probably the most famous example of a real-life robotic companion is Honda's ASIMO project. ASIMO, or "Advanced Step in Innovative MObility," is a humanoid robot designed to function as a personal assistant and nursing aide. ASIMO has gone through several iterations since its debut in 1986; Honda has stated a projected timeline of at least 15 years before introduced for mass production.

But the future of robotics doesn't lie solely in Japan. Boston Dynamics, a DARPA-funded robotics corporation recently acquired by Google, is responsible for some of the most technically impressive—and frankly, terrifying—examples of cutting-edge robotics. Models like PETMAN and ATLAS are considered some of the most technologically-advanced automatons on the planet, and I dare anyone to look at a video of Big Dog running and not see visions of Metal Gear. 

That's not to mention the recent announcement of Amazon's Prime Air delivery system, which uses automated air-drones for short-range delivery of packages to customer's houses. The future keeps on getting weirder and weirder.

5. The Internet and Global Communications

The Internet has come to define and shape our modern world in profoundly meaningful ways that we are only now beginning to fathom. Social networks like Facebook and Twitter have become the main purveyors of cultural currency as the debate regarding the personal privacy of private citizens and our impulse to "overshare" rages on. We speak in an entirely different language than we did just a decade ago; a language of emoticons, abbreviations and aphorisms.

Real-time and asynchronous communication through text and  video-chat has allowed the human race to grow as an interconnected global community. And with initiatives like Google's Project Loon designed to connect people in rural and remote areas and bring people back online after disasters, the scope of the Internet shows no sign of shrinking. Motoko Kusanagi said it best, "The net is vast and infinite..."

6. Biotechnology and Human Augmentation

In 2009, theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson famously speculated that, "in the future… a new generation of artists will be writing genomes as fluently as Blake and Byron wrote verses." However whimsically optimistic that might sound on first reading, in reality Dyson may in fact be more right than even he imagined.

The real-life experimentation of genetically-modified pigs as incubators for "bioartifical" human organs in the early 2000s has since proliferated through such popular science-fiction works as Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam series, the anime series Ghost in the Shell: Stand-Alone Complex, and Shane Carruth's filmUpstream Color. Scientists across the globe are racing to hone the creation of replacement organs extrapolated from the genetic tissue of their human counterparts. Biotech is on the rise, not to mention the commercial and medical potentialities of human-mechanical augmentation.

Modern prosthetics are becoming increasingly more complicated, ornate and sophisticated, mirroring the 20-seconds-into-the-future aesthetics of Deus Ex: Human Revolution and the high-powered exosuits of The Forever War. "We won't wake up with cyborg overlords. It will bleed out from the medical field [like] DARPA's exoskeleton to help wounded veterans," augmentation enthusiast Christian "Quaddi" Dameff said in an interview with Network World. "Human augmentation is no longer constrained to the world of speculative fiction [...] bio-mechanical interfaces are an exploding area of active research, development, and implementation. And they're here to stay."

This story was originally published in 2014 and has been updated for 2022.