December 20, 2015
DARPA asked the world and our own researchers what technologies they expect to see 30 years from now—and received insightful, sometimes funny predictions
Today—October 21, 2015—is famous in popular culture as the date 30 years in the future when Marty McFly and Doc Brown arrive in their time-traveling DeLorean in the movie “Back to the Future Part II.” The film got some things right about 2015, including in-home videoconferencing and devices that recognize people by their voices and fingerprints. But it also predicted trunk-sized fusion reactors, hoverboards and flying cars—game-changing technologies that, despite the advances we’ve seen in so many fields over the past three decades, still exist only in our imaginations.
A big part of DARPA’s mission is to envision the future and make the impossible possible. So ten days ago, as the “Back to the Future” day approached, we turned to social media and asked the world to predict: What technologies might actually surround us 30 years from now? We pointed people to presentations from DARPA’s Future Technologies Forum, held last month in St. Louis, for inspiration and a reality check before submitting their predictions.
Well, you rose to the challenge and the results are in. So in honor of Marty and Doc (little known fact: he is a DARPA alum) and all of the world’s innovators past and future, we present here some highlights from your responses, in roughly descending order by number of mentions for each class of futuristic capability:
- Space: Interplanetary and interstellar travel, including faster-than-light travel; missions and permanent settlements on the Moon, Mars and the asteroid belt; space elevators
- Transportation & Energy: Self-driving and electric vehicles; improved mass transit systems and intercontinental travel; flying cars and hoverboards; high-efficiency solar and other sustainable energy sources
- Medicine & Health: Neurological devices for memory augmentation, storage and transfer, and perhaps to read people’s thoughts; life extension, including virtual immortality via uploading brains into computers; artificial cells and organs; “Star Trek”-style tricorder for home diagnostics and treatment; wearable technology, such as exoskeletons and augmented-reality glasses and contact lenses
- Materials & Robotics: Ubiquitous nanotechnology, 3-D printing and robotics; invisibility and cloaking devices; energy shields; anti-gravity devices
- Cyber & Big Data: Improved artificial intelligence; optical and quantum computing; faster, more secure Internet; better use of data analytics to improve use of resources
A few predictions inspired us to respond directly:
- “Pizza delivery via teleportation”—DARPA took a close look at this a few years ago and decided there is plenty of incentive for the private sector to handle this challenge.
- “Time travel technology will be close, but will be closely guarded by the military as a matter of national security”—We already did this tomorrow.
- “Systems for controlling the weather”—Meteorologists told us it would be a job killer and we didn’t want to rain on their parade.
- “Space colonies…and unlimited cellular data plans that won’t be slowed by your carrier when you go over a limit”—We appreciate the idea that these are equally difficult, but they are not. We think likable cell-phone data plans are beyond even DARPA and a total non-starter.
So seriously, as an adjunct to this crowd-sourced view of the future, we asked three DARPA researchers from various fields to share their visions of 2045, and why getting there will require a group effort with players not only from academia and industry but from forward-looking government laboratories and agencies:
- Pam Melroy, an aerospace engineer, former astronaut and current deputy director of DARPA’s Tactical Technologies Office (TTO), foresees technologies that would enable machines to collaborate with humans as partners on tasks far more complex than those we can tackle today:
- Justin Sanchez, a neuroscientist and program manager in DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office (BTO), imagines a world where neurotechnologies could enable users to interact with their environment and other people by thought alone:
- Stefanie Tompkins, a geologist and director of DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office (DSO), envisions building substances from the atomic or molecular level up to create “impossible” materials with previously unattainable capabilities:
Check back with us in 2045—or sooner, if that time machine stuff works out—for an assessment of how things really turned out in 30 years.