The cell phone. The tablet. The touchscreen interface. All were once figments of imagination portrayed in science fiction. But for every imagined sci-fi technology that becomes realized, many more remain outside our grasp. Some are peaking over the horizon, while their most promising applications remain untold years away. Here are the 10 coolest sci-fi technologies, and how close they are to reality.
What It Is: While scientists have located planets with characteristics essential to supporting life, to date, the search for a habitable planet has confirmed nothing. If human beings hope to survive on a planet other than Earth without remaining confined to artificial structures, we will have to engineer methods to transform alien planets into Earth-like ones. That process is called terraforming.
Why It’s Cool: We live in a time when no real frontier remains. With the exception of the ocean’s most obscure depths, human beings have been everywhere on Earth. The ability to successfully terraform, combined with interstellar travel, would open up the galaxy to human colonization. That would provide those with the necessary means and pioneer spirit to seek new worlds where human freedom could be explored anew.
How Close to Reality: Pretty far. Terraforming Mars, the only planet in our solar system which stands as a reasonable candidate for the process, would take “several millennia” utilizing currently hypothesized methods. Giant orbital mirrors would reflect sunlight to the surface, and greenhouse gas-producing factories would work to heat and sustain the atmosphere. Basically, it’s Al Gore’s worst nightmare.
9. Genetic Modification
What It Is: Every organism in creation contains its own blueprint, coded into DNA with a remarkably sophisticated language which relies upon a four-letter alphabet expressed in three-letter words. By changing those words, we change the blueprint.
Why It’s Cool: Combined with other technologies on this list, the mastery of genetic modification holds the promise to cure innumerable diseases and defects. Some believe that aging and perhaps even death itself could be overcome through genetic modification. Many imagined applications raise pressing ethical questions, often the subject of science fiction.
How Close to Reality: It’s here. Scientists have been modifying the genetics of plants and animals for many years. The results haven’t produced anything resembling a superman, but have triggered a tremendous amount of controversy. The debate over genetically modified organisms or GMOs underscores the organic fad.
What It Is: Nanotechnology is defined as “the manipulation of matter on the atomic, molecular, or supramolecular scale.” In other words, working with things that are really, really small.
Why It’s Cool: Combined with other technologies on this list, nanotechnology holds the promise to solve innumerable challenges. In particular, the potential medical applications are awe-inspiring. Imagine if, instead of daily insulin injections, diabetics could inject nanobots programed to mimic insulin’s sugar binding function. Imagine nanobots cleaning plague from arteries, or repairing the optic nerves of the blind, or rapidly mending broken bones.
How Close to Reality: It’s here. From BBC News: “The James Watt Nanofabrication Centre at the [University of Glasgow] engineers material down to billionths of a metre.” That said, the most promising applications are still years away.
7. Cloaking Technology
What It Is: The ability to make people or vehicles invisible has long been coveted. It has obvious military applications which have been frequently imagined in science fiction.
Why It’s Cool: Being invisible has its advantages, almost all of which raise ethical concerns. You might use it to sneak into a movie, spy on a foreign government, or attack someone without warning.
How Close to Reality: Stealth technology has been a reality for years, and camouflaging techniques have also been commonplace. But true invisibility? Believe it or not, it’s closer than you might think.
6. Holograms / Virtual Reality
What It Is: A hologram is a three-dimensional image. Holograms in science fiction range from crudely projected light to life-like material forms which can be physically interacted with.
Why It’s Cool: The world exists in three dimensions. For millennia, sculpture has stood as humanity’s only means to depict images in a three-dimensional space. Holograms hold the potential to create virtual realities which could serve to entertain, educate, and train with an unprecedented level of immersion.
How Close to Reality: Rapidly developing. Those with the means can access the Oculus Rift, a peripheral device which projects three-dimensional images from a computer through a wrap-around headset worn by the user. It’s not quite Star Trek’s holodeck. But it’s a huge step in that direction.
5. Artificial Intelligence / Cybernetics
What It Is: Two sides of the same coin, artificial intelligence mimics the human capacity for reason, while cybernetics mimics human body structures.
Why It’s Cool: Along with genetics and nanotechnology, work in cybernetics and artificial intelligence presents a technological trinity which many anticipate will trigger a new stage of human evolution. It’s easy to imagine life-like android companions, serving their human counterparts in various ways, some more ethically questionable than others. It’s also easy to imagine such beings turning against their human creators.
How Close to Reality: Closer than you might think. A program called Eugene recently convinced a number of judges that it was a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy, prompting some to claim the artificial intelligence passed the Turing test. But convincing people that you’re a teenager speaking a second language is some ways off from convincing them that you’re a thoughtful, reasoning adult.
4. Ray Guns
What It Is: Whether it’s phasers set to stun or a good blaster by your side, ray guns have been a staple of science fiction since the advent of the genre. An imagined advancement beyond modern firearms, energy weapons model the technological gap between gunpowder and the bow and arrow.
Why It’s Cool: They look cool. They sound cool. And they can scale in effect from a gentle knockout to agonizing vaporization.
How Close to Reality: They’re working on it. From Fox News: “The U.S. Army is betting big on laser warfare — designing, testing and perfecting ultra-precise weapons based on devastatingly powerful beams of light. And given recent developments, it’s only a matter of time until the military has in its arsenal a weapon that until now has been the staple of science fiction — the ray gun.”
3. Interstellar Travel
What It Is: Finding life on another planet, or a world that’s at least capable of sustaining it, is one thing. Getting there is something else. Travel between stars would involve incomprehensible distances.
Why It’s Cool: Interstellar travel would open up the galaxy to human colonization, provided we could locate either planets capable of sustaining human life or terraform planets for our use. Given the untold vastness of our galaxy, one of an innumerable many in the universe, the ability to travel between stars would lift the veil on an infinite frontier.
How Close to Reality: Pretty far off. The distances between stars make travel at less than light speed impractical. And as of right now, travel beyond the speed of light remains “speculative” according to NASA.
2. Time Travel
What It Is: A defining aspect of our existence is the passage of time. As moments pass, they fall into an obscurity from which we can never fully recover them. The imagined ability to travel into the past or into the future has fueled tales from writers like Mark Twain to filmmakers like James Cameron.
Why It’s Cool: Imagine never being late again, ever, for anything. Imagine sleeping in as long as you want, then zipping back to the start of the day and heading to work. Imagine touring the American Revolution, witnessing the Sermon on the Mount, or going on a Triassic safari.
How Close to Reality: Depends upon which way you want to go. Travel into the future is theoretically possible. Technically, we travel steadily into the future with each passing moment. The rate of that travel increases as velocity approaches the speed of light, according to the theory of special relativity made famous by Albert Einstein. A hypothetical astronaut travelling near the speed of light would return to an Earth where many more years had passed than he experienced in flight. Travel to the past remains inconceivable beyond the fantasy of science fiction.
What It Is: The only franchise-specific technology on this list, the weapon of a Jedi knight, has ignited imaginations ever since it was seen in 1977’s Star Wars.
Why It’s Cool: Swordplay remains engrained in our cultural memory, despite living long since it was commonplace. The idea that an advanced people might come full-circle back to “a more elegant weapon for a more civilized age” holds a certain nostalgic appeal.
How Close to Reality: Believe it or not, closer than you might think. From an article in the Guardian published last year: “Harvard and MIT physicists writing in the new edition of Nature say they have discovered a way to bind photons together in order to form a new molecule which behaves almost exactly like George Lucas’s deadly devices. ”