Twenty years really isn’t all that long. A couple of decades ago, kids were reading Harry Potter books, Pixar movies were all the rage, and Microsoft’s Xbox and Sony’s PlayStation were battling it out for video game supremacy. That doesn’t sound all that different from 2021.
But technology has come a long way in that time. Not only is today’s tech far more powerful than it was 20 years ago, but a lot of the gadgets we thought of as science fiction have become part of our lives. Heck, in some cases, this technology has become so ubiquitous that we don’t even think about it as being cutting-edge tech.
Here are seven prime examples of bits of tech that were considered sci-fi just 20 years back.
As recently as 2004, well-respected economists Frank Levy and Richard Murnane of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, respectively, argued in their book The New Division of Labor that driving a vehicle was a task only a human could do. “The … truck driver is processing a constant stream of [visual, aural, and tactile] information from his environment,” they wrote, suggesting no machine would ever be able to keep up. Five years later, Google started its self-driving car project.
The fact that Levy and Murnane were wrong isn’t the damning appraisal it might sound. If anything, it’s testimony to just how powerful today’s A.I. technology is that it makes autonomous driving a real-world possibility. Self-driving cars and trucks aren’t a staple of our road systems today, and may have taken slightly longer to roll out than some predicted, but they’re pretty darn far from science fiction today.
The thinking person’s ray gun, the universal translator is the pocket-sized gadget seen in many a science fiction movie. Today, devices like smart earbuds can do a pretty great job of real-time, speech-based translation. A person can also point their camera phone at text written in another language and get it translated back to them right away.
Machine translation has been one of the amazing triumphs of modern artificial intelligence, delivering on an A.I. pipe dream that has been explored for half a century, but has only come of age in the last few years. Some particularly dazzling speech-based translation demos even use fragments of speakers’ own voices, rearranged to form new words, to create A.I. voices that speak languages the person the voice is based on doesn’t actually speak. Amazing — if mind-blowing — stuff.
This one’s not quite as sexy as the others on this list. But that also just goes to show how ubiquitous it’s become. In the 2002 movie Minority Report, there’s a scene in which Tom Cruise’s protagonist John Anderton walks past a billboard that screams out to him, “John Anderton! You could use a Guinness right about now.” A couple of decades later, the idea of an ad that addresses us personally, using our name and targeted based on our expressed likes and dislikes, is an everyday part of our lives.
Questions about whether your phone really is eavesdropping on you and using your conversations to hit you with ads (probably) remain the stuff of conspiracy theories. But the likes of Google and Facebook — one of which was in its infancy and the other of which didn’t exist when Minority Report was released — have risen to tech-giant status by hoovering up massive quantities of user data and spitting out ads. And let’s not forget about smart billboards that respond to users in the real world as well as on the internet.
A touchscreen used to be as much shorthand for “you’re watching a sci-fi show or movie” as form-fitting jumpsuits and aliens with weird foreheads. While touchscreens did exist in the real world (the first resistive touchscreen technology was shown off in 1982), it was nowhere near as buttery smooth or intuitive as filmmakers liked to suggest.
That all changed in the mid-2000s with technology like the iPhone’s revolutionary multitouch, which could not only recognize one gentle finger-based touch, but several touches at once. Suddenly we were ushered into a world of touchscreen gestures, in which touch became one of the primary ways we interact with devices. Companies like Microsoft have proven such big believers in touch-based interactions that they have built their Windows operating system around it — as seen by breakthrough hybrid devices like the Surface.
Continuing the theme of futuristic modes of interaction, the idea of an A.I. assistant you could communicate with you via voice has been a part of science fiction since at least HAL 9000 in the 1968 classic 2001: A Space Odyssey. Today, smart assistants created by the likes of Amazon, Google, Apple, and Microsoft are everywhere. And they’ve proven a whole lot more useful, and less murderous, than HAL 9000. That’s a win-win.
In the aforementioned 2001: A Space Odyssey, there’s a scene in which the character of Dr. Floyd makes a video call from space to his family back home. Today, video calls from astronauts on the International Space Station are nothing remarkable. (Well, they’re clearly very remarkable, but not necessarily rare.)
Meanwhile, most people have become more accustomed to video chat platforms like Zoom, Hangouts, and Skype over the past year than they ever thought they would. Video calling is so ubiquitous that, in the age of working from home, it’s quite possible to unironically say, “Not another video call? This is my fifth this week,” prior to picking up a tablet computer thinner than a deck of cards, and having a conversation with people sometimes located on the other side of the planet.
Movies like Aliens gave us the Power Loader, an augmented suit that could be controlled by the wearer to give them vastly enhanced capabilities. In 2021, robot exosuits range from strength-boosting Power Loader-style creations that can help out in warehouses, to ones able to help people with partial paralysis complete marathons, to designs that can help improve your skiing skills. Want to shred slopes like a cyborg? You’re living in the right time.