Back to the Future Day: A look at our technology in 2045

The classic geek movie Back to the Future Part II sent Marty McFly 30 years forward to October 21, 2015. We asked top technology experts to check their digital crystal balls and describe what they see in store for us 30 years from now.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Some of us are feeling really old today.

On November 22, 1989, one of the great all-time geek movies, Back to the Future Part II was released to movie-going audiences. It was a sequel to 1985's hit Back to the Future, but instead of going back in time, Back to the Future Part II came forward, to 2015.

In fact, the DeLorean's time circuits were set to October 21, 2015. Today.


It's been almost 30 years since many of sat in the theater, watching Marty McFly discover hoverboards, flying cars, powered shoelaces, and flying news drones. And that's why many of us are feeling so ancient.

But let's turn that frown upside down and play our own game of Back to the Future. What if Marty Jr. and Marlene (Marty and Jennifer's kids) took a DeLorean (okay, it would probably be a Tesla) and traveled forward 30 years from today? What would the world be like on October 21, 2045?

To give you a flavor of Hill Valley in 2045, I turned to many of today's top technology journalists, asked them to put on their Oculus or HoloLens, and peer forward in time. What would life be like when the Tesla hit 88 miles an hour and zoomed into the future?

Robots, for those who can afford them

For those of us growing up in the pre-Internet days, the big promise of "the future" was flying cars. At the time, very little science fiction attention was given to the logistics and legality of flying cars -- we're experiencing those issues now with drones -- but cars were the vision.

According to ZDNet's Greg Nichols (@gcnichs), it's not cars, but robots. Here's his prediction:

Technology, for the moment, is born of the human imagination. That's why robots will seem familiar to you in the next thirty years, particularly if you're a fan of sci-fi. Take artificial intelligence. Professor Murray Shanahan of Imperial College London, who works on deep learning in AI, predicts that robot intelligence could match human intelligence in the next 30 years.

Advances in sensor technology and new research that adapts biomechanics to machines suggest that soft-skinned robots will soon walk among us. If you're looking for a burger in a major city, need sightseeing help after getting off a plane, or need a caregiver for an elderly parent, there's little question that the best applicant will be a robot. And if you're physically disabled, not to worry. Lightweight exoskeletons and bionics will mean that people living with disabilities may have a physical advantage over able-bodied individuals.

That is, if they can afford to pay for cutting edge technology. There's the rub. The next thirty years will usher vehicle-to-infrastructure technology that will enable accident-free self-driving cars in major metro areas, will see the deployment of nano robots to fight diseases and infections from inside the body, and will escalate a drone economy based on safe autonomous flight. But only for some.

Thirty years is long enough to see rapid penetration of robotics in the world's richest economies, and I'll bet my robot assistant that San Francisco will be overrun with useful robots on that timescale. But it's equally likely that those robots -- like all tech categories that enter a phase of rapid adoption -- will only increase the divide between haves and have nots to begin with.

Despite steady strides, humans haven't been able to solve that problem. In 30 years, though, it's possible that intelligent robots will be ready to give it a try.

The personal network and the future of the smartphone

The mega-trend of the last decade has been mobile, so the big question is what will mobile technology be like after 30 years? I asked ZDNet's James Kendrick (@jkendrick) about the future of mobile and instead of learning about tablets and phones, he said this:

In 30 years mobile will be totally ingrained in every part of our lives, due to the personal network. What's that? The personal network is a hyperlocal grid where all of our mobile devices connect to each other seamlessly and automatically when in close proximity.

The connection will be so tight that each device becomes an integral part of the others. Everything will talk to the web and that frees us to do whatever we wish with whatever is at hand.

ZDNet's Kevin Tofel (@KevinCTofel) continued on the theme of connectedness:

What happens when everything around us is connected? Context moves from theory to practice. Imagine low-cost embedded processors and wireless connectivity in mundane items such as our beds, chairs, coffee tables and appliances.

When you wake up, your bed could signal your coffee maker so that by the time you reach it, there's a piping hot cup of java waiting for you. Get up from that comfy recliner and walk up the stairs so both device signal the lights in the room you were just in and automatically turn them off. Pull up to your favorite dining establishment and the car signals the wait staff to get your table ready and pre-order your favorite meal.

Where does the smartphone -- that currently ultimate connected device -- fit in? It's no longer central input and needs but is instead a hub of information that brokers your personal preferences between all other things. Perhaps its even gets back to its core and becomes a phone for voice communications since the world around you is tethered together with apps, services, sensors and connectivity on its own.

Wearable biometric sensor networks

Once we're all connected and have personal networks, what can be done with them? According to Alfred Poor (@AlfredPoor), Editor of Health Tech Insider, a lot will change:

In 30 years, people will routinely be "configured" with wearable sensor networks that collect biometric data. These will be powered by energy harvesting, and have self-powered radio transceivers to send and receive data from a smart controller that connects to the Internet.

Funded primarily by employers, insurance companies, and healthcare providers (as opposed to individual consumers), these will eliminate the need for most routine healthcare visits. Instead, those will be replaced by as-needed intervention for health problems that are detected in their earliest stages through cloud-based analytics.

The sensors may be patches applied to the skin, but are more likely to be tiny implants, either below the skin or even deeper within the body. Oh, and autonomous cars will be commonplace and TaaS (Transportation as a Service) will replace private car ownership.

The idea of self-driving cars is interesting, especially as the populace ages. My dad is in his late 80s and can't drive, but doesn't want to be home bound. Self-driving cars could be a boon for seniors needing their freedom, even as their hand-eye coordination deteriorates.

By 2045, Marty Jr. and Marlene McFly may well be IT professionals like most of ZDNet readers, so let's move beyond Hill Valley and look at what the world of IT may be like.

The future of the data center

Just what will the data center be like in 2045? ZDNet's Jason Perlow (@jperlow) looks into his crystal ball:

Intel x86 will likely be long gone in 30 years, we will be likely dealing with a completely different, built from the ground up, born in the cloud architecture designed for massive scale out parallelization of cores, vast amounts of non uniform shared memory and tasks and systems highly optimized for containerized, software-defined multi-tenant environments at the hardware level with massive levels of redundancy built into them.

What we are likely to see in 30 years will be more like the mainframe of the 1970s, in which computing is consumed as a pure commodity, and more so as pre-baked application offerings rather than virtual systems to be administrated or provisioned.

However, in the future hyperscale providers such as AWS and Azure will really make the cloud a true commodity -- to the point where running your own data centers really will be a net negative based on comparable cost and operational efficiency.

Jason also recommends an article where he looked at the future and asked, " What happens if we progress to a culture dominated by augmented reality and lifelogging?" He also took a look at the future of the PC, and declared it to be the cloud.

ZDNet's big data guru is Andrew Brust (@andrewbrust). He takes a look at how we'll be computing inside the data center. The word "quaint" stands out:

30 years from now, today's notion of "big" data will seem quaint at best, and performing analytics will seem about as esoteric and special as turning on the water and washing your hands. Analytics will be de riguer for just about any device, appliance or object. It will be real-time by default and the frequency of data capture will be far higher than it is today.

Because of this, intelligent devices will not only be artificially intelligent, but artificially sentient as well. And while that may -- legitimately -- cause concern, this pervasive analytics phenomenon will also allow the behavior and "ambition" of autonomous devices to be observed, managed, and even learned from.

How to talk about the singularity and look smart doing it


The future of shipping

Ever since I read about a Google patent filed for what was reported to be an at-sea data center, using the ocean's water for cooling, I've been fascinated by the convergence of shipping and data.

As it turns out, we at ZDNet happen to have a naval design expert in our midst. Matthew Miller (@palmsolo), who most of you know as one of our intrepid mobile columnists, is a registered professional engineer with a master's degree from UC Berkeley in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering. So I had to ask. "What's the future of shipping?"

Over 90% of the world's trade is carried by ships on the sea. In 30 years these ships will emit zero emissions as they ply the waters under power of LNG (liquid natural gas), electricity, and other alternative energy sources.

Most accidents today are caused by human error and over the next 30 years we will see a reduction in the number of personnel manning these ships as automation and artificial intelligence perform the duties of the able seaman.

Efficient new hull design will continue to evolve thanks to the improvements in computational fluid dynamics, finite element analysis, and advanced materials development.

Our changing lifestyle

Tristan Louis (@TNLNYC) is an Internet veteran who has co-founded six companies, two of which went public and three which were sold. He shares a number of predictions that help describe how Marty Jr. and Marlene will be living in 2045:

Apps will be gone and the cloud will know enough about us to feed us the information we need when we need it, anticipating our needs even better than we do ourselves.

"Driving" will be seen as the quaint domain of hobbyists, with most moving objects (trucks, cars, trains, planes, drones) managed by AI with human support in some offshore location. The life and death of corporate entities will be more flexible, with funding events happening through rapid crowdsourcing and defuding happening through equally fast crowdattacks.

Computing will be ubiquitous and computers will be tools used by few people while embeded lenses will replace our wearable devices. Home will be serviced by some form of 3D printing device which will distribute most consumer packaged goods on request.

On the security front, water, both in terms of access to clean water and withdrawal from rising tides, will be a major issue, with new technologies being introduced on a regular basis to deal with it. Concerns around retirements will also rise as the first wave of millennials enter retirement and try to find ways to retain a decent lifestyle while managing the demands of the new world.

Phil Shapiro (@philshapiro) is an educator and library aficionado, who has a refreshingly positive and hopeful view of the future, which bodes well for Marty III:

In 30 years, companies will form and dissolve spontaneously to meet social needs with fewer people saying, "I work for this company" and more people saying, "I work on this issue." A blurring between nonprofits and for-profit may also occur as more "for profit" companies take on more of a social mission -- along the lines of today's Benefit Corporations.

Learning will be more autonomous, with schools serving as a guide to learning rather than a learning delivery system. The autodidact will be the norm in 2045 as people will reminisce about the time when students sat in rows in a classroom. Meetups will be replaced with Curiosity Clubs. Teens will not wait until they finish "high school" before taking an active and beneficial role in the economy.

Tom Geller (@tgeller) of Tom Geller Productions sees computational power growing at an incredible rate. On the other hand he also sees some hope for Biff and Griff's seedier version of Hill Valley:

Quantum computing and exaflop-capable supercomputers will be available to everyone. Despite their potential for curing cancer and predicting the weather down to square-meter resolution, they'll mostly be used for the same purposes as other advanced technologies -- gambling and porn.

Wildcard: Massive external events (such as war or natural disaster) could prevent these technological advancements. Gambling and porn, however, remain the constant they've been for 10,000 years.

Microsoft and the future of the PC

I was building PCs back in 1989 and while it's been a while since I've had to build up a tower, the complex home network has become my version of the PC build. I asked ZDNet's own PC doc, Adrian Kingsley-Hughes (@the_pc_doc) for his view of the PC of the future. Will we even have PCs? Here's what he said:

Who, 30 years ago, would have imagined that phones would be transformed into thin slate-like devices and that they would also be computers that connected wirelessly to a Skynet-like distributed computing platform?

But what about the next 30 years? Will the PC as we know it -- the modular box made up of swappable parts -- still exist? I think it will, because as much as we like tablets and laptops and all-in-one systems, the modular PC platform is still one of the cheapest and most cost-effective computer platforms. It's cheap to build, cheap to customize, and cheap to repair. I don't see that changing anytime soon.

As Doc said, the future hasn't been written yet, so let's make it a good one!

Where there are PCs, there has to be Microsoft. I asked our two towering Microsoft experts, Ed Bott and Mary-Jo Foley to share their views of the future. Here's what Ed (@edbott) had to say:

In 30 years, Bill Gates will be celebrating his 90th birthday. I expect he'll look back on his predictions from the previous century and be able to say "I was right."

Gates' goal was "information at your fingertips." We are well on our way to living that dream today, and it's reasonable to expect that the cloud will rule global work and life in 2045. Given Microsoft's heavy investments in cloud computing to date, and it's technological edge, I suspect we'll still be connecting to Microsoft cloud services then. How we'll be making those connections is anyone's bet, though.

Mary-Jo Foley (@maryjofoley) provides us with a fitting end to our entire visit back to the future:

Microsoft's third CEO, Satya Nadella, got his wish: "Natural" user interfaces took over the world, including the Redmondians themselves. Computing "devices" are just chips embedded in all things and people. Apps are dead, replaced by ambient, machine-learning fueled services.

The Microsoft of 2045 has swallowed up all the "legacy" tech hardware and software companies that barely hung on through the Chromebook and iPhone years. The cabal has circled its driverless wagons around the Redmond headquarters.

Cortana's grandaughter, Anatroc, was just annointed as the CEO of Microsoft. Her mission: To finally complete the Borg's goal of eradicating all ancient productivity tools, like mice, keyboards and SharePoint. But a small rogue faction, the Notepad Gang, have holed up in Building 7 on the MS campus, and continue to push the boundaries of what's technically possible without touch, voice and computer vision.

It's a bleak time for those who think differently. But there are still a few who believe ink-filled pens are mightier than the stylus swords.

And with that, we say goodbye to the McFly kids, to Marty and Jennifer, to Doc Brown, and even the Tannens. The future is certainly not as the producers of Back to the Future envisioned it. The only thing that's certain is some of the predictions in this article are bound to be wrong.

Even so, looking back at the time since 1985, looking at the incredible innovation in our industry in the last 30 years, the future has promise. Sure, we're facing challenges of cybersecurity and privacy, ecology and the economy, but if there is any sure thing, it's the innovative spirit of humanity.

Happy Back to the Future Day!

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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