15 sci-fi technologies that are (almost) here

Science fiction has a rich history of predicting the future. In some cases, the future is now

Science vs. fiction: 15 sci-fi technologies that are (almost) here
Credit: Johan Swanepoel
Science vs. fiction: 15 sci-fi technologies that are (almost) here

Classic science fiction examines social or scientific issues by projecting them forward to a kind of notional event horizon. As society and technology advance, the line between science and fiction grows thinner every year. We take a look at 15 classic sci-fi tech ideas and the scientific and technological efforts to make them a reality -- some of which have already succeeded.

Energy weapons
Credit: John Williams/U.S. Navy
Energy weapons

The old, reliable laser pistol is a staple of sci-fi storytelling, particularly in the pulpy adventures of the Golden Age of Science Fiction -- think Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, those guys. As a motif, the laser pistol or raygun is actually a direct descendant of the Old West sidearm, as many Golden Age stories were essentially written as Westerns in space. Rayguns are basically particle beam weapons, a subtype of directed-energy weapons, which also include sonic and microwave weapons. Laser pistols are still on the fiction end of science fiction, but the U.S. Navy is set to install its new Laser Weapons System on ships in the Persian Gulf to battle enemy drones and ships.

Stealth suits
Credit: Adam Harvey/ahprojects.com
Stealth suits

In William Gibson's seminal cyber punk novel "Neuromancer," radical activists use futuristic stealth suits of "mimetic polycarbon" to become virtually invisible. In our current age of NSA scandals and surveillance state concerns, this seems like an idea whose time as come. So it has: Designer Adam Harvey has developed a line of stealthwear designed to protect the wearer from modern surveillance technologies. The apparel line includes hoodies that use reflective fabric to block thermal imaging, along with accessories designed to thwart cameras and facial recognition software. We'll just assume the NSA has flagged this paragraph already: Hi, guys!

Lightsabers
Credit: Lucasfilm
Lightsabers

In a news item that made headlines around the world last September, researchers at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced they had invented the lightsaber -- kind of. What they actually did was create an environment in which photons bond together like molecules, creating a sort of solid light. "It's not an inapt analogy to compare this to lightsabers," said lead researcher Mikhail Lukin. "When these photons interact with each other, they're pushing against and deflecting each other. The physics of what's happening in these molecules is similar to what we see in the movies."

Psi phenomena
Credit: 20th Century Fox
Psi phenomena

Psi phenomena -- a catch-all term for the likes of clairvoyance, psychokinesis, telepathy, precognition -- is a recurring trope in science fiction, often paired with futuristic technology. In "The X-Men" comics, for instance, Professor Xavier uses his Cerebro machine to amplify his innate telepathic powers. The study of psi phenomena is ongoing, though it's a controversial field in academic circles. John Kruth of the Rhine Research Center is currently working on a project to empirically measure the biophotons emitted by those who claim to focus energy through their bodies -- yogic practitioners, holistic healers or martial artists. His latest results, "Electromagnetic Emission From Humans During Focused Intent," were recently published in Journal of Parapsychology.

Exoskeletons
Credit: Cyberdyne
Exoskeletons

The powered exoskeleton has been a go-to special effect in science-fiction films from "Aliens" to "Avatar." And it's one area of technology where the science and the fiction aren't too far apart. Several exoskeleton systems are already in use or in active development in the United States, Europe, and Asia. Many are designed for medical use aiding the disabled, and some have emergency response or military applications. Several companies, including Panasonic, have consumer exoskeleton models in the works, and the robotics company Cyberdyne -- that's right, Cyberdyne -- recently started hospital trials of its HAL 5 full-body exoskeleton.

Cryonics
Credit: New Line Cinema
Cryonics

One of science fiction's oldest ideas is the concept of putting a human body -- or just the head -- into deep freeze for later thawing. In many early sci-fi stories, suspended animation was used as a poor man's time travel, with frozen adventurers waking up in future worlds. It's such a common trope, in fact, that it's been relentlessly parodied in film ("Austin Powers") and TV ("Futurama"). But the technology is plenty real: Cryonics typically refers to the field of cryogenic preservation of human beings. Baseball legend Ted Williams is probably the most famous guy in deep freeze -- just his head, actually -- and there are several commercial cryonic suspension facilities in the United States.

Needleguns
Credit: Remigiusz Wilk/Wikimedia Commons
Needleguns

The needlegun, sometimes called a flechette gun, pops up in a surprising number of science-fictions books, from Asimov to Zelazny. What's surprising is that this particular sci-fi technology dates all the way back to the 14th century. Needleguns fire small darts or flechettes, rather than bullets, and some of the first portable handheld cannons used iron darts. Needleguns have a few advantages -- low recoil and high rate of fire -- but lack the ballistic power of traditional ammunition. Weapons company Sandia National Laboratories recently demoed a flechette gun with self-guiding darts and a range of two kilometers.

FTL (faster-than-light) travel
Credit: Paramount Pictures
FTL (faster-than-light) travel

In science fiction's two marquee franchises -- the stars, both "Wars" and "Trek" -- the concept of faster-than-light travel is central to each fictional universe. In fact, the warp drive on the U.S.S. Enterprise may be the single most famous engine in history. FTL travel isn't a reality yet, of course, but there are some intriguing blueprints on the table. In 1994, Mexican theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre proposed a kind of warp drive engine that, mathematically, is valid within Einstein's general theory of relativity. More recently, Richard Obousy of Icarus Interstellar proposed a warpship design that would run on the universe's "dark energy."

Deflector shields
Credit: Flickr/pasukaru76
Deflector shields

Another familiar trope in both the "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" universes, deflector shields are forever being powered up to ward off pesky Klingons, TIE fighters, what-have-you. NASA has done some research toward using plasma-based force fields to protect spacecraft in orbit from radiation, and more recently, Portuguese scientists have proposed a deflector shield made of plasma contained in a magnetic field. The inspiration for the Portuguese plan? Earth's own magnetic field, which acts as a giant deflector shield, diverting charged particles from the Sun that would otherwise fry the planet. At 3.45 billion years, Earth's built-in deflector shield is the oldest example of sci-fi reality on the list.

Space stations
Credit: Sony Pictures
Space stations

One of the most iconic creations in all of science fiction is the giant space station in Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." The recent Matt Damon sci-fi freakout "Elysium" featured a variation on the theme, a giant orbital structure that serves as the ultimate gated community for Earth's upper class. Both designs are akin to the Stanford Torus model, developed by NASA in the 1970s, which uses centrifugal force to produce artificial gravity and mirrors to redirect sunlight. In 1998, one of science fiction's most enduring fictional technologies became reality with the launch of the International Space Station.

Cybernetic implants
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Cybernetic implants

Cybernetic implants have been a staple in science fiction for decades, and in real life for almost as long. Several medical devices -- computerized prosthetics, cochlear implants, and pacemakers, for instance -- can be technically termed cybernetic. And some cybernetic weapons systems are already in use, depending on how you define your terms in regard to man-machine interface. Helmet-mounted display technology, for instance, augments eyesight for pilots and soldiers. In August of last year, Advanced Bionics received regulatory approval for its Naida CI system, an implant that connects signals from Bluetooth-enabled devices directly to the auditory nerve -- all electronically, with no actual sound generated.

Digital mind transfer
Credit: Flickr/Cea
Digital mind transfer

The idea of digitizing a human consciousness is a common theme in both the sci-fi subgenre of cyber punk and the transhumanist school of thought. The gist: Copy the brain -- on the molecular level -- to a sufficiently advanced computer system, and you'll have a potentially immortal brain, without the troublesome mortal body. Richard K. Morgan's 2002 novel "Altered Carbon" imagines a future in which people are regularly digitized, transmitted to other planets, then decanted into new bodies. The upcoming Johnny Depp film "Transcendence" deals directly with the issue of mind uploading. Scientists have developed limited artificial neural networks based on insects and rodents, and several research groups are dedicated to advancing the cause of digital immortality.

Wrist-mounted computers
Credit: Sony
Wrist-mounted computers

Another classic sci-fi gadget from the pulp magazine days, the wrist-mounted computer must have seemed totally implausible to readers 50 years ago, when computers were the size of Buicks. The fiction is now, of course, established science. Wearable computers in various forms have been around for a couple decades, and wrist-mounted displays have long been in use in military and certain industrial capacities. The latest iteration of the wrist-mounted computer -- the smart watch -- is aiming for the consumer market with high-profile rollouts from heavyweights like Sony and Samsung. The 2014 Consumer Electronics Show had an entire section dedicated to smart watches.

Jet packs
Credit: National Air and Space Museum
Jet packs

George Jetson had one, as did James Bond, Boba Fett, and Gilligan. The jet pack's roots in sci-fi culture stretch to the 1920s. Typically worn on the back, jet packs are powered by compressed gases or sometimes water, and they can achieve low-altitude flights of short duration. The first successful prototypes were tested in the late 1950s, using compressed nitrogen. The Bell Rocket Belt, developed in the 1960s, is one of the earliest operable jet packs -- a model is on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. A few small operations maintain jet pack systems for air shows and stunt performances, but affordability and safety concerns have stymied the dream of personal jet pack.

Arcologies
Credit: Flickr/Forgemind ArchiMedia
Arcologies

Many far-future science-fiction stories feature the concept of arcologies -- gigantic megacities or self-sustaining superstructures designed to accommodate high-density populations. It's a common trope in dystopian cyber punk fiction, where the future is usually very crowded indeed. Arcology design principles -- the word is a portmanteau of "architecture" and "ecology" -- can be seen in city planning initiatives all over the world. For instance, Montreal's Underground City (La Ville Souterraine) has more than 20 miles of tunnels connecting apartments, hotels, offices, and shops. In 1970, architect Paolo Soleri founded Arcosanti, an "urban laboratory" in central Arizona designed as an ongoing experiment in arcology principles.