Economy

4 Scary Futuristic Predictions That Are Coming True Today

August 1st 2016

By:
Adeshina Emmanuel

Predictions of wondrous advances in science and technology fill sci-fi novels, cinema, and art and capture the imaginations of futurists and dreamers. Things like time travel, human teleportation, and personal force fields are long shots to exist, but you'd be surprised how many ways "the future is today," as scientist William Osler said in 1913.

Here are four things from science fiction that have come true today.

1. Soylent

A common trope in sci-fi stories about the future is food in the form of bland, highly nutritious pills or goop. Such food results from overpopulation, dwindling resources, global hunger, and food shortages, most famously depicted in the 1973 movie "Soylent Green." The population in that movie subsists on rations of processed food created by the Soylent company. (Spoiler: "Soylent Green is people!")

There's now a real-life Soylent, a mixture of soy protein, fatty acids derived from algae, modified food starch, and other ingredients (no people). It's meant to provide the fats, proteins, fiber, and carbohydrates that make up a healthy diet. It comes in bottles in the form of a white, bland-tasting liquid. Software developer Rob Rhinehart created Soylent in 2013 as a substitute for regular food. Its nutritional claims have been disputed, but that hasn't stopped the product from finding adherents.

Vice writer Michael Merchant ate nothing but Soylent for 30 days. As his body adjusted to the new diet, he reported some unease for the first few days. But by the end of the experiment, Merchant reported that he was relatively healthy and had become accustomed to not eating real food. Merchant added that he missed the social aspect of sharing meals with other humans, not to mention the pleasure from indulging in unhealthy food. Following his Soylent experiment, he described feeling "euphoric" after getting his first bite of fried chicken:

"I felt the endorphins rushing through my body, the gob of chicken skin wandering down my esophagus, the juices staining my chin. ... The chicken was sublime. Before long, I might as well have been stoned. For a half an hour, I sat there, overwhelmed, unaware of any foodless world outside my brain. For a few minutes, the future didn’t matter. ... The food anchored me to the glorious present, and eating was all."

2. Lab-grown meat

Man cutting meat on a table.

Here's a question for my vegetarians out there: Would you eat meat if it didn't come from an animal?

A restaurant in the Netherlands called Bistro in Vitro touts itself as "the world's first lab-grown meat restaurant." Here's a brief explanation from futurefood.org.:

"The idea: To produce animal meat, but without using an animal. Starting cells are taken painlessly from live animals, they are put into a culture media where they start to proliferate and grow, independently from the animal. Theoretically, this process would be efficient enough to supply the global demand for meat. All this would happen without any genetic manipulation; i.e., without the need to interfere with the cells’ genetic sequence. Producing cultured meat for processed meat products — such as sausages, burgers, and nuggets — should be comparatively simple, whereas cultured meat which should be more highly structured, such as for an in vitro steak, is considerably more of a challenge. A steak is made of muscle tissuem which is threaded through with extremely long, fine capillaries which transport blood and nutrients directly to the cells. It is much more difficult to reproduce such a complex structure than it is to put together the small balls of cells which grow to larger balls of cells which in turn become in vitro chicken nuggets."

Yummy!

In a 1931 essay "Fifty Years Hence," Winston Churchill foresaw all of this, arguing that society would "escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium." The famous British prime minister was likely inspired by scientist Alexis Carrel, who had kept alive a cultured wad of heart tissue from a chicken for years, according to NPR.

Carrel also inspired sci-fi author Frederick Pohl, whose 1952 novel "The Space Merchants" featured in vitro meat that is "the starter ingredient for an ever-growing lumpen food source known affectionately as Chicken Little," NPR reported.

3. Lab-grown body parts

The term "body shop" doesn't just refer to cars anymore.

The Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine said it is "working to engineer more than 30 different replacement tissues and organs and to develop healing cell therapies — all with the goal to cure, rather than merely treat, disease," according to the institute's website. Smithsonian Magazine documented the institute's work in 2010:

"Anthony Atala works in the body shop of the future. He is the director of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and he and his colleagues use human cells to grow muscles, blood vessels, skin, and even a complete urinary bladder. ... Atala and co-workers make replacement parts out of patients' own raw materials. To produce a bladder, they remove a small piece of a patient’s organ and separate out muscle cells and urothelial cells, which line the urinary tract. They put the cells into lab dishes and bathe each type in a fluid that prompts them to multiply. After six weeks, there are enough living cells for an entire bladder. The researchers then pour the muscle cells onto the outside of a scaffold made of collagen, the protein in connective tissue, and polyglycolic acid, a material used in absorbable sutures. Two days later, they coat the inside of the scaffold with urothelial cells. The new bladder is nurtured in an incubator that mimics body conditions, allowing the cells to grow and knit together. The bladder is then implanted into a patient, where the scaffold gradually dissolves."

The institute has more recently experimented with a 3D "bioprinter."

4. Sex bots

In the 1982 sci-fi movie "Blade Runner," Daryl Hannah plays a "replicant" named Pris, a "basic pleasure model" and one in a long line of artificial people designed for sex in science fiction (mostly written by men).

Sex dolls exist in real life, though they're mostly inanimate. You can pay upwards of $5,000 for a silicone RealDoll, a "realistic" sex doll sold by tech entrepreneur Matt McMullen's Abyss Creations. But McMullen has his eyes on something more ambitious, even by Silicon Valley standards, Fusion reported: An actual sex robot.

"He’s trying to animate his dolls, by applying the latest principles in artificial intelligence and machine to their lifeless silicone forms. Ultimately, he wants these dolls to have customizable personalities, and to be able to talk to their owners, in romantic and entertaining ways. He’s trying to build robots capable of being loved by humans, not just having sex with them."

Creeped out yet?

There is still plenty of distance between today’s artificial intelligence capabilities and the sci-fi fantasy of McMullen's talking, emoting robot lover. If McMullen succeeds, his AI-enhanced RealDolls could transform the way you live and love, if you're into that sort of thing.

"Sex tech" has been advancing rapidly, and "robotic, interactive, motion-sensing technology is likely to become more and more central to the sex industry in the next few years," Helen Driscoll of the University of Sunderland told the British tabloid The Mirror earlier this year.

Artificial intelligence expert David Levy predicted that folks will be having sex with real robots around the 2040s. "By then, he says, robots will be so hot, human-like and mind-blowing under the sheets that a lot of people will find them sexually enjoyable," The Huffington Post reported. "What’s more, Levy believes they will be able to engage and communicate with people in a meaningful, emotional way." Shy guys like Levy's student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — who prefers to hang out with computers instead of women and doesn't have "this sex thing" figured out — "won’t need to worry about real girls if they don’t want to," Levy told The Huffington Post.

Needless to say, this raises a lot of issues.

"At last, a cure for feminism: sex robots," Deborah Orr quipped in a piece for The Guardian last month:

"It’s not overly optimistic to believe that the argument that women have complete autonomy over their own bodies is getting through. But this development? Automated bodies, designed to look and feel like women — it feels like an enormous refutation. 'What? We are expected to see you as complete human beings, with your own minds and thoughts and choices? We aren't having that. We have the technology to refuse this abomination.'"