It’s November 2019 and there’s already a glut of articles attempting to compare our present to the future predicted by Blade Runner.
Many of these articles miss a trick by just ticking off the innovations we are using, and scoff and tut at the ones that never arrived. Instead, it’s much more useful to employ Blade Runner’s setting to calibrate our understanding of how we make predictions about the future in the first instance.
The truth is that Blade Runner shows us the future is more than guesswork and wishful thinking. It’s actually a recombination and fusing of the technology that exists in the present day. In their seminal work, The Second Machine Age, Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee give a name to this process: Recombinant Innovation. It is the idea that is rare that innovations land, fully formed, without us being able to see their antecedents, the prototypes and the failures. Rather, before we see the finished product, we often see the separate elements of an innovation previously employed elsewhere in different roles.
When we look at the world of Blade Runner, we can also see that same recombinant innovation at work. In our real-world 2019, we can already see the separate building blocks of Blade Runner’s future tech. Today it’s employed individually and in isolation, waiting inevitably to combine into something wonderful tomorrow. Some quick examples:
Whilst we don't have fully sentient holograms like Joi (I know that features in the sequel, but just go with it) we do see its constituent parts around us now:
Musion 3D is already in the hologram space, bringing back celebrities from beyond the grave. Soul Machines are able to create virtual personalities and avatars, using advanced AI software. Synthesia and Lyrebird are facial and vocal manipulation tools that enable any face to say any sentence in any way. Imagine these technologies joined hands and intermingled. Sentient holographic avatars could be a reality.
Then there’s flying cars. Whilst we don’t yet have Blade Runner’s ‘Spinner’, we do see increased investment in drone technology from e-hang and even Porsche and Boeing. With 1 million auto deaths on the roads every year worldwide, flying cars will only become viable the moment that drone hardware converges with driverless AI software used by Google and Tesla.
Think about the replicants of Blade Runner. Many mistakenly assume they are androids, made of machine and metal like the Terminator. In fact they are genetically engineered humans. In our 2019 reality this may seem a long way off but, again, actually the building blocks are already there. Nearly 25 years ago, we met Dolly the Sheep, the first animal clone. Recently, the development of CRISPR tech allows the nip and tuck of DNA sequences to delete life threatening conditions. Even more recently, and controversially, we’ve seen a Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, admit to altering the genomes of two twin girls by engineers mutations to their embryos.
We also have the world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, piling investment into health and bio-tech, and backing Unity Health, a start-up dedicated to increasing human longevity. Our own real-life Elden Tyrell. Separate elements of the replicants are with us today, moving towards a slow coalescence. Someone will put them together, soon.
Blade Runner might not have got everything right, but what it did predict was the way everyday innovations would fuse together to give rise to new forms of innovation.
In short, predicting the future is not about guesswork. It’s about realising what technologies exist today that are destined to meet, fall in love, and give birth to something special. Very much like [spoiler alert] the twist in Blade Runner 2049’s tail.
So if you want to predict the future here’s what you do:
Don’t start by looking at where we are now and fast-forwarding an imaginary tape.
If you want to predict the future, start by joining the dots.