Blade Runner: What Future Tech Did the Sci-Fi Classic Get Right -- and Wrong?
Ryan Gosling as Officer K in Warner Bros. "Blade Runner 2049"

Few science fiction worlds have imprinted on fans quite like Ridley Scott's 1982 film "Blade Runner," which is set in a dystopian 2019 Los Angeles and tells the story of ex-cop Rick Deckard (played by Harrison Ford), whose job as a "blade runner" tasks him with hunting down four rogue replicants, or bioengineered androids, who have escaped an off-world colony and have returned to earth in search of immortality. 

Blade Runner's legacy is set to continue in the sequel "Blade Runner 2049," due out in theaters on Friday. Blade Runner 2049 is set 30 years after the original and follows Officer K, a blade runner who is "retiring" outdated replicant models. 

The original Blade Runner has become iconic, in part, because of its emotive landscapes, filled with cyberpunk skyscrapers, rain-soaked neon lights and grungy, smoky streets that have been taken over by a visibly decaying urban sprawl. Scott's depiction of 2019 Los Angeles isn't just visually striking, it also feels like it could be real, like a glimpse into a future that's not all that far off. 

In that future, humans have charged head first into a world where technology has taken over society (even with the absence of iPhones). Flying cars are the preferred mode of transportation and artificial intelligence has spiraled out of control, making humans nearly indistinguishable from robots.

A hover car, called a Spinner vehicle, zips through Los Angeles in the 1982 version of "Blade Runner"
A hover car, called a Spinner vehicle, zips through Los Angeles in the 1982 version of "Blade Runner"

But how much of the technology predicted in the original Blade Runner has actually come true? 

According to futurists, we haven't quite reached a Blade Runner society just yet, but we're getting closer. Tesla's (TSLA)  self-driving cars could be a pit stop on the way to flying cars, while androids are taking shape through Alphabet (GOOGL) and Amazon's (AMZN) voice-activated assistants, as well as through other means. 

"We're already at the brink of an era that the movie Blade Runner actually points toward: The existential conflict between AI and android evolution and our evolution as humans," said global futurist Dr. James Canton, who worked at Apple Inc. (AAPL)  in the 1980s on the first Macintosh computer and has served as a lead futurist for Disney (DIS) on films such as "The Incredibles" and "Meet the Robinsons." "So, in that sense, it may be the most provocative film -- not just science fiction film -- that we've seen in a very long time." 

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Replicants are far from being a reality, but, in recent years, technology companies have developed a growing interest in creating humanoid robots. Honda's Asimo robot, first created in 2000, represents one of the first major attempts at creating a humanoid. Asimo, which stands for Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility, looks more like a stereotypical robot, but it can do basic human tasks such as run and jump, as well as speak sign language.

Meanwhile, SoftBank's (SFTBY) robot, named Pepper, has a more human-like, friendly face, but it can't do much beyond make gestures and roll around on the floor. Others, like Erica, a humanoid robot developed by Japan's Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute International, look like humans, but can't walk independently.

Blade Runner imagines a society where androids have crossed the so-called uncanny valley (the idea that something appears almost, but not quite human), are lifelike to the touch and also sentient organisms. The androids are so convincingly real that humans have anxiety about them becoming smarter than us.

Futurist and entrepreneur Nova Spivack believes that Blade Runner was about 100 years too early in predicting that human-like robots would exist in 2019.

"I think the time frame for making real progress on those [robots] is probably in the scale of centuries of time, not decades of time," Spivack explained. "We're a lot like 18th century European monarchs playing with our simple clocks that are just a bunch of gears. Our robots right now are basically just fancy clocks."

SoftBank's humanoid robot, Pepper
SoftBank's humanoid robot, Pepper

He's equally skeptical about our progress on artificial intelligence. That's in stark contrast to people like Tesla (TSLA) CEO Elon Musk, who have repeatedly warned that unchecked AI constitutes the greatest threat to human existence. Others, such as Facebook Inc. (FB) CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft (MSFT) CEO Satya Nadella have been more optimistic about its possibilities.

In the place of artificial intelligence, we have what Spivack calls "artificial stupidity," which makes robots do the "stupid things" humans don't want to do, such as vacuuming your house.

"It's not language, creativity, imagination, or emotion. Even things like Siri, Google Assistant -- they're not intelligent, they just know pattern recognition," he added. "If you wanted to make something like the replicants in Blade Runner, you'd need much higher forms of artificial intelligence than we can create in any lab."

Canton disagreed, however, saying that we already have sophisticated machines, such as IBM's (IBM) Watson, that have already demonstrated skills superior to humans (and not just in a game of Jeopardy, but in things such as breakthrough cancer research). We don't have walking, talking robots, Canton said, but we do have intelligent, cloud-based AIs that might be more comparable to The Terminator's SkyNet, which became smarter and smarter until it developed its on autonomous sense of self.

"So we don't have the Blade Runner reality, but you just have to look at it a bit differently," Canton explained. "It's the hardware and the personality pieces that are missing."

Amazon's Echo smart speaker can tell you the weather, but it's not smart enough to overthrow the human race (not yet, at least)
Amazon's Echo smart speaker can tell you the weather, but it's not smart enough to overthrow the human race (not yet, at least)

We may still be in the robot Dark Ages for now, but Canton believes there will soon be a future when humans have relationships with machines. In Blade Runner 2049, there are romantic relationships between androids and humans, as well as between humans and holograms. With things such as "love dolls" already out there, Canton predicts that such diverse kinds of relationships will become socially acceptable before 2049. 

But what about flying cars? Both futurists agreed that we're much closer to that becoming a reality. 

Every few years, Silicon Valley innovators come out with flying car prototypes, including Google founder Larry Page's moonshot effort Kitty Hawk, which claims to be releasing its flying car by year's end. This points to flying vehicles being available in our lifetime, though, they probably won't look as cool as the hover cars in Blade Runner.

The "Richard Bransons of the world" will most likely be the first adopters before the technology becomes ubiquitous, Spivack said. 

"We're simply running out of space on the road," Spivack noted. "We're going to have to move in three dimensions to make the world less congested."

There is one major way that our future could diverge from Blade Runner, however. At some points, Spivack said Blade Runner's Los Angeles seems to be stuck between a mix of old and new, as if the technological revolution caught everyone by surprise. 

"That's not what's happening right now," Spivack said. "It's probably more likely that a city in which Blade Runner would happen will look more like the Jetsons than Detroit."

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Editors' pick: Originally published Oct. 5.

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