In some ways we have outrun Blade Runner
When the original Blade Runner movie was screened in 1982, it went almost unnoticed. But the Ridley Scott adaptation of a Philip K Dick novel quickly became a cult favourite, and then acknowledged as a seminal vision of our future urban landscape.
That being the case, why are we not yet living in that future? This was the standard question asked at the Cisco Live conference in Barcelona this week, but the answer was somewhat surprising.
"We should have humanoid, lifelike robots among us. Instead, we have Sophia the robot, who is not exactly lifelike and quite creepy," said Jeremy Bevan, Cisco vice-president of marketing for Europe, Middle East, Africa and Russia, during the opening keynote address. "We should be seduced by digital billboards everywhere. Maybe we do have that in Times Square and some shopping malls. Maybe soon, as in Blade Runner, we'll have giant ads that say you can start a new life on a different planet."
Yet, said Bevan, in some ways we have gone far beyond the Blade Runner vision. For example, talking to our computers is now standard. Going into a phone booth to make a video call is downright old-fashioned, as the technology for video calls is now available wherever we are.
"Films are a reflection of how things are today and how they might progress; what could be possible. The connection between what we do and what is possible is imagination. It is the most important thing we have to make our lives better, from the smallest things in our personal lives to the way we transform businesses. All the way through to things that can solve some of the world's biggest challenges. Technology is truly an enabler of our imagination."
Rather than offering movie visions to prove his point, however, he presented the case study of the largest port in Europe, that of Rotterdam, which handles 130,000 ships a year.
Already, the complexity of combining shipping logistics with weather and other data is a massively complex challenge. Using Internet of Things technology and data services supplied by Cisco and IBM, the port can now predict precise conditions hours in advance.
In the next six years, Rotterdam expects to welcome its first autonomous ships - self-steering and self-navigating vessels. By 2030, it plans for a combination of the Internet of Things, data analytics and cloud computing to make it possible for completely automated handling of these ships, from docking to unloading and loading, without direct human intervention.
Considering that about 85% of globally traded goods travel by ship, the project will point the way to more efficient and more cost-effective international trade.
It is also a vision that goes beyond Blade Runner in imagining a more sustainable and environmentally cleaner future. Ultimately, said Bevan, it will enhance quality of life.
"You might think the stories we share are about technology to solve big problems, but it's also about people's lives that are transformed," he said, insisting that such projects underpin Cisco's vision of "technology for good".
If he is right, our descendants may never need those Blade Runner ads for finding a better life off-planet.
Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee