Original Blade Runner vs. today's tech: Is the film's 2019 future here?

The original Blade Runner presented a nightmarish techno-world of androids, flying cars and mood organs. Here's how the movie stacks up to real life.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
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In 1982, Ridley Scott's Blade Runner created a dystopian template for science fiction that still influences films and TV shows 37 years later. Now that we're living in 2019, when the iconic film was set, let's see how our present measures up to the bleak imagined future of the film and the Philip K. Dick novel that inspired it.

Andys and replicants


Ryan Gosling and Harrison Ford dream of electric sheep in Blade Runner 2049.

Frank Ockenfels

At the heart of Blade Runner and Dick's 1968 story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? are bioengineered androids, known as "andys" in the book and "replicants" in the movie.

Attempts to come up with lifelike robots have taken us into the uncanny valley to meet the slightly off-putting likes of eerie "robot goddess" Jia Jia or a humanoid bot that looks like Albert Einstein. But even with their malleable skin and carefully programmed facial expressions, they can't fool our instinctive recognition of real faces the way andys and replicants can.

The super-advanced androids and replicants of Blade Runner, of course, do have their limits. They can't feel empathy. Similarly, no matter how clever today's robots get at voice or facial recognition or how precisely they learn to mimic us, the vast array of nuanced human emotions is simply too complex and nuanced for machines to understand -- yet.  

Artificial intelligence

The prospect of equipping robots with their own artificial intelligence is one that worries a lot of people, with  Elon Musk   and the late  Stephen Hawking among the experts who've warned of the dangers of unchecked AI. They've especially expressed concern about the evolution of military drones , which could one day lead to the superstrong and implacably ruthless replicant soldiers of Blade Runner.

Pris With Broken Doll

Daryl Hannah plays the replicant Pris in a scene from Blade Runner.

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Aside from the technicalities, there are serious ethical questions raised by the prospect of machines with their own consciousness. Dick explicitly linked the use of androids to slavery, while the description of a female replicant as "a basic pleasure model" raises questions of consent.

If artificial intelligence and engineering or bioengineering advance enough to create conscious, intelligent androids, will we have the right to force them to satisfy our desires? This question has long been a staple of speculative fiction, but it's becoming a real concern as sex robots are already with us, and today's lifelike RealDoll sex robots come with programmable personalities. Experts also worry about the effect of sex robots on the human portion of society, because female-styled sex robots could encourage the idea that women are objects for the fulfillment of male fantasies. 

Watch this: Touring a factory where sexbots come alive

Flying cars

The cops of Blade Runner get around in flying cars called spinners. In the real world, self-driving cars are increasingly looking likely to be the next generation of transport thanks to Google and other manufacturers. But some firms are already looking to flying vehicles. One of the wackiest attempts at a flying car is the Airbus Pop.Up, a carbon fiber two-seater concept that attaches to a drone to carry the capsule into the skies.

Ride-sharing behemoth Uber has proposed a flying taxi scheme called Uber Elevate and even unveiled a flying-taxi prototype. Uber reckons electric-powered vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft could operate using the air traffic control systems that already exist to marshal helicopters above cities, and the firm has put its money where its mouth is by partnering with the local governments of Dallas and Dubai to research the idea. Environmental and safety concerns still need to be addressed -- and we'd have to build a bunch of landing pads -- but Uber reckons it could start testing flying cars by 2020. 

Airbus Pop.Up drone car concept is like nothing else... anywhere

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Video phones and voice commands

Infamously, many of the real-life brands seen in Blade Runner, including Atari and Pan Am, didn't survive into the real future. And like much 20th-century sci-fi, the film didn't see the digital information age coming.

Instead of a smartphone, Deckard uses a phone booth to keep in touch -- but at least it's a video call. Video calling has long been a staple of sci-fi, but it's only recently that Skype and FaceTime have become popular on a wide scale as data networks become fast and sturdy enough to cope with the traffic.

Computers don't seem as ubiquitous in Blade Runner as they are in reality, but they are voice-controlled, like the new generation of voice-activated personal assistants Siri, Alexa and Cortana. Elevators require a voice print, while Deckard's boss has a bank of microphones on his desk, for some reason. Deckard also chats with his picture-analyzing machine to "zoom" and "enhance" a printed photo.

Scorched earth

One of the main themes of the book is that humanity has left the ravaged Earth behind. While the book attributes the ruined state of the stricken planet to war, the film's flame-belching industrial landscape and perpetual smog points toward the toll we've taken on our atmosphere.

Spinner Takes Off

A "spinner" flying car takes off in Blade Runner.

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Whatever the cause of these climate changes, the world of the future sees animals all but wiped out, necessitating the creation of synthetic animals -- the "electric sheep" of the book's title. Sadly, this isn't purely science fiction: the World Wildlife Fund calculates that the planet's animal population has plunged by 60 percent since 1970 due to human activity.

Off-world travel

With the earth ailing, humans in the Los Angeles of Blade Runner are offered "the chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure": space. We're still too far from cracking the problem of faster-than-light travel that would allow us to establish colonies on other worlds, but we are heading toward commercial space flight thanks to Elon Musk's SpaceX and Richard Branson 's Virgin Galactic, which last month completed a historic test flight of its rocket-powered SpaceShipTwo, marking a major milestone in the commercial space tourism race.

Sadly, in Blade Runner, we take our worst tendencies with us. War breaks out among the stars, as poetically described by replicant Roy Batty in the film. And the book makes it explicit that everyone opting to blast off from Earth gets their very own android slave.

On the Set of "Blade Runner"

Joanna Cassidy as the replicant Zhora with her snake -- a robot holding a robot.

Sunset Boulevard

In real life, even if humans haven't traveled beyond the moon, robots are venturing much further. The Voyager 1 space probe has journeyed beyond our galaxy, while robotic rovers have explored the surface of Mars and the Rosetta probe even landed on a speeding asteroid. 

Mood organ

The book opens with Rick Deckard and his wife arguing over this mood-altering device. Dick doesn't describe the design of the mood organ or how it works, only specifying that it can stimulate or sedate the user's cerebral cortex. Users simply dial up the emotion they want, such as 481 (awareness of the manifold possibilities open in the future) or 594 (pleased acknowledgement of a spouse's superior wisdom).

In the real world, a process called deep brain stimulation uses a surgically implanted, battery-operated medical device to control physical symptoms of the effects of conditions like Parkinson's such as tremor, stiffness and slowed movement. Meanwhile, a wearable device called Thync attaches to your forehead and juices your cranial nerves with electricity to either relax you or stimulate you into a state of heightened alertness.

Tech millionaire Musk, always one to think big, is backing research into "neural lace" technology, which would implant electrodes into our brains to potentially treat mental health issues -- and allow you to communicate with others "telepathically." He recently claimed an announcement was coming as soon as a few months down the road.

While we wait for this advance, you can boost your concentration simply by listening to music that syncs with your brainwaves.


Blade Runner 2049 continues the themes of the classic novel and original movie.

Frank Ockenfels

Even without these kind of hacks, chances are technology is already affecting your emotions. Where Deckard reaches for the mood organ as soon as he wakes up, many of us reach for our smartphones. Yet studies reveal social media is addictive, and can lead to anxiety and isolation. Being subjected to abuse online triggers your fight-or-flight instinct, which over time can lead to sleep problems, weight gain, digestive difficulty and anxiety.

The things I've seen with your eyes

Blade Runner 2049, the sequel to Blade Runner, also tackles many of these technological questions. Set 30 years after the original film, the story of a new Blade Runner played by Ryan Gosling takes place in a continuation of the Blade Runner universe, devoid of modern advances such as smartphones and the internet, rather than in an imagined version of our future. But it does draw on contemporary concerns like climate change and the information age, coming full circle to some of the themes of the novel. 

First published, Oct. 6, 2017.
Update Jan. 2, 2019:  Adjusted to indicate we're now in the year the original Blade Runner was set.

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