Don't panic! 'Hitchhiker's Guide' tech jumps off the page into reality

As Douglas Adams fans the world over celebrate Towel Day, it's become clear that once-futuristic items from the author's beloved book series are now part of our everyday lives.

Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
CNET freelancer Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, a journalist and pop-culture junkie, is co-author of "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the '70s and '80s," as well as "The Totally Sweet '90s." If Marathon candy bars ever come back, she'll be first in line.
Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
4 min read
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Penguin/Random House

Never could get the hang of Thursdays? Thankfully, Towel Day, honoring "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" author Douglas Adams, falls on Wednesday, May 25, this year. The annual celebration honors all things Adams, including the book's statement that a towel is "about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have."

Towels, thankfully, are still around, and still just as useful as Adams proclaimed. (Isn't that right, Towelie of "South Park" fame?) Here's a look at some of the other items that played prominent roles in Adams' galactic world, and their modern equivalents.

Nutrimatic drinks dispenser --> Coca-Cola Freestyle machines

The books' Nutrimatic drinks dispenser makes an instant, detailed exam of its subject's taste buds aimed at producing a specific personalized drink, but only ever spits out "a cupful of liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea." If you've ever pushed a cup up against a Coca-Cola Freestyle machine, you've come close. Want a Diet Peach Caffeine-Free Dr Pepper? Or a Grape Mello Yello Zero? Diet Vanilla Ginger Ale? Personalize your drink as much as you want -- it will almost, but not quite, be entirely unlike what you expected.

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BabelFish translating fish --> Ili real-time translator

In the books, BabelFish is a yellow, leech-like fish that performs language translations when dropped into a subject's ear. It also inspired the name of the real-life free Web translation service that was eventually replaced with Bing Translator. But for a closer comparison with the books' version of Babelfish, check out the Ili wearable real-time translator. Thankfully, you don't have to drop it in your ear; think more like a small TV remote control you wear as a necklace. (Too cool for a necklace? Waverly Labs is working on an ear version.)

Encyclopedia Galactica --> Wikipedia

In 1979, when the first "Hitchhiker's Guide" was published, parents were still investing in bulky, 20-plus volume sets of print encyclopedias. If you bought your set when Jimmy Carter was president and the Berlin Wall remained upright, that's how world history would forever stand still in your home reference library. In the book's world, that problem would be solved by the great Encyclopedia Galactica, "the standard repository of all knowledge and wisdom" -- at least, until the Hitchhiker's Guide itself took over. We're going to say Wikipedia is more like the Encyclopedia Galactica than it is the hipper, cooler Hitchhiker's Guide. It's the site you turn to when you need a definition of a robot, or alcohol, or to know why the marketing division will be first against the wall when the revolution comes.

Marvin the Paranoid Android --> Siri

Our world has picked up the pace on robots and droids since Adams' books came out. Some are painfully bad, like Tay, the Microsoft bot taught by the Internet to be pervy and racist. Some are still out of our reach, like the sexy Scarlett Johansson AI that Joaquin Phoenix falls for in "Her." And then there's Siri, Apple's talky little personal assistant. Like Marvin, Siri has a brain the size of a planet, and like him, she often seems balky and depressed. Don't believe it? Try asking Siri right now if she loves you. (Answer: "I'm not capable of love." Marvin, is that you?)

Electronic Thumb --> Uber or Lyft apps

The Electronic Thumb is described as a "short squat black rod" with switches and dials, an electronic "sub-etha signaling device" that allows hitchhikers to flag down passing spacecraft for a lift. Replace "signaling device" with "smartphone," install the app for either the Uber or Lyft car-sharing service, and you're on your way to the Basingstoke roundabout. Just hope your driver's not a green bug-eyed monster, as Arthur complains about in the first book.

Vegan Rhino's Cutlet --> Fake-meat burgers that bleed

You probably wouldn't want to try Vegan Rhino's Cutlet. Though the book doesn't go into detail, the fake meat is described as "evil-smelling," and "delicious, if you happen to like that sort of thing." Sounds like a modern matchup would be one of the fake-meat burgers that try so hard to be meaty that they actually bleed.

Cow That Wants to be Eaten --> Whatever's the opposite of lab-grown meat

In a memorably creepy scene from "The Restaurant at the End of the Universe," main characters Ford, Arthur and Trillian get to meet the meat, a bovine quadruped that introduces itself as the "main Dish of the Day," and asks, "May I interest you in parts of my body?"

Thankfully, we aren't yet at a stage where we're befriending our breakfast (though the farm-to-table movement has resulted in many more diners understanding where their food comes from). In fact, the eerily sci-fi elements of lab-grown meat take the cow out of the equation entirely. But we still think of Adams' self-sacrificing Dish of the Day when we peruse the late lamented Suicide Food blog, which collected ads and illustrations of happy cartoon critters encouraging their own consumption. Clucky the Chicken on "Saturday Night Live" said it best: "Hey kids, how's the Me?"

For Towel Day, whip up a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster (pictures)

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