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What You Missed at Smithsonian’s Future Is Here Festival

Scientists, science-fiction writers, and Star Trek actors came together for the three-day event.
The jet-pack demonstration. Photographs courtesy of the festival.

The second annual Future Is Here Festival beamed into DC this weekend, bringing with it speakers who bridged the worlds of science and science fiction. Coordinated by Smithsonian magazine, the three-day event featured appearances by George Takei and Patrick Stewart, who presented an exclusive preview screening of X-Men: Days of Future Past on Saturday night. But the real scientific heavy-hitters took center stage during a conference at the Ronald Reagan Building Saturday.

This year’s theme, “Science Meets Science Fiction,” invited the discussion of topics such as human evolution and space exploration. Michael Caruso, editor-in-chief of Smithsonian and chief organizer of the festival, kicked things off by pointing out how similar the two now are. “The world we live in now,” he said, “is a science-fiction world.” That is, one full of technologies that could only have been imagined by science-fiction writers.

Ten-minute TED-style talks characterized the remainder of the conference, grouped by themes that ranged from the future of humans to the futures of Earth, outer space, and deep space. In his discussion of the future of humans, headliner George Takei called the harmonious diversity of the original Star Trek a “metaphorical goal” for society.

Later highlights included presentations of Project Loon, a Google initiative that uses balloons to bring internet access to remote areas, and Revive & Restore, a nonprofit that employs genetic techniques to bring species back from extinction. Consumer-grade drones made their way into the auditorium for a demonstration, as did a device that delivers focused sound to a listener like a laser beam.

To round out the festivities, astronaut Mae Jemison—the first African-American woman in space—introduced 100 Year Starship, which is dedicated to achieving interstellar flight in the next century. NASA’s lead Mars-rover engineer Adam Steltzner said: “I look forward to human footprints on the surface of Mars in my lifetime.” And MIT’s Sara Seager unveiled a component of her Starshade spacecraft, which will help NASA find Earth-like planets in other solar systems.

The Saturday conference concluded with a live jet-pack demonstration in the atrium of the Reagan building. The pilot, suited up like a Nascar driver, flew from the second floor to the center of the atrium and back, remaining airborne for about 30 seconds.

All told, the weekend drew some 500 attendees, many of them regular participants in Nerd Nite—a monthly gathering affectionately called “the Discovery Channel with beer,” held in more than 75 cities worldwide. A partnership with Future is Here allowed the organization to present its second annual Nerd Nite Global Fest on Sunday, convening presenters on bird parasitism, pneumatic-tube systems, and Godzilla, among other subjects. As Eric Moon, a Nerd Niter from Ontario put it: “Being a nerd doesn’t mean being interested in any one thing; it’s about being curious.”

In that spirit of boundless curiosity, presentations at the Future Is Here Festival steered clear of the dangerous potential of technologies such as drones, genetic engineering, and robotics. “We’re techno-optimists,” Caruso said by way of explanation. “It’s not that there aren’t questions, dark possibilities, dystopic possibilities even. That all should be debated. But this was more a forum for presenting these great, cool, interesting ideas.”

Drone demonstration:

Jet-pack demonstration:

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