MY cat has a chip in his neck with the sort of processing power you would once have needed a room full of computers to generate. It's so small, so sneakily subcutaneous, that I don't think he knows it's there. I know he definitely doesn't understand what it's for but as I sit here writing these words I can see one of its functions in action: it's unlocking a cat flap so that he and only he can enter the kitchen. Thanks to an older and simpler form of technological enhancement – it's called a bell and it's attached to his collar – there's no dead bird today, which is a relief.

The cat's chip also contains my name, address and contact numbers as well as his name. He's called Benni. For all I know the chip also contains information about Benni's blood group, dietary predilections and what I like to call his “service history” (don't like to say castration in front of the kids). The cat flap, meanwhile, does lots of other things too but, throwing a little human error into the digital mix, I've lost the instructions.

I can't remember if the cat was on my lap when I watched a TV interview with novelist Margaret Atwood last week. But I do remember the bare bones of what she said because it chimed with what William Gibson, another author with a background in science fiction, had told me a decade earlier in an interview with this newspaper: that our current present is so futuristic that sci-fi as a form is almost becoming redundant. What's the point in setting a novel in 2250 when, given the rapid speed of change, next year will do just as well?

It's certainly true that those comments from Atwood and Gibson bookend an extraordinary period in human activity. The ubiquity of the smartphone, the omnipresence of the internet and advances in everything from nanotechnology to particle physics, genetic engineering and artificial intelligence make our present a dazzling – some would say blinding – procession of futuristic devices and technologies. Only they aren't really that futuristic because they're here, now, in our pockets, in our cars, in our clothes. And, yes, in our cats.

Increasingly, however, there's a sense that this period is ending, that we're becoming used to the speed of technological change and are starting to look further forward than we have for most of this century so far. There is a sense, in other words, that we're starting to fall in love with the future all over again – and by that I mean the real future, 2250 not 2016. We're looking up from our smartphones and seeing planets and stars and remembering the ambitions and dreams of earlier epochs. We're remembering what we used to call space: “the final frontier”.

Last week it was one planet in particular that was hogging the attention. Headlines the world over were dominated by the news that NASA's Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter (MRO) had found the strongest evidence yet that water flows on the surface of the so-called Red Planet. Using the MRO's onboard imaging spectrometer to examine streaks on the surface that darken during what passes for summer on Mars, the agency and its partner boffins have declared the presence of hydrated salts. These in turn indicate a briny substance wicking to the surface.

“There is liquid water today on the surface of Mars,” said Michael Meyer, leader of NASA's Mars project. “Because of this we suspect that it is at least possible to have a habitable environment.”

In a piece written in the aftermath of that announcement, Game Of Thrones author George RR Martin noted that Mars had previously been somewhat out of favour among sci-fi writers. The main cause, he suggested, was NASA's own Mariner programme, which began in 1962 and culminated in the landing of the Viking 2 probe on Mars in 1976. It brought back a slew of data about the planet. Important information like: there are no little green men.

But the accumulation of data and expertise that began with the Mariner programme is now bringing Mars back into the foreground. That and the Obama administration's stated aim to have a US craft in orbit around the planet by the mid-2030s. And at the root of it all is a startling realisation: that we may, finally, be about to discover life elsewhere in the solar system. Nearly 120 years after the publication of HG Wells's The War Of The Worlds, the Red Planet is back in the public imagination. And nothing really says “future” like the words “life on Mars”.

As luck would have it, Hollywood is lending a helping hand, this one clad in a fictional space mitt. Friday saw the release of The Martian, directed by Ridley Scott of Alien and Blade Runner fame and starring Matt Damon as an astronaut on a Mars mission who becomes stranded on the planet and left for dead. It's essentially Robinson Crusoe in space, and we've seen that before, but it taps into the same public appetite for imaginative, non-earthbound adventures as Alfonso Cuaron's Oscar-winning 2013 blockbuster Gravity. Just a few years earlier, the fashion in filmic sci-fi was for enigmatic, internalised, reality-defying brain-teasers such as Christopher Nolan's Inception, released in 2010. Today, it seems that space is the place once more.

But if life is out there and humankind thinks it's worth spending billions trying to find it, it's going to take more than apps, operating system updates and Matt Damon blockbusters. It's going to take the sorts of technologies that science fiction writers once only dreamed of and, should alien life be found, it will have profound implications for every philosophical, religious, moral and cultural tenet we hold.

That's an enticing prospect so as we become acclimatised to our high-tech present, the coming years and decades are likely to see us taking our eyes off the near-future and peering into the distance again.

Of course taking an interest in the far future is one thing. Feeling optimism about what it will bring is quite another. The best science fiction writers have always made their predictions by taking current scientific advances, noting the direction of travel and the likely endpoint and applying moral and philosophical precepts to it all. By leavening the worthwhile human traits of industry, collaboration and inventiveness with a few less salubrious one – avarice, jealousy, aggression and self-interest – these same writers tend to produce fairly dystopian results.

Taken together, for instance, Philip K Dick's novel Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? and Ridley Scott's film adaptation, Blade Runner, look at (variously) the growing corporatisation of America, what rights we should ascribe to robots, what it means to be human and how we treat underclasses.

In Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey, based on two short stories by sci-fi legend Arthur C Clarke, eerily calm onboard computer HAL 9000 malfunctions with fatal consequences. And in Fritz Lang's epic 1927 sci-fi film Metropolis, based on Thea von Harbou's 1925 novel, a futuristic city is run by downtrodden workers for a self-serving elite. There's an obvious political message in there but the film's most powerful image is of a sexualised female robot, Maria. From Maria we can draw a direct line to Pris, the “basic pleasure model” android played by Darryl Hannah in Blade Runner, and to the sex robots of tomorrow. Yes, they're coming (well, you know what I mean): a report published last month by futurologist Dr Ian Pearson predicts that by 2050 there will be more humans having sex with robots than with each other.

HG Wells, Isaac Asimov, Brian Aldiss and Ray Bradbury are among the other giants of science fiction who have looked into the future and foreseen problems. They were all quite right to do so, because every innovation and advance has its dark side. Last week, for instance, it was revealed that a woman at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London had become the first in the UK to have age-related macular degeneration treated using stem cells.

The condition accounts for half of all visual impairments in the developed world, so the ability to treat it in the over-60s is to be welcomed. However stem cell medicine, which can involve the production and destruction of human embryos, is deeply contentious. As long ago as 2012, health experts and scientists at Harvard University were warning of the growing trend of “stem cell tourism” where desperate patients head for clinics in China, India and elsewhere. Factor in the huge sums these clinics can charge and the prospect for unfettered abuse of the technology is huge. And while fighting disease is one thing, what other more cosmetic improvements could embryonic stem cells come to be used for in time?

In the world of reproductive science, meanwhile, couples in the US who are undergoing IVF treatment now have the right to choose the gender of their child. As a result as many as 20% of couples undergoing IVF in some American clinics are actually fertile but want what's called “family balancing”. This trend has already set alarm bells ringing. Earlier this month the ethics director of New York University's medical school, Arthur Caplan, spoke out against this “family balancing”.

“When you are treating the fertile in order to produce something that they prefer as opposed to a disease, I do think you’re really opening the door to a potential slope toward eugenics,” he said.

Finally it's hard to imagine a future in which artificial intelligence and robotics are entirely benign players, which is why scientists as illustrious as Stephen Hawking are already warning against their development and use by the military.

In July, Hawking added his name to those of around 1000 other eminent thinkers in an open letter calling for controls to be introduced. “The stakes are high,” it read. “Autonomous weapons have been described as the third revolution in warfare, after gunpowder and nuclear arms.

“If any major military power pushes ahead with AI weapon development, a global arms race is virtually inevitable, and the end point of this technological trajectory is obvious: autonomous weapons will become the Kalashnikovs of tomorrow.”

Among the other signatories to the letter was Elon Musk, the South African-born inventor, entrepreneur and unashamed futurist who made his fortune as co-founder of PayPal and is now throwing his energies and cash into new projects such as the Space Exploration Technologies Corporation (SpaceX) and Hyperloop.

The first has the ultimate aim of enabling the colonisation of Mars, no less, and has already flown six missions to the International Space Station. The second is earth-bound and still conceptual but no less exciting or futuristic-sounding: a jet train which will use pressurised air to travel the 350 miles between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The estimated journey time is 35 minutes, at a top speed of 760 miles per hour.

Take the long view, however, and we can see that in terms of our renewed interest in the future our century is unfolding in a similar way to previous ones. A hundred years ago Europe was convulsed by a war which introduced mechanised killing on a grand scale but within a decade all was sleek and chrome as the nascent 20th century embraced speed, technology and skyscrapers. There was even a name for it – Futurism – and its influence came to encompass everything from interior design to art, fashion and even gastronomy. The global recession of the 1930s and the world war which followed brought the here and now back into focus but the post-war period birthed the space race and resulted in one of humanity's greatest achievements – putting a man on the moon.

But a century earlier it was the same story. Europe came out of a period of war – this time it was Napoleon and Great Britain slugging it out – to find itself ready to embrace another thrilling new technology. In truth it had been around since at least 1606 and had been refined by the Scottish engineer James Watt in the late 18th century, but it was in 1829 that it took its greatest and most significant leap forward when Robert Stephenson unveiled his steam train The Rocket. It built on earlier designs, but its many innovations provided the template for virtually everything that came afterwards.

So perhaps our 21st century will follow a similar pattern. Those of us living through its early years will eventually become used to the dazzle and adapt our lives to the many technical innovations the age has brought us so far. But perhaps it's the next generation and the one after that which will fully embrace the future and set out not just to imagine the worst, but to strive after the best. Good luck to them and their micro-chipped Martian pets.