In 1966, when Gene Roddenberry sold his ‘Wagon Train to the Stars’ concept to Desilu Productions, and, ultimately, to NBC, things like personal computers, tablets, ultra compact mobile phones and pretty much everything in his concept, were all the stuff of science fiction. It just didn’t exist. Star Trek’s ‘writers guide’ was chock full of plot devices like the transporter, wireless earpieces, tricorders, phasers, communicators and warp drive. None of it was real. In fact, 99% of the technology just did not exist.
Fast forward to the mid-1980’s when the Next Generation came out. A lot had changed. Personal computers were taking shape and starting to become household items. Cell phones were starting to take hold in mainstream life, though they were still very big and very expensive. Video technology was advancing. We had ‘regular’ space flight with the Shuttle program and Russia’s space program. We had actually been to the moon. Things like transporters, replicators, PADDS, phasers, photon torpedoes,etc. were still not there. But, it was much easier to visualize such things because of the leaps in consumer and industrial electronics. Most scientists, though, still didn’t believe warp drive and transporters were possible, at least not in the foreseeable future.
By the mid 1990’s, however, another leap in technology over science fiction began and, by the time Star Trek: Enterprise debuted, were pretty close to that original vision. Flat screens were taking off, hand held ‘flip phones’ were the hot thing and many resembled the communicator from the original show (and Enterprise.) Lasers, which were around in the 60’s, were much more commonly used and even developed as weapons. Even tricorders were getting more real. So, how much of the science fiction based technology is here now and what’s to come of the rest?
So read on and see where we are with Star Trek tech.
Cell phones have been around since 1973, but did not become a practical and affordable consumer device and service until the late 1990’s. Motorola led the way with its Star Tac, the first popular flip style phone, It also strongly resembled the original communicator in Star Trek. Cell service blanketed much of the country and large swaths of the planet. Iridium, a satellite service, was the first to make cell service available where ever their satellite network could be ‘seen’, which was pretty much everywhere. The 2000’s saw cell phone technology explode and the phones became small computers that could also place phone calls. Today’s smartphone (which can trace its roots back to the early 1980s with AT&T’s Simon) packs more computing power than NASA had during the moon shots.
The tricorder was amazing. A portable computer, always connected. A portable lab. A sensor powerhouse. This thing could detect life, answer complex chemistry problems, do all sorts of things. While no one device exists (that I know about, anyway) there are devices with many of those capabilities. Many smartphones come close. A medical equipment company even manufactured and sold a device that not only looked a lot like McCoy’s tricorder, they named it something very similar. With today’s 3D printers, cheap microcontrollers and equally cheap sensors, I doubt it won’t be long before someone builds one that looks just like Spock’s tricorder and does much of the same scientific work. More complex tasks (which would call for higher power chips) aren’t out the question. I’d say these things are no longer the stuff of science fiction.
Uhura looked stunning with that earpiece in or out of her ear. Indeed, not only was she a beautiful lady, the earpiece itself looked great. The same cannot be said of today’s Bluetooth earpieces. In fact, it seems that only Uhura can pull off looking good and normal while wearing it. Appearance aside, Bluetooth earpieces are actually quite remarkable. They are much smaller than Uhura’s, probably do much more (we only knew she could hear, they never used them for anything else.) While they have a ways to go in the aesthetics department (and, for stereo, apparently in pairing and continuous use without skipping) before they become as cool as the Enterprise’s inventory.
Replicators were only hinted at in the original, and then only for food, but the Next Generation show made liberal use of them. We do not yet have instant replication, we do have 3D printers. These printers, which use ink-jet technology, come in a variety of sizes and employ a variety of techniques to make a three-d object. The common method is to melt strands of plastic. Others use tiny little beads. All build up the object from the bottom to the top. Results vary and the technology is getting better and better. There are also food printers. These ‘build’ food out of organic material. There are even 3D printers that can recreate body parts out of living cells. It is quite remarkable.
Computers were around when Star Trek was created. They were big, expensive and very user unfriendly. The computers of Star Trek used touch, switches, ‘tapes’ and voice. It is easy to forgive the ‘tape’ moniker as that was the prevailing term of the day and everyone knew what it meant. It was the voice interface, however, that was intriguing. Spock could carry on a conversation with the computer and both could understand what the other was saying. Today’s speech recognition technology has improved to the point where it is now a mass market tool. Automated phone systems, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, Google’s system…all work well.
The Next Generation’s PADD device has also come to fruition. Microsoft had long pursued the tablet computer, but it took the market prowess of Apple to make them common. Today, there are small tablets that resemble the PADD from the Next Generation.
Phasers, photon torpedoes
While phasers and photon torpedoes do not exist as portrayed, we do have powerful lasers that are used as weapons. These things can burn, blind you and cut. They cannot, yet, blow things up or vaporize things, they are, nonetheless, used as both weapons and tools. No pistols or rifles yet, but truck and plane mounted lasers are here today. As for photon torpedoes, there are rumors of plasma like devices that may, one day, become torpedoes or missiles.
Like Transporters, warp drive was once believed to be impossible. That NASA is, apparently, even thinking about it shows that we could, in fact, build such a device. They even have a design that resembles a Vulcan warp capable craft with an ode to the Enterprise. The theory behind warp drive is sound, but, for us, the problem becomes power. We, currently, just cannot generate enough to create and sustain a warp bubble. But, there is work being done here.
It seems, everyday, I read about some scientist successfully transporting light-and, now, a particle-a few feet. The research is progressing, but there are many, many hurdles to overcome. Where do you store the trillions of billions of pieces of information that make up a person? How do you break down matter, then put it back together without harming it? You don’t. You have to destroy the original to make the copy. How many times can you do that before you introduced errors? The important thing is that progress is being made.
Now, here’s something that always puzzled me with the Next Generation. They’ve done all of these amazing things. Cured the headache. Cured cancer. Warp Drive. Tackled disease, hunger, human greed. But…there’s only ONE ANDROID that works? Weak. Anyway, today’s androids are a far cry from Cmdr Data, but we are very close, at least in form. Humanoid robots are getting better and better. The mechanical aspect is nearly perfected. Many human robots are made to look like robots on purpose: so they don’t scare those who would be using them. It’s the computational end where the work really needs to happen. Artificial intelligence. I once tried to write code that would mimic walking into a McDonald’s and ordering a Big Mac. Do you realize how difficult that is? The sheer number of steps involved is amazing. And I only started with walking into the restaurant. Not getting out of a vehicle. Think, the next time you go into a fast food joint, about everything you did to walk in, place your order and then eat. Seems easy, but not when you are teaching a machine to do so. AI is smart, but needs to be smarter if we are to engage it like a Cmdr. Data.
Still science fiction devices, but not for much longer. Work is being done to direct energy in a way to reflect anything coming toward it. Many techniques have been discussed but, as with warp drive and transporters, energy is the key.
ION drive is real and has been employed on several space probes. The propulsion is slow, and it takes time build it up, but, the technology does work.
Sickbay’s Diagnostic Beds
When Star Trek was first broadcast, Roddenberry received several requests about the diagnostic bed. What did they use for the sound? What type of sensors did it have? These were questions from doctors-smart people-who knew that it was make believe but were interested anyway. Roddenberry, supposedly, toured the set with a few of these people and the effects guys allegedly gave them a sample of the sound. Well, it must have made an impression as today we have these beds. I’ve seen them myself. My late father in law had a heart attack in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina while we were on vacation. The heart center rooms had these beds that could, with few physical connections, detect his heart rate, oxygen levels, temperature and a slew of other things. It was remarkable.
Dr. McCoy’s HypoSpray
Another part of the Trek mythos that is now fact. Hypospray guns are commonly use to administer vaccines and other medicines.
As you can see, what was once science fiction is, mostly, science fact. We still have a way to go before we meet Surak or experience Shakespeare in the proper Klingon way, but we’ll get there.