2019 marks a few anniversaries. It is the 50th anniversary of the moon landings. It also marks fifty years since the end of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek (the original series).
As a bit of a Trek nerd myself, I figured that this is a great time to review the technology shown in all the Star Trek series, and see how close we are to the universe imagined by Roddenberry.
Interstellar travel is the central premise in Star Trek, and serves as the platform upon which stories are told. Unfortunately, interstellar travel still remains the domain of science fiction. A month after “Turnabout Intruder” aired, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. Since then, humanity hasn’t really travelled all that far, although our creations since then are hurtling through space, beyond our solar system into interstellar space, carrying upon them little plaques and records that would hardly be adequate to convey the sense of life on earth. Send more Chuck Berry.
Warping the universe to travel faster than the speed of light, however, seems out of the realm of possibility for the foreseeable future.
Surprisingly, we are closer to this than I imagined. It is possible to use quantum entanglement to transfer information across a distance, and it is possible that a system using a very large number of entangled particles may at some point be able to transfer a massive object over a distance. At the moment, a group of scientists in China have claimed that they were able to teleport a photon to a satellite 300 km above the earth. Are you ready to have yourself be destroyed, one subatomic particle at a time, while being simultaneously recreated in another location in the universe? You may have to wait a long time. Even if that does become a reality, would you like to have yourself disintegrated atom-by-atom as you’re scanned in one place, to be recreated in a quantum-entangled state in another place? The process itself may be an agonizing death.
In 2006, I owned a Motorola Razr v3i. By the standards of modern smartphones, it was a puny, underpowered thing, with just a 1 megapixel rear camera, a tiny screen, 256 MB SD card storage for music, and GPRS/EDGE for internet. Yet, it exceeded the capabilities of the original Star Trek communicators. Modern smartphones are a marvel, so I’d say we have this in the bag. For the cosplayers amongst you, someone has created a replica of the hero prop used in the series, which is basically a hand-held bluetooth speakerphone that can connect to your smartphone, if you would like to live with a less-useful device than your smartphone. For those of you who like The Next Generation more, Google has created a little communicator pin.
By the way, no modern smart phone has been able to capture the emotional connection of owning a Motorola Razr. I wish someone would bring it back for the sheer nostalgia.
Back in the 60s, computers were these gigantic machines that really didn’t have any UI, so to speak. They probably had large spinning tape reels or drums, with blinkenlights as they processed data. Not very TV friendly to show someone feeding in a stack of punch cards to these machines. Star Trek did away with this by making their computers entirely voice controlled. This was great for TV, as the computer could have a personality. Arguably, now Siri, Alexa, the Google assistant, Cortana, are all probably inspired by Star Trek computers in some way or another. Try asking Cortana, “Beam me up Scotty”.
Computers today are so much more powerful than computers in the 60s. A cellphone today probably has more computing power than all of NASA did back in the 60s, yet, they were able to launch man to the moon. As a computer engineer, I often wonder, where have all the cycles gone?
It is interesting to see the evolution of computers throughout the Star Trek universe. The Original Series had these buttons and blinkenlights. While most interactions were voice-driven, sometimes, we would see either Kirk or Spock drop in a plastic card that looked suspiciously like a futuristic punch card or cassette. I strongly suspect that the voice interactions in the original series were, just like warp engines, a way to work around the limitations of contemporary technology. Computers in the 60s used punch cards, magnetic tape, and were tedious to program, hardly the subject of gripping television. Voice interactions made for much better storytelling.
The Next Generation decided to go with the Okuda-gram touch interface for all their computers, which is probably most familiar in today’s world of touchscreen devices. It’s crazy to think that college undergraduates today have probably had all their computer interactions via a touch screen, and much less with a keyboard and mouse, and almost certainly never through a terminal. Voyager introduced the idea of bio-neural gel packs, which were, apparently, biological neurons suspended in a nutrient gel medium. Back in 2005, researchers at the University of Florida used biological neurons suspended over a grid of electrodes to control a flight simulator, in a technique not too different from the bio-neural gel packs in Voyager. Today, the hottest topic appears to be deep learning, which is just us wasting computer cycles trying to emulate neurons to solve hard problems. Do you talk to any of your digital assistants? You’re interacting with a deep neural net. Search something on Bing? Deep neural net. Use machine translation? Deep neural net. Predictive text on your phone keyboard? Deep neural net.
Yet another storytelling device, universal translators allowed everyone on the show to speak English, even the Firengi. Today, deep neural networks translate our speech from one language to another on the fly, in a device that fits within our pockets, connected to a device that fits within our ear. Have any of you tried the live subtitles in Powerpoint? The tool for poorly made slides can now transcribe and translate, in real time, a presentation on any topic. The world has never been smaller.
Tricorders were devices that performed three functions – sensor scanning, data analysis, and recording. Arguably, our cellphones today can do all three. So can our fitbits, and other wearables. My phone knows from it’s accelerometer, GPS, barometer, compass, and other sensor data whether I’m sitting down, walking, biking, or doing any other activity. It also knows whether the phone is on my body, or is resting on a desk somewhere. My computer knows if I’ve walked away and locks itself automatically.
Medical tricorders are also closer than one may think. Since the technology has evolved gradually, we don’t see devices such as fitbits, pulse oximeters, blood glucose monitors, blood pressure monitors as tricorders, they generally perform just one task. However, Qualcomm and X-Prize teamed up to offer a 10 million dollar prize for a device that can diagnose more than 15 medical conditions better than a panel of certified physicians. Although no team won the prize, it is only a matter of time before we have true medical tricorders, they are a necessity.
DNA Data Storage
Multiple Star Trek TNG episodes featured plot lines involving DNA data storage. “The Chase” featured a plot where a program is hidden in our DNA. In “The Drumhead”, a Klingon officer hides secret information in protein sequences in his blood as a technique of spy craft.
We’re closer to storing data in DNA than we would think. Researchers at Microsoft and the University of Washington are developing techniques that would allow us to store data in artificial DNA strands. The new technology promises storage of up to one exabyte per cubic millimeter with a half life of 500 years.
TNG introduced us to holodecks, the magical black rooms with yellow grids within the Starship that could become any place one wanted, as long as it was programmed into the computer. Virtual and augmented reality technology is as close to giving us the same experience as the holodecks.
One of the major issues with present day VR is that we’re confined to the physical dimensions of whatever room we’re physically in. There is some ongoing research in using X-Y treadmills to keep us in the same physical space while we move around a virtual space, but this has its limitations. The treadmills can only be reactive, moving us back to where we started. At that point, the accelerometers in our ears tell us that something has gone wrong, and the immersion is broken.
I wondered how Star Trek got around the confines of limited space on the holodeck. As best I can tell, they never really answered the question. I think that the light-matter holograms somehow moved under the feet of the people in the holodeck, but that could easily be challenged if everyone moved radially outwards in a simulation of flat terrain. In the very first episode of TNG, Data showed Riker the extent of the holodeck by throwing a holo-rock at the wall. Ah well, some things are best left unexplained.
Speaking of Data, we’re nowhere near the level of sophistication that we require for creating, what is essentially an artificial life form. Our robotics are woefully inadequate in even the basic kinematics that are essential for bipedal motion, although Boston Dynamics has done some incredible work in that field. Enjoy this compilation of robots falling over at various competitions.
Another effective storytelling technique, subspace communications allow for real-time video calling between our hero, the captain, and some shadowy admiral with a hidden agenda. These require an even greater leap of faith than warp engines, because we know that no signals can travel faster than the speed of light. Even if we developed an incredibly powerful engine that could literally bend the universe, transmitting signals in real time across a galaxy would require even more energy. Battles in space would actually be very much like old naval battles before the invention of radio. Communication would be slow, and news of a battle could never make it back to headquarters.
Strange as it may sound, automatic doors seemed like an impossibility when the original series aired. The automatic doors were actually stage-hands who received cues to open and close the doors. Sometimes, they missed a cue, which lead to an actor walking through a closed door. Today automatic doors are so ubiquitous, I marvel at the fact that they didn’t exist when the series was made.
The magical injections that doctors used in Star Trek (possibly to be compassionate to the poor actors whose characters needed injections multiple times in each episode) are very close to being a real thing. Researchers at MIT have developed a Lorentz force actuator that injects drugs at high velocity into a patient without the use of needles.
Star Trek brought us so much technology, it is hard to list all of it in a single blog post. We haven’t even touched long-range scanners, replicators (3D printers today), phasors, tractor beams, force fields, shields, gravplating, cloaking devices, time travel, and many others. Star Trek was groundbreaking, not just in the technology it showcased, but more in the message it delivered. By distancing ourselves from alien cultures light years away, it allowed us the opportunity to observe our own biases and prejudices, laying it all in the open, criticizing us for our narrow-mindedness. Arguably, it made us all better people. And that is what fifty years of Star Trek is all about.