Today is the 50th anniversary of the first broadcast of the first episode of Star Trek.
The Man Trap, shown for the first time on 8 September 1966, saw Captain Kirk and his crew boldly going to a remote research station to find that the chief scientist’s wife was in fact an alien who appeared to each person as what they most wanted to see.
The series would go on to spawn four spinoff TV shows and ten feature films. And although the point was, ultimately, not to showcase fancy gizmos but to explore how humans might interact with one another, and with nonhuman cultures, in a future free from material needs and in unusual situations, the technology it imagined necessarily played a central role.
Science and science fiction share a kind of symbiotic relationship, each informing and inspiring the other. Now, much of the tech that Trek envisaged is in widespread use.
The Enterprise crew’s communicators preceded real handheld mobile phones by seven years – and directly inspired them.
Motorola’s Martin Cooper took on the task of developing the first cellphone after seeing Trek’s communicators on TV. He unveiled his device in 1973, but, unlike the sleek design that might be used by Spock on the surface of an alien planet, it weighed two kilograms.
Mobile phones would become commercially available another ten years later, and are now commonplace across the globe – not only available in, but essential to, remote areas of lower-income countries.
Later incarnations of Trek would see Starfleet officers communicating via the badges pinned to their uniforms. In the present, there is already a proliferation of wearable technology.
Large-scale production of personal computers had only just begun in 1965, a year before Star Trek’s first broadcast.
But the series already envisaged a handheld computer, the PADD, which came without a keyboard, and which was used for everything from analysing to technical data to recording Jake Sisko’s first draft of history on the frontline of the Dominion War.
The resemblance to Apple’s ipad is uncanny.
Early computers required their users to type in commands. Graphical user interfaces, such as Windows, didn’t become commonplace until the 1980s.
But being able to accomplish computing tasks by talking to a computer in natural language, as depicted in Trek, is now a reality thanks to Apple’s Siri, Google Now and Microsoft’s Cortana.
Creating a fully conversational computer is an explicit goal of Google.
But let’s hope that whatever ends up in widespread use in the 22nd century is a little better at handling accents.
Conveniently, all the alien races encountered throughout Star Trek’s run speak English – even the silicon-crystal lifeform that calls Captain Picard an “ugly giant bag of mostly water”.
That’s not, though, a legacy of the British Empire, or a result of American cultural dominance, but an illusion created by the universal translator, which can instantly translate between almost any two languages.
Something similar is being put into practice at present, with Skype Translator able to translate voice or video calls, realltime, between seven languages for voice or video calls and more than 50 when instant messaging. Klingon is not currently supported.
This one’s a bit of a cheat, as we can’t quite make tea (Earl Grey, hot) appear out of thin air – yet.
But the advent of 3D printing is similar enough in principle, allowing anyone to create complex products with the push of a button at home.
Star Trek, and other science fiction continue to inspire technological developments, some of which might be just around the corner.
Handheld medical scanners
No blood tests or bulky medical equipment appears necessary in the 22nd century – just a quick up-and-down scan with the go-to medical device, the tricorder.
A number of devices inspired by the Star Trek gadget are in development, with a $10 m XPrize on offer to the creators of the first handheld scanner able to diagnose 13 health conditions and read five vital signs in realtime.
While the likes of Siri might appear to understand us, they’re really not that smart.
Most currently available artificial intelligence is programmed to learn one specific task – such as beating a grandmaster at chess.
A development such as The Next Generation’s android Lieutenant Commander Data or Voyager’s holographic doctor would require general artificial intelligence – the ability to learn to accomplish tasks without being specifically programmed to do so.
As with simpler forms of artificial intelligence, games are proving a useful testing ground. In March this year, a piece of software called AlphaGo created by Google’s DeepMind project, beat one of the best players in the world at Go – a game too complex to solve by brute force.
DeepMind’s goal is to “solve intelligence” – paving the way for computers being able to do anything a human can do, and more.
Way in the future
Some prospective technologies inspired by Trek may not be possible for centuries – or ever. But that hasn’t stopped people from working on them.
Relativity, alas, forbids travelling faster than the speed of light, meaning it would take many years even to visit our nearest neighbours.
As that would make for incredibly boring TV, the crew of the Enterprise get around that cosmic speed limit with their warp drive – the name of which suggests it involves bending spacetime.
In 1994, physicist Miguel Alcubierre found a solution to Einstein’s general relativity that corresponds to warp drive, involving contracting the space in front of a ship and expanding it at to the rear.
There’s one large flaw, though: in order to work, it requires negative energy – and phenomenal amounts of it.
Still, that hasn’t stopped NASA conducting some tentative experiments into the possibility.
The transporter has been a feature of Star Trek since its pilot, and spawned an iconic catchphrase. But unlike much of the technology depicted, it will probably never be realised in practice.
Although we can currently teleport information through taking advantage of quantum entanglement, it’s thought to be impossible to teleport a macroscopic object such as a person. Even in the future starship captains will just have to land the ship – no matter the budget constraints.
Half a century on from its debut, Star Trek still stands out as showing an idealistic future in which humanity has put away its petty differences and strives to be the best it can be – and inspiring some of our best efforts here and now.
Best of the rest
There are numerous examples of technology that is now commonplace having been inspired by science fiction. Two of the most notable are communications satellites and radar.
Science fiction author Arthur C Clarke is credited with coming up with the concept of the communications satellite.
A letter from Clarke to the editor of Wireless World in 1945 described his idea of using satellites in geostationary orbit – meaning they remain above a particular location on the Earth’s surface – as communications relays.
A constellation of such satellites can transmit messages between themselves and then on to any point on the globe. The world’s first communications satellite, Telstar, was launched in 1962, and they’re now used for television and internet broadcasts as well as their original purposes of voice communications and navigation.
So next time you get lost and look to Google Maps to find your way, spare a thought for Clarke.
Radar is often thought to be derived from Winston Churchill’s wish to create a deathray – a staple of science fiction – to use against enemy aircraft. But a similar concept was described as long ago as 1911 in a serialised story, Ralph 124C 41+, by Hugo Gernsback.
Gernsback’s story included a device that sent out a beam of energy, which could be reflected back towards its source by solid objects, giving an estimate of the size and distance. That’s exactly how radar works. The only thing Gernsback really got wrong was the misconception that his energy beam would need a medium to travel through – the ether. That idea would be finally debunked with the publication of Einstein’s general theory of relativity five years later.
He has an astrophysics MPhys and a postgraduate diploma in journalism, both from Cardiff University, and has worked at the IOP since 2008.
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