You’ve probably seen at least a few episodes of Star Trek, the science fiction TV show that went through several iterations that included Mr. Spock and Mr. Data—and, more importantly, starships that travel around the galaxy in comfortable style. The show was set 300 years in the future, and included magical technology like the transporter that caused people to vanish from the ship and reappear on the planet’s surface, and a replicator, which synthesized food and drink items without the need for a kitchen (or bartender).
Will humans ever actually see those technologies? Surprisingly, many of them are starting to manifest a few centuries earlier than expected. Futurist Vivek Wadhwa offers a tour of the gadgets on the Starship Enterprise, and then points to similar innovations that are already happening right here on old-fashioned 21st Century Earth.
Such as? Consider the communicators that the crew carried around with them. When the first version of Star Trek appeared on TV, the audience primarily communicated via land-line phones, while Captain Kirk and his crew talked on modified flip phones. Today, we think of those flip phones as outmoded technology—devices you merely talked into, without the email, music, web access and the ability to ask for directions to your destination. The Enterprise’s communications devices didn’t even have cameras!
In the starship’s medical center, the ship’s doctor would aim a “tricorder” at patients and quickly diagnose what was wrong with them. Today, doctors can point a device called GENE-Radar at the patient and identify a range of illnesses, including AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis and cancer. Meanwhile, smart phones and even smart clothing are being developed which will constantly monitor our heart rate (and health), temperature, oxygenation and other vital signs, check for early signs of illness, and report all this information in real time to artificial intelligence systems on the web, which will notify us if/when we need to head for the hospital for a checkup. That technology will quickly be replaced by chips embedded unobtrusively in our bodies, which will monitor just about everything. The tricorder will look outmoded compared to a system where the ship’s computer knows what’s wrong with every crew member in real time.
Okay, but surely that replicator thing is centuries down the road. Not so fast. Today’s 3D printing devices are already able to create objects in plastic, metal, glass and titanium. They are even creating human cells and organs. Yes, today it takes hours to “print” a finished product, but it’s not hard to imagine the devices becoming much faster as the technology improves. Remember how long color printers took to finish a page 20 years ago?
Finally, Captain Kirk used a universal translator when he wanted to communicate with alien warlords. Today, Google Translate is capable of translating pages of text from one human language to another. Microsoft recently demonstrated a real-time, voice-based language interpreter that works on Skype. A commercially-available real-time translator is years—not centuries or even decades—away.
It may be a few more years before somebody recreates faster-than-light transportation to the stars, but it’s useful to realize how much of the Star Trek technology seemed impossible 30 years ago, and now seems mundane. Who knows what the next 30 years will bring?