Science fiction writers and inventors dream of technologies that fundamentally change the way people interact with each other and with the world around them. Sometimes their “crazy ideas” materialize into everyday products that surprise one generation and are taken for granted by another.
Take Star Trek technology, for example.
When Star Trek first aired in 1966, automatic doors were anything but pervasive. After all, the first automatic door had been installed just six years before. At the time, most other Star Trek tech appeared to be fantasy or at least impossible to achieve based on the technological capabilities of the time. Yet, many of the concepts exist in some form today, some of which may surprise the average person.. and even a random tech geek.
Food Synthesizers and Replicators
In Star Trek’s version of the 23rd Century, food synthesizers instantly synthesize food or drinks when a programmed card is entered into the system. While it is not possible to for a computer program to fabricate a steak yet, it is possible to design and fabricate designer food using a 3D printer and edible substances. Some think the technology will take culinary art to a new level.
Image credit: Cornell
Star Trek replicators replaced food synthesizers later in the series because they could synthesize just about anything. When Jay Leno can’t find a car part because it has become obsolete, he uses a 3D printer to make one out of plastic. Probably closer to the Star Trek Replicator is a printer that can be used to create objects out of steel, silicon, cement, and edible materials, although the scope of what’s printable is expanding to include meat, among other things.
Image credit: FabAtHome
One important difference between fiction and fact is that the fictional replicator transforms matter from one form to another at a molecular level in a magical out-of-nowhere kind of way. 3D printers output layers of a substance to build 3D objects.
Star Trek phasers are directed energy weapons that use particle beams. A handheld phaser can stun or kill an adversary, weld or cut metal, or blast through solid rock, all of which are handy devices when you’re exploring the final frontier.
Back on today’s earth, laser-based dazzlers temporarily blind opponents while tasers and stun guns temporarily incapacitate living targets using electric shock
The Star Trek “tricorder” records data, analyzes data, and performs sensor scans. A medical tricorder is used for medical diagnostics.
Image credit Qualcomm
While no general purpose device provides the broad functionality of a Star Trek tricorder, smartphones are beginning to deliver some limited functionality, including basic health monitoring (blood sugar levels, heart rate, etc.). The XPrise Foundation is attempting to push the state of the art of healthcare diagnostics with the $10 million Qualcomm Tricorder XPrise contest. Expect to see more industrial apps in the future.
Data is Star Trek’s most popular Android. He’s a self-aware mechanism who looks human and endeavors to become “more human” with the help of an emotion chip and a positronic brain that enables consciousness.
While androids are not yet commonplace in today’s world – nor are they capable of self-awareness or emotions yet – they nevertheless exist. One of the more interesting models is the Actoid-F jointly created by Japan’s Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), Osaka University, and the University of Toyko. The Android, which can be made to appear male or female, mimics human gestures and speech. It even sees. That model is being considered for healthcare applications.
Image credit: Hangar
Star Trek’s most infamous villains are the Borg, cybernetic organisms (cyborgs) whose sole purpose is to conquer and “assimilate” other races. When the Borg assimilate living beings into their cyborg hive culture, they replace some natural organs and limbs with more advanced mechanical counterparts such as bionic eyes or bionic limbs that include sensors, tools, and advanced weaponry. Conversely, androids are enhanced with organic matter such as living tissue.
While the term, “cyborg” is rarely used to describe a person wearing an artificial limb or using an artificial heart today, fascinating technological advances are being used to restore normal human functions such as walking, hearing, or seeing (see below). Some inventions can be used to enhance human performance, which raises ethical questions especially as they relate to competitive sports.
Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Geordi Laforge is a blind engineer who wears a Visual Instrument and Sensory Organ Replacement (VISOR) to “see” via the electromagnetic spectrum that was replaced later in the series with prosthetic implants.
Image credit: Boston Retinal Implant
Retinal implants and primary visual cortex implants have been and are being developed to improve or enable vision.
Star Trek characters experience needle-free injections from a “hypospray” device that uses air pressure to administer injected medications.
Image credit: Pharmajet
Here on earth, jet injectors already exist and apparently have existed for many decades or longer, although they are cheaper and safer than they once were. (Yes, reusable jet injectors can spread disease from one patient to another.) Single-shot jet injectors are commonly used to deliver flu vaccines, although the loftier goal is to lower needle-related infections in third world countries.
Star Trek: The Next Generation introduced the holodeck, a room outfitted with hologram diodes. The holodeck projects realistic 3D images to immerse a user in a fictional experience the user has requested, such as a scene from a favorite book.
Image credit: Project Holodeck
The differences between fiction and fact are worth nothing. A person entering the Star Trek holodeck steps into the room as herself without having to wear a visor, gloves, or other equipment. Also, the holograms are so realistic that projected characters and environmental elements appear to be, function like, and even feel like their solid matter counterparts. While virtual reality has its limitations, other synthesized experiences are being developed such as 4D movies that involve sound, motion, scents, and other effects with the goal of giving a moviegoer a you-are-there experience.
In Star Trek TV shows and movies, the ship’s crew can interact with computers using voice commands.
Here on earth, computerized speech recognition started gaining momentum in the early 1970s followed by voice recognition which identifies the speaker. Today, speech and voice recognition capabilities are included in smartphones, automobiles, smart homes, and weaponry.
Star Trek characters who are not physically co-located communicate via “visual communications” that include both audio and visual elements that are similar to today’s videoconferencing and video chat capabilities.
AT&T introduced the Picture Phone in 1970 but the technologies of the time were incapable of enabling pervasive adoption.
Today, anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can video chat for free which roughly corresponds to the desktop systems. Larger screen systems, such as the one featured on the bridge of starships featured in Star Trek, are more like high-end telepresence systems.
More to Come
Apparently, “beaming” (aka teleportation) is possible between atoms. But no one is expecting humans to teleport anytime soon given the inherent complexities of dematerializing a living organism and rematerializing it in another location – with its consciousness intact.
Meanwhile, at least some research – albeit “not much” according to NASA — is being done on warp drives that would enable faster-than-light speed travel.The U.S. Air Force recently tried to fly an unmanned craft at Mach 6 (six times the speed of sound), although the experiment failed due to a problem with one of the fins.
Breaking the sound barrier was relatively easy. After all, the speed of sound (Mach 1) is only 768 mph. The speed of light is about 671 million mph which translates to Mach 873,196.
Perhaps by the 23rd Century, scientists will discover ways to enable human teleportation and warp speed travel. In the meantime, a holodeck would be nice.