TO BOLDLY GO

Three Star Trek technologies about to become reality will help us leapfrog our biggest limitations

Obsession
Life as Laboratory
Obsession
Life as Laboratory

When you were young, what did you dream of when you looked to the future? Did it have anything to do with the exploration of the unknown? Of pushing back the frontiers and limits of our knowledge? Of discovering new worlds, new forms of life, or even entirely new civilizations?

When the original Star Trek series first aired, it presented a far different view of the future than any that had come before. Rather than humanity fighting an evil alien presence or continuing our own petty, earthly squabbles in a different setting, we had become a peaceful race. We had joined together in an alliance for exploration, knowledge sharing, and mutual assistance with the races of other worlds in a United Federation of Planets. And instead of highlighting the apocalyptic fears many of us had of new technologies, particularly with the threat of nuclear war hanging over the world’s head, Star Trek brought us a universe in which advanced technologies were used to bring unequivocal good to the galaxy.

More than fifty years after Star Trek’s inception, its legacy continues to capture our collective imaginations. Our desire to push the boundaries of what we’re capable of knowing, inventing, and accomplishing is placed front and center in Star Trek, right alongside the importance of remaining true to the very things that make us human. Many of the dream technologies envisioned decades ago have already come to fruition; from instantaneous communication on handheld devices, to civilian technologies like sliding doors. Many others, like universal translators, VISORs, and tricorders, are well on their way to becoming reality.

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Tricorders

“You’re showing the same distorted readings,” says Dr. Crusher to a patient who’s been engaging in very suspicious activities. While the patient might lie to the doctor, data taken firsthand from a patient reveals the truth to a trained professional every time. Simply scan your tricorder over a patient’s body, or over a particular body part you want to examine more closely, and you can instantaneously, remotely, and noninvasively learn a whole slew of information. What are his vital signs? How has her DNA changed since her last scan? What injuries or traumas has he suffered? Is she ill? Is any aspect of his blood chemistry out of the normal range? Has she contracted any diseases? And were you tinkering with that experimental warp device that we warned you about, Wesley? The tricorder reveals all.

Medical lie detector.
Medical lie detector. (TM & © 2017 CBS. © 2018 Paramount. ARR)

The original tricorders were large, boxy objects that performed various functions, and were essential equipment among science and medical personnel. When tailored for medical diagnostic purposes and outfitted with small, removable handheld scanners, they were the first tools used in information-gathering about a patient. They could scan an entire patient or just focus on a specialized area, and became progressively more advanced as Star Trek progressed from the twenty-second to the twenty-third to the twenty-fourth centuries. They were capable of performing a full blood analysis on a patient and enabled medical staff and officers to scan and detect abnormalities without the full suite of equipment available in a sickbay facilities.

With the rapid rate of technological advances over the past twenty years, we’ve seen an incredible evolution of so-called “tricorders” that were no more than glorified barometer/thermometer combinations to handheld devices today that can perform a slew of medical information all at once, with new specialty devices capable of performing advanced diagnostics emerging all the time. If the current rate of technological advancement continues, it’s reasonable to expect that a device that meets all the agreed-upon criteria of a tricorder will not only exist, but will be widespread by the end of the 2020s. Not only that, but the smart bet is that it will be even smaller and more compact that the original Star Trek’s tricorder.

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VISORs

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Seeing beyond. (TM & © 2017 CBS. © 2018 Paramount. ARR)

You know, I’ve never seen a sunrise . . . at least, not the way you see them,” says Geordi La Forge to Captain Picard. Like so many people before him, from either birth or a young age, Geordi appeared destined to live his entire life without his sense of sight. But in the twenty-fourth century, technology had advanced to the point that, despite the Enterprise-D engineer not having a working connection between his eyes and his brain via the optic nerves, a prosthetic device known as a VISOR (for Visual Instrument and Sensory Organ Replacement) could overcome those limitations.

The VISOR can not only transmit external visual information to his mind but show him the universe far beyond what human eyes can see. While we might know only a tiny fraction of the electromagnetic spectrum, visually, the VISOR enables the wearer, through a direct link to the optic nerve, to process information ranging from radio waves all the way up to ultraviolet light.

We often view the loss of one of our senses as a handicap in this world, but in the universe of Star Trek, it opened up an opportunity to go far beyond our biological limitations. While the VISOR’s information was confusing and disorienting to humanoid eyes, an experienced wearer could discern things that were completely opaque to a biologically-sighted human. Fluctuations in body temperature, perspiration levels, and other biological signals could be detected just as easily as the color of someone’s shirt, granting the wearer the ability to perform limited medical diagnostics—or to detect the signals of a lying companion—from afar.

By figuring out how to transmit the external information the world offers to the brain’s visual cortex, it’s quite conceivable that we’ll soon be able to map electromagnetic information from far outside the visual range into false color, enabling humans with such a device to see it. In addition, as camera and computer technology continues to miniaturize, the VISOR may never need to become a widespread technology, as humanity might advance rapidly straight to ocular implants. At this point, it would be almost inconceivable if the vast majority of blind individuals didn’t have most, all, or even more than 100% of their sight restored by the middle of the twenty-first century. This is another spectacular example where the science fiction predicted by Star Trek is coming to fruition faster than its creators ever imagined.

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Universal translators

Heghlu’meH QaQ jajvam!” cries the Klingon entering battle. While many fans will recognize the phrase as meaning “Today is a good day to die!,” those of us who aren’t fluent in Klingon—including many Starfleet crew members in the Star Trek universe—have to rely on the translations of others. This can be unreliable, subjective, laborious, and time-consuming, among many other potential flaws.

Attempts to get people to adopt a “universal language” here on Earth have proven very difficult, as at no point in history have a majority of the world’s population been even marginally fluent or literate in the most widespread languages like French, English, or Mandarin. Even languages explicitly constructed to be universally spoken, like Esperanto, have failed miserably when it comes to adoption. But Star Trek envisioned an incredible alternative: rather than having citizens of different countries or planets learn one another’s native language to communicate, what if there were a technology that automatically translated for them, on the fly, in real time?

The actual universal translator was a small device that would either come with a keypad and display that attached to a communicator or clipped onto clothing as a standalone implement. In addition, known languages were built into the communicators themselves, even as early as the 2150s. By the twenty third century, universal translators were automatically built in to all Starfleet ships’ and shuttlecrafts’ communications systems. Other races communicating with a starship would no longer necessarily need explicit words and phrases translated, but rather their intentions, demeanor, cognitive patterns, and ideas could be scanned and pieced together into decipherable sentences.

The universal translator is a combination of two emerging technologies, neither of which was available when Star Trek was first conceived: natural language processing and an accurate translation program. While the current incarnations of universal-translator technology can only translate known languages—and even then, only the languages a device has been programmed to translate—this technology has already nearly reached the capabilities envisioned by Star Trek, hundreds of years ahead of schedule.

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As scientists, we like to pretend that the way civilization advances forward is through discrete fundamental discoveries. That a new theory is developed, a new understanding is reached, and then applications come about. But Star Trek, perhaps better than any other cultural touchstone, demonstrates very clearly that it isn’t the new discoveries that are always the driving force behind new advances for civilization. Sometimes, it’s daring to dream.

Excerpted from Star Trek Treknology: The Science of Star Trek, From Tricorders to Warp Drive (QuartoKnows). Copyright 2017.

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