It is the 50th anniversary of Star Trek. One thing Trekkies love doing is talking about the futuristic technologies of Star Trek that are now common place. But forget about the next 50 years. What, seemingly futuristic, ideas will become common place over the next decade or so?
Sliding doors. There are millions of people across the world who like to think they are Captain Kirk every time a door slides open on their approach. Then there are flip-top communication devices, they went from something in the imagination of Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, to become the mobile phone of choice across the world, to then becoming somewhat passé, and then becoming antiques, like dinosaurs compared to smart phones.
Trekkies may love to talk about how Star Trek foretold the modern word, but it didn’t foretell the rise of the smart phone. And for that matter, the talking computer in Star Trek, couldn’t have held a candle to Siri.
But it did predict the Kindle – Jean-Luc Picard read Moby Dick on a device that looked a lot like the Kindle.
Of course, Star Trek was also social commentary – its ethnically diverse crew meant that the show was banned in some states of the US. The Klingons were the embodiment of what the US thought of the Soviet Union – and when the cold war ended, the Klingons and the United Federation of Planets became allies. The Borg collective – with their resistance is futile slogan – is taken by some to be synonymous with China with its more collective way of doing things – although the analogy is a little harsh.
But what technologies may follow?
Doctor McCoy used to diagnose a patient’s ailment by waving a tricorder at them, we are not there yet, but a device called rHEALTH is planned to be able to diagnose hundreds of diseases from a drop of blood. It’s creator, or at least leader of the team that created it, Dr. Eugene Chan, from the DNA Medical Institute, says that the portable handheld device can diagnose with “gold standard accuracy.” The product has not hit the stores yet, and probably won’t for a few more years, but if it is half as good as it sounds, it may be more than half way towards us seeing a real-life tricorder.
Jean-Luc Picard also used to like his earl grey tea, which a food/drink replicator made on demand from its core elements. So that is the creation of food from scratch. Back in 2014, Anjan Contractor won a contract to make a 3D printer that could create a pizza. Its burgeoning technology, and it may be some time before every kitchen has a 3D printer, but creating meat without live stock may be closer. In 2013, Maastricht University’s Mark Post created a burger from a petri dish. Modern day meat processing factories, otherwise known as cows, sheep, pigs chicken etcetera, are not efficient. They sit and stand in fields all day long, they consumer huge amounts of food, and just wait for the time that they go to the abattoir, emitting methane in the interim. For that reason, we are told that if all humanity became vegetarians, it would be much easier to meet our food needs from the planet’s resources – but if the process of meat production, from say grass to say beef could bypass the cow, wouldn’t that be efficient?
Star Trek The Next Generation introduced the holodeck to the world, a kind of video game, which crew members could step into. Virtual Reality provides the possibility of something similar, as we immerse ourselves in simulations of reality – assuming that we are not already living in a simulation. Virtual Reality may yet prove to be one of those most significant technologies of the next few years.
In the Next Generation, the chief engineer, Geordi La Forge, was blind, yet could see via glasses that were interfaced to his brain. That may seem like totally unrealistic technology, but it isn’t. Neural Lace, for example, may yet be able to provide an interface directly to the brain, enabling blind people to see at least some version of reality.
One of the big mysteries of early episodes of Star Trek was how Captain Kirk could land on a planet light years away, and meet people who spoke fluent English with an American accent. Later we found out the Star Trek world had a universal translator. It may not be coming for real. How long will it be before, armed perhaps with wireless speakers from an iPhone, we can communicate with people across the world, even when we don’t speak the same language?
Star Trek didn’t often explore the idea of AI taking over the world, posing a threat to our existence, although Data, the android from the New Generation, probably could have done so. But, both Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk – CEO of Tesla – have warned that AI may yet prove to be the biggest of all existential threats to humanity. Maybe we can learn from another science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov, and see the three laws of robotics introduced: “A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.”
But in two respects Star Trek probably falls way short of the reality. For one thing, there was no internet – no access to the world’s largest library at the press of a button. For another thing, the people were all quite ordinary. Later this century, we will all surely be enhanced – from exoskeletons to prosthetics, we will be stronger and faster, for example. A human supported by prosthetics could thrash Captain Kirk in a fight, indeed, they would be more like the $6 million man of 1970s science fiction. But with technologies such as Neural Lace, the humans of the near future – and probably in the next two or three decades, will enjoy direct brain interfaces to the internet, giving us encyclopaedic knowledge; we may even see our intelligence enhanced with AI.