Gene Roddenberry’s vision of humanity’s future was revolutionary: Star Trek portrayed advancements in human rights, government, and technology with boldness and compassion. We still have a while to go before we reach 2364, the year in which The Next Generation was set, but how have we progressed 30 years after TNG debuted?
I will limit my analysis to the technology used in the 90’s iterations of Star Trek: The Next Generation, Voyager, and Deep Space Nine, otherwise known as the greatest show to ever be made. And now that I’ve alienated 90% of Star Trek fans, let’s begin!
How computers looked
TNG was prescient partly because everyone relied on computers at a time when some people weren’t sure if they were a fad or the future of humanity. The computers were everywhere: on the bridge, in the crew’s quarters, and in the form of tricorders during away missions. But fans of 80’s and 90’s Star Trek may have noticed that the computers looked a little….well, 80’s and 90’s.
The screens were minuscule, the buttons static, and the graphics an abomination. I’m sure the set designers tried their best, but it’s hard to believe those computers did anything other than emit funny little “computing” noises and make viewers ask “what are they even looking at on that tiny screen?”
Data is one of the most beloved characters on TNG, and also a shining example of an artificial life form with the capacity to learn and grow. Data processed information through his often-mentioned “positronic neural net,” which was a concept originally conceived of by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov.
In 2018, the field of A.I. has made great strides, but experts say that we are nowhere near what they call “general artificial intelligence,” which is the sort of intelligence that humans possess. A widespread concern among technology leaders is that we have very little understanding of the A.I. we create, which could be catastrophic if an A.I. became truly autonomous. The harmful actions of Lore, Data’s evil brother, perfectly illustrate these concerns.
Recent advances in quantum mechanics suggest that transporting matter from one location to another by turning it into energy is possible, and physicist Michio Kaku predicted in 2008 that humans will develop this technology in the next hundred years. If that eliminates the need to call an Uber at the end of a long night, then count me in.
Replicators were capable of materializing just about anything the Star Trek crews wanted: chocolate cake for Counselor Troi, “tea, earl grey, hot” for Captain Picard, and root beer for Nog, much to Quark’s dismay.
The replicator may seem far-fetched, but advancements in 3D printing have made it possible to print materials seemingly out of thin air. The technology is clunkier than the elegant Star Trek replicators, but we’re getting there, guys!!
The work of a Pennsylvania scientist has shown that it’s mathematically feasible to develop a cloak similar to the ones the Romulans infamously used in Star Trek. While the technology is still in development, it’s comforting to know that one day, we may be able to simply disappear from uncomfortable situations, which is completely not the intent of the technology but absolutely what it should be used for.
We’ve been dabbling in holograms for a while: so far we’ve mainly used them to revive dead performers like Tupac, Amy Winehouse, and Roy Orbison.
But when we’re watching a re-animated Tupac, that’s not actually a hologram, and scientists are still working out how to create 3D holograms. Solid holograms are also being developed, but nothing concrete has emerged yet (pun intended).
Our reliance on virtual assistants is perhaps the purest instance of Star Trek technology we have. We can call up Alexa or Google by name, and interface directly with voice. Google Assistant lacks the sparkling timbre of Majel Barret (Gene Roddenberry’s wife, who was the voice of the Star Trek computer and also played fan favorite Lwaxana Troi), but it’s quite useful if you can look past that one design flaw.
In 2017, NASA let us know that warp drive, or traveling at the speed of light, is “impossible at present.” They aren’t ruling it out, but we still have a long way to go before we can realize the dubious benefits of interstellar travel. Until then, the Jem’Hadar and the Borg will have to wait.
Strides have been made in real time translation, and while it isn’t perfect, in another 350 years or so it might be. Here’s hoping we get these up and running by the time we meet the Romulans.
Good progress so far
Keeping in mind that Star Trek is set almost 350 years in the future, we have made progress that actually put us on track to have a lot of the technology from Star Trek developed by the time we actually reach the year 2364. Until then, we’ll have to get our chocolate cake delivered, and hide under the table in uncomfortable situations.
Cover image credit: Kreg Steppe, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic