“Treknology:” What technologies need to be invented to bring us up to speed with Star Trek?

Since The Original Series first aired in 1966, we’ve certainly seen technology that seemed like magic then become a reality today. Smart phones, tablet PCs, voice controlled computing, 3D printing… But, what technologies are we still lacking (or currently working toward) in order to make our lives like what we see in Star Trek? Joe Dickerson takes a look at up and coming technologies in the works that could Trekify your life in the not too distant future (and some that you might be waiting a while for).

My day job is designing user interfaces for both computers and mobile phones, and to do that I regularly research technological advances and innovations. I’m constantly seeing new “tech” that allows me to create designs and functionality I could not have even dreamt of even 5 years ago. I often tell my colleagues that the future has already arrived; it’s just not obvious to most of us.

Obviously, there’s lots of technology seen in your typical episode of Star Trek. Here’s a semi-comprehensive list:

  • Food (and material) Replication
  • Sensors
  • Phasers
  • Tricorders
  • Transporters
  • Communicators
  • Artificial life forms
  • Tractor beams
  • Time travel
  • Photon torpedoes
  • Impulse engines
  • Artificial gravity
  • Warp drive

Looking at a list like that, you can see that there’s a lot of “out there” stuff that the creative teams on the series have come up with. We’ll never have any of those things in “real life,” right? Actually, we very well may… and in some cases much sooner than the 23rd Century.

Let’s look at them one by one, and see how our scientific community is working on making the world of Star Trek a reality.

Food Replicators
Well, we are already growing meat, so we are already advancing in that arena. As we have seen from the great late Norman Borlaug when it comes to coming up with ways to feed the multitudes, science has always been able to find a way.

And when it comes to material replicators, we are on the verge of a huge advancement in the world of 3D “printing” thanks to startups like Form1 and MakerBot. And the name of MarkerBot’s first consumer-level 3D printer? The Replicator, named after… well, you know.

Sensors
Science is continuously refining our abilities to scan the visual (and all the other) spectrums… and while we aren’t close to being able to scan a planet’s surface in moments like on Star Trek, we have been able use satellites and drones to gather a tremendous amount of data quickly and with startling detail.

Phasers
Well, we’re working on that… sort of. See this link for details on a sonic weapon that can stun, disrupt or kill.

Tricorders
Do you have a smart phone? If so, you have in your hands the modern equivalent of a Tricorder (merged, of, course, with a communicator). Now, the Tricorders in Trek recorded three types of data – geological, meteorological, and biological. Modern smart phones can record sound and video, but not much else. Yet. I recently read that at least one tablet computer that has been released with a barometer, and most smart phones are now plugged into GPS and provide location services (not geological, but similar). Future phones will be extensible and customizable even more than they are now… and some of those “plug-ins” modules could very easily support the needs to scan and capture your environment… just like in Star Trek.

And let’s not forget the medical tricorder, which is also being developed. Not only has an X-Prize program been created to encourage the development of a working medical tricorder, but “Lab on a Chip” technology is being created to allow for blood tests to be quickly and cheaply done in developing countries, to improve public health around the world.

Transporters
Well, seeing as the whole original idea of this was to save money on the special effects budget (to not have to land a ship every episode), we actually have guys working on it.

Communicators
See Tricorder, above. We have moved away from single-purpose devices and more towards that “Tricorder” multi-function model. The real challenge is the range – having a “cell phone” that can transmit from a planet surface to a ship in orbit without significant latency is a lot to ask for. Unless you have some massively powerful transmitter that can fit in your pocket… I’m thinking this may not be achievable without a very larger “repeater” to enhance the signal on the surface.

Artificial life forms
As we saw when the Watson computer (almost) won on Jeopardy last year, the singularity may be here sooner than we think. While AI like Darwin isn’t a “life form,” it’s not hard to believe that early “betas” of Data were much like Darwin is today.

Tractor beams
That’s actually being worked on now. Whether we can ever get to the scale that a tractor beam can pull a space ship over a long distance… well, we’ll see.

Time travel
Well, we are ALL time travelers… it’s just we are only traveling in one direction. Stephen Hawking is working on it, though it may be a LONG time coming.

Photon torpedoes
It’s just supercharged anti-matter bombs propelled at an incredible speed, right? Well… I don’t know of anybody working on this right now… but I hope they are on our side.

Impulse engines
See the Ion drive… not yet built in space, but again, we have top men working on it.

Artificial Gravity
This was because they were on a TV show with a limited budget… and they couldn’t afford the “wire work” necessary to have everyone floating around. I question whether we will even invest in significant efforts to make this happen, though you never know. And you CAN have artificial gravity in space right now. Just build a very big centrifuge.

Warp Drive
This is the big one… And yes, scientists are working on it. In fact, they are designing a warp drive powered by “dilithium crystals” right now… in Huntsville, Alabama. Are we about to get the jump on Zephram Cochrane?

The take away?
Obviously, we are not living in a Star Trek reality yet, but there are enough developments in “treknology” to make me not only optimistic but also curious: would we be investigating these ideas if Star Trek didn’t have them first? I have it on good authority that Steve Jobs was a Star Trek fan – did that influence the vision behind the iPhone and the iPad? It makes you wonder.

The key to all technology is, of course, its application. How will it be used? Perhaps I’m overly optimistic, but I have a feeling that advances in technology will be for (and result in) the greater good, and not be leveraged by forces bent on destruction. Lives will be made better, the poor will be better fed, and the world will be a better place.

Or, in other words, and to quote a certain Great Bird of the Galaxy… the human adventure is just beginning.

 


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