Trek Tech: It's here, so how do we use it to make our lives better?
First, a retrospective.
The year is 1964. The Cold War is in full swing and communist paranoia is at a fever pitch. The USSR and the USA have been competing for domination of Outer Space. Now, I'm sure that every politician from that era (were they not all dead by now) would tell you otherwise, but the spoils of the so-called "Space Race" was, indeed, to have been military conquest of Earth from Space. Of course, the scientists' main focus (at least those scientists without security clearance) was development of new technologies which would allow Man to explore Space, which, at this point, was the only thing Man could see which hadn't been completely explored and colonised. Propaganda films were being made on both sides, concerning the importance of launching new spacecraft before the other side.
However, in a strange land known as Los Angeles, far away from Moscow and Washington, D.C., a screenwriter by the name of Gene Roddenberry was in the process of creating what would become the single greatest source of inspiration for inventors and innovators --Star Trek. Little did he know that, upon its premier two years later, it would eventually commandeer the entire genre of science-fiction, usurping such titles as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Lost in Space, even The Jetsons. Not only that, but people such as Steve Jobs (president of Apple), Will Wright (creator of Spore), and Stephen Hawking (possibly the smartest man on Earth) have all looked to Star Trek for inspiration.
Whilst many advances in medicine, theoretical physics, and sociology have Trek origins, the most well-known examples of Trek science-fiction-turned-science-fact involves computer technology. This will be the focus of this entry (which is bound to get a bit long at this point, so brace yourself or turn back now).
You can probably name three common electronics whose origins can be traced back to the original Star Trek or one of its spinoffs. For example, the standard-issue "clamshell" mobile phone. This design was clearly derived from the appearance of the original Star Trek's communicators, as well as both devices' tendency to make a sound when opened or closed. Many mobile phones (clamshell or otherwise) feature a set of navigation keys arranged in a round or ovoid configuration in the same general area as the dial on the communicators (though smaller and not at all knob-like).
Star Trek: The Next Generation introduced devices called PADDs (standing for "personal access display device"). PADDs came, mostly, in two sizes: general usage PADDs were the approximate size of a paperback novel, engineering PADDs were the approximate size of a DVD case. In 2001, Apple unveilled the iPod -- a device which bore distinct similarities to a general usage PADD (if somewhat smaller). Eventually, the iPod gained a touch-sensitive screen, making it more PADD-like. However, any Trek fan will agree that Apple's most recent invention, the iPad, is more like TNG technology than anything seen before -- right down to its name (amongst Trek fans, it has occasionally been referred to as the iPADD). Other PADD-like devices include the iPhone, most kinds of mobile phones, eBook readers, Palm Pilots, Nintendo's Game Boy, and electronic day-planners.
The voice of the Starfleet computer was provided by Majel Barrett-Roddenberry fairly consistently throughout the entire series (ending with J.J. Abrams' Star Trek in 2009, where she finished recording the computer's announcements mere months before her death). Many mobile devices, GPS devices, and automobiles are equipped with female speech synthesisers -- most of which are, tonally, quite similar to Mrs. Roddenberry's voice.
Other examples of Trek technology-turned-real technology include the Bluetooth earphone (TNG combadges, relocated from the chest to the ear), Skype (subspace video communication), PC and SD cards (original series's record tapes), and Actroid (TNG's Lt. Cmdr. Data).
The most likely reason why Trek technology transcended the fiction/fact boundary is because most of it has a practical function that doesn't require a starship to be useful. Trek isn't solely about space travel, meeting new species, and fighting the Borg. It's also about humanity's own advancements. Science, mathematics, the arts: how people use technology for things other than preventing warp core breaches. PADDs can show the schematics for a particle fusion generator, or they can display the text of Dante's Inferno. Combadges can be used to call for an emergency beam-out, but they can also be used to call people for naught but to see how they're doing.
That could also be used as an explanation for why the series is so popular -- it's not only about danger and problem-solving, but also the human condition.
And right now, in the 21st century, the human condition is "bad" to "worse" than it was in Roddenberry's time. However, the technology which he helped create (thanks to microcomputer research and development firms, such as Apple and Sharp, and communications development firms, such as Cisco) can now be used to make our own lives better, increasing the quality of life of every human in the process.
Consider, if you please, a school in middle America. Their most recent mathematics textbook was printed in 1969, a surplus consignment of which was acquired in 1970 through the passage of a 5,000-dollar bond. Through normal wear-and-tear, each book has been damaged. Some have pages missing, some have bindings held together with duct-tape, some have been damaged beyond repair, and a few have been stolen. The original consignment of 150 books reduced to 75 by 1990. By 2000, that number went down again... there are now only 60 books of the original 150. Not everyone who needed a book had one, causing lessons to become unclear for more students with each passing term. With the passage of President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" Act, which, in effect, punishes the school for the student body's failing aggregate test scores, most of this school's funding has been minimised. Bond issues have been put to the city council for years and have been defeated each time by a mayor who wants to improve the city libraries and parks. The school board convenes and decides that, if something is not done to help this hypothetical school by the beginning of the 2011-'12 term, the school will be shut down.
Now, consider the following. Through a grant from a philanthropic organisation, the school receives a consignment of iPads: one per student, adjustable per semester. Each iPad comes preloaded with eBook versions of texts for mathematics, American and world history, grammar, and foreign language, and also the eBook versions of several books which are on the school's required reading list.
Alongside the iPads, the philanthropic organisation has also provided a computer for each teacher. Using the iPads in tandem with the computers, students are now able to access, complete, and submit assignments electronically. Teachers no longer receive a pile of papers, but emails of assignments from their students' iPads.
Consider this. The director of a symphony orchestra struggles to find all of the parts to the pieces he has selected for the orchestra to play this season. The second violin part to the Bacchanale from Saint-Saens' Samson et Dalila is missing. The trombone part to the Dance of the Knights from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet is damaged beyond recognition. Someone stole the conductor's copy of Beethoven's Symphony No. 5.
Now, amend your consideration with this. A software developer has created a music practising programme for Nintendo DSiWare. Through MIDI, the programme is capable of separating songs into their individual parts and only displaying the relevant part to the instrumentalist. Also, the software can detect, through the DSi microphone, where the player is in a song and turn the page automatically.
Now, a conventional Nintendo DSi would be too small to see properly on a music stand, so a Nintendo DSi XL would need to be used.
Consider the following. A doctor admits a patient, Mr. X, complaining of chest pain. He manages to get Mr. X's pain under control, but is uncertain what medicine to prescribe because Mr. X can't remember the name of the medication to which he is deathly allergic. All he can remember is that his last doctor's name was Dr. Jones from Lincoln.
Now, consider this. The doctor goes to his computer and accesses a nationwide patient registry and looks up Mr. X's name. He sees that Dr. Jones noted Mr. X had adverse reaction to codeine.
These are only a few examples of how Trek technology can improve our existence. However, at this stage, even the situations described in these examples cannot, in fact, transpire. The principal problem is one of money. Whilst the technology is there, the means by which to obtain it is nigh unattainable for most people and organisations.
Short of doing away with money altogether, the most plausible and immediate way to make high technology available to the poorest areas is philanthropy. There are a number of philanthropic organisations with the necessary funds or resources to make feasible, at the very least, the first example (involving the school). At the most, these organisations can provide the same technology and the means by which to run it to the poorest areas of third-world countries. However, in this case, the organisation would also need a way to be alerted in case any of the technology requires repair.
Though it may sound simple, there are major obstacles to overcome before Gene Roddenberry's technological utopia can be realised. The first is security, both within the computer and in the physical plane. Security from hackers who seek to create unrest and security from those who are unwilling to see humanity move forward.
The next is sustainability. Though, in the United States, this is more of a political obstacle. The uber-wealthy oil industry spends millions, if not billions, of dollars every year to ensure that any alternative energy proposal is quashed before it can gain momentum in the political process. Of course, lobbying of this kind is not the only obstacle to sustainability -- there are some who believe (though in error) that alternative energy is a waste of resources ("solar energy fails when the clouds come in", "windmills are a danger to birds", et cetera).
The greatest obstacle, however, is philosophical. Are we, in the developed countries, really entitled to dictate how the rest of the world conducts its affairs? Do we have the right to barge into a so-called "third-world" country and force technology down their proverbial throats? Is technology the stock in which we really want to invest our planet?
Until these problems can be solved, Trek technology will remain fiction to billions of people.
Posted by theniftyperson
at 5:15 PM CST