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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Star Trekking into reality

Fans of the Star Trek franchise will no doubt tell you if you chide them for being lost in a fantasy world, that their fantasy world is becoming startlingly close to reality in some aspects. No, we're no closer to alien contact or anywhere near light speed travel, let alone beyond light speed. But many of the electronic devices imagined by Gene Roddenberry and the show's creative teams have seemingly begun sprouting up in the last decade or so.

For instance, we can begin with speech recognition programs for computers. Speech-to-type translators have been around for years. Now we're moving toward speech-interfaced personal assistants like the as yet imperfect SIRI from Apple on the iPhone 4S. It's not quite there yet, but we're making large strides. Shouldn't be too long before a major breakthrough.

We also have wireless communicators nowadays. No, the comm badges themselves aren't being mass produced, and of course they had walkie-talkies in 1966. I think the comm badges are closer to modern mobile phones than walkie-talkies. Think about it. No visible antenna; no need to continually press the Tx button to speak; no dialing needed (voice recognition again); they even have LoJack built in (along with GPS, another Star Trek reality, though they would only really work on earth, I guess)... It's not exactly the same, but I'd say the spirit of the communicator badge is represented by the mobile phone. (Oh, now that I think about it, mobile phones would only work on earth too. UNLESS the Enterprise has a built-in cell phone satellite network. Of course that's plausible.)

What else? We have cloaking devices, artificial intelligence, we've done amazing things as far as genetic mapping and cloning... Believe it or not, we've made initial inroads to making transporters a reality, though on a miniature, atomic scale at this point. I also think we're making our first baby steps toward real life replicators in the 3D printing process that's been invented in the last few years. Of course, we're nowhere near the ability to replicate foodstuffs, but as I said---baby steps. The XBOX 360 Kinect is not even close to the experience of the holodeck, but it's a start.

Dr. Beverly Crusher in Next Generation uses a portable touchscreen medical tablet that looks an awful lot like an iPad to me. And what's that other thing that Crusher and all the other officers use in every episode, in every series of the franchise? The tricorder, of course. Earlier this year, Qualcomm and the X Prize Foundation announced a $10M prize to the first person to create a real, working medical tricorder. Why? Because they know it's possible and, like their private space travel X Prize accomplished, they know that the reward will be motivation to make it a reality.

What's next? Warp speed travel? I doubt it. It might not even be possible--Einstein and Hawking seem to agree on that. But if it were possible it only makes sense that, as in the Star Trek mythos, the moment we achieve it is the moment the entire universe will open up to us. It would be like creating fire or the wheel for the first time.

Star Trek is an enduring fantasy to me because we keep seeing science fiction edging closer to science fact. Every step we get closer to the technology of Star Trek brings me closer to the hope that the franchise embodies. That hope is the magic of peace that resonates out from earth's First Contact with an intelligent, enlightened and peaceful alien race. Can you imagine?

In the mythos, once First Contact has been made and we realize that we are not alone in the universe, that realization paves the way for world peace. Suddenly all our squabbles on this hunk of mud floating around on the unfashionable end of this outer spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy will seem rather petty, don't you think?