Like many of you, I was a huge fan of the TV series “Star Trek” as a kid, and all the spin-offs as well. After a total of 726 episodes (including all the spin-offs), this ground-breaking series is forever tattooed on our collective consciousness.
It’s creator, Gene Roddenberry, foresaw (or was the seed of) many of the technologies we use today. Star Trek influenced such luminaries as Bill Gates, who dressed up as Spock on stage to launch a new version of Windows. Other famous fans (“Trekkies”) include famous tech CEO’s such as Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Elon Musk (Tesla, SpaceX, Boring Inc., Starlink, Neuralink) and Steve Wozniak (Apple). My favorite Trekkie was Steven Hawking, the great physicist.
He even starred in a “Star Trek – Next Generation” episode (“Descent, Part 1”), where he appeared as a computerized version of himself, the only guest star to appear as himself in the entire series. To be fair, nearly everyone in tech is a fan, because of its influence on tech innovation. Here are some of the show’s futuristic technologies that came to fruition.
Communicator = cell phone
Captain Kirk flips open what looks like an old Nokia flip-phone and talks to his crew. However, the mighty iPhone or Galaxy can do so much more. You can thank a hardcore Trekkie fan, Martin Cooper. He was an engineer at Motorola when he decided to recreate Captain Kirk’s communicator, and he made the first cellular phone call on his invention in 1973.
PADDS = laptops and iPads
The Personal Access Display Devices, (PADDs, HoloPADDs) were used by Starfleet and many alien races. Today, its progeny are laptop computer and iPads. Considering that the computers of that era were massive, football-field-sized behemoths with very limited capabilities, the idea of a PADD was an amazing creative spark, well out of the realm of reality.
Tricorder = handheld medical monitoring devices
“Star Trek” grumpy doctor, McCoy (“Bones”), carried around a tricorder, which could diagnose all sorts of physical and mental illnesses.
Companies like Healthy.io (www.healthy.io) offer mobile apps that come close to the tricorder’s capabilities, which can measure wound healing, do kidney, urinary tract infection and prenatal urine testing all from the comfort at home. All apps use artificial intelligence to conduct the testing and analysis with extremely high accuracy.
There are now mobile apps such as Sonde (www.sondehealth.com) which can detect eye diseases using the phone’s camera or mental and physical diseases by analyzing your voice pattern through the microphone. Sonde recently released the ability to detect Covid-19 using AI to analyze your cough.
Universal translators = Google assistant interpreter mode
Although “Star Trek” wasn’t the first to conceive of a Universal Translator, it can be argued it was the first to incorporate it as a base technology feature. Star Trek’s computer had embedded translation code and handheld translators were also featured. Several dedicated devices exist, which can near-real-time translate several common languages, but Google’s Assistant’s Interpreter Mode stands out. It can bi-translate over 29 languages via all Google Home speakers, other speakers with Google Assistant built-in, all Google Smart Displays, Google Smart Clocks and iOS and Android mobile phones/tablets with the Google Assistant app installed.
Earpiece = wireless headsets and earbuds
Used throughout the “Star Trek” series and spinoffs, the earpiece was ubiquitous and came in forms familiar to us today. Some were bulky like the first Bluetooth earpieces, similar to what Communications Officer Uhura wore at her station. “Star Trek”’s debut in the mid-sixties coincided with the first wireless headphones, but they were not as refined as what the show used for earpieces.
Transparent aluminum = transparent aluminum (yes, this really exists now)
In “Star Trek IV The Voyage Home,” Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott (“Scotty”) traded the formula for making Transparent Aluminum armor for some Plexiglas panels. Aluminum oxynitride is made from a form of ceramic powder that can be transformed into transparent aluminum which is similar to but stronger than bulletproof glass and weighs less. It was eventually productized and marketed as ALON by Surmet Corporation.
‘Star Trek’ computer voice chat = Siri, Hey Google and Alexa
One of the most commonly used techs was the crew interacting with the ship’s computer using natural language voice commands. Today, most of us use it so often that we have forgotten how amazing the concept was in 1967, or even just a decade ago. Siri was invented in February 2010.
Phasers = ultra-short pulse laser weapons
The six-gun of “Star Trek,” the phaser, was an energy weapon capable of stunning or killing an opponent. Applied Energetics, Inc. (aergs.com), an arms manufacturer based in Tucson, Arizona, uses high-performance lasers to create photonic and high-voltage energetics-based weapons. One of their patented technologies, Ultra-Short Pulse lasers, can be used for “lethal and non-lethal” uses on the battlefield. They also have versions of the tech to intercept incoming missiles (“fire lasers!”).
Video conference = Zoom and AT&T telepresence
Remember Captain Kirk’s big-screen interactions on the bridge with Fleet Command and aliens? There are several technologies that now exist: big-screen flat-TVs, wireless video transmission, high-definition optics which created a sense of telepresence, discrete microphones and speakers. AT&T’s telepresence truly compares to Enterprise’s video conferencing (“Kirk, you’re on mute. The mute button…”)
… And 30 or 40 more…
Other technologies have come to fruition, such as food replicators (3D-Printed food and microwave ovens), hypospray (needleless medicine injectors) and doors that automatically open and close as you enter or exit. Others are nearly there, such as the holodeck (VR and AR and holographic personas like Tupac and Michael Jackson), instantaneous communication over vast distances (quantum communication), and nearly-human artificial intelligence in the forms of non-organic beings.
What’s crazy today is tomorrow’s innovation
The world owes a huge debt to Sci-Fi and comics, which sparked many a creative mind to make real what was once a writer’s fantasy. We’re about to land on Mars and transform our planet with solar energy and electric vehicles. If you want your grandchildren to have a better life than what we have now, then be crazy enough to envision your wildest dream, and then write a novel. Maybe that’s how we solve problems like climate change and pandemics. We need more crazy dreamers, now more than ever.