Star Trek tech

“Like something out of Star Trek” has become a catch-phrase for all things high-tech. But as Erik Baard points out in articles recently posted to Wired Online, we live in such a high-tech age that the Star Trek future is beginning to look more like last Thursday.

As Baard notes, fans have wondered for decades how come Starfleet doesn’t put seatbelts in their ships and why so many captains and crewmen suffer from hair loss and or crooked teeth.

Then there are the more technical questions. For instance, where are all the robots? You see very few of them in Star Trek, even though robots are already in use by today’s military for things like scouting out enemy positions. Surely in Star Trek‘s future robots could be doing all sorts of work, from cleaning corridors to surveying planets.

The captain of the new Enterprise, Jonathon Archer, has a pet beagle. Wouldn’t it make more sense for him to have a robot pet? No muss, no fuss, and no drain on life support.

The robots you do see on Star Trek tend to be androids (human-shaped robots) like Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. But why? Most robots today look nothing like humans, and the human shape, while a fine shape (I use it myself) isn’t necessarily the best for specialized tasks.

Nano-robots–tiny robots, possibly even as small as human cells–should play a larger role in the Star Trek future, especially in sickbay, where they could be sent into the crewmen’s bodies to seek out and destroy viruses, cancer cells, what have you. We’re already pursuing that kind of technology.

And speaking of sickbay, we already have therapies more advanced than many that have appeared on Star Trek. In one episode, the Enterprise crew had their hormonal juices drained by an alien species for use in black-market aphrodisiacs–which is silly, because it would be a lot easier to genetically engineer some bacteria to do the trick.

And speaking of genetic engineering, why is there so little of it in Star Trek‘s future? Dr. Bashir on Deep Space Nine hid the fact he was genetically enhanced because once it was found it, he was stigmatized and his parents labeled criminals. It’s hard to believe that such a social stigma will last into the far future, considering the potential benefits of genetic engineering to human health and well-being–not to mention the benefit to space travelers facing hostile environments.

For example, researchers have developed a hybrid human/crocodile hemoglobin. Theoretically, you could genetically engineer a human to create this hybrid hemoglobin, which might enable him to hold his breath underwater for hours like crocodiles do–providing a unique opportunity for exploring underwater environments.

Another hot area of research today is the use of stem cells to grow new organs. Why doesn’t sickbay have a whole bank of crucial organs grown from the stem cells of the crew, ready to be implanted, without fear of rejection, in anyone who needs one?

Computers, too, are already more advanced than on Star Trek, Baard notes. As Rick Berman, executive producer of recent Star Trek series, points out, he has a laptop computer thinner than the computer Captain Janeway has in her ready room aboard the starship Voyager. And the various ship’s central computers still appear to be quite large, whereas computers are advancing so rapidly that crew members should be able to wear wristwatch-sized devices that contain all the information contained in the ship’s main computer–so they’d never have to contact the ship for data or analysis.

Crew members could even wear their computers on their backs. Right now, a company in Manhattan is working on a “Smart Shirt”, a wearable computer motherboard that could open up any number of possibilities. Uniforms could monitor medical readings, report on the extent and severity of wounds, change color to match the environment, act as a single giant eye sending back information about the wearer’s surroundings, and serve as both a microphone and listening device.

Science and technology are marching ahead so rapidly it’s hard for us to imagine a future that takes the changes into account. But this isn’t a new problem in science fiction–in1950s SF books characters usually navigated around the cosmos with the help of slide rules–nor is it a fatal one.

Star Trek, after all, isn’t really about the future, but about the present. Placing issues and concerns of today into a futuristic setting allows us to examine them in a new light.

And besides, when you come right down to it, Star Trek is, after all, just a TV show…although you might have a hard time convincing certain fans.

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