8 Technologies From Star Trek We Use Every Day

Here’s a fun article by my colleague Bill Washinski to take your mind off of the coronavirus crisis for a while. Enjoy! — Charles

When Star Trek the Next Generation (“TNG”) first came on the air in 1987, it had high hopes and big shoes to fill from the original Star Trek.  It also had a lot of detractors and even Sir Patrick Stewart refused to unpack as he doubted the show’s future.  15 years later it ended after 7 seasons, 18 Emmys and 4 feature films and spawned several spinoffs of its own. It also created one of the greatest villains of all time in the Borg with their memorable phrase “Resistance is futile.”

The legacy of Star Trek TNG is very much alive and well; perhaps even more so as much of the technology that was science fiction at the time the show was created actually exists today.  Resistance to that change is definitely futile as it has had dramatic effect on industry and peoples lives.  It continues to move fast – driving some areas of the economy skyward while others are forced to adapt or are “assimilated”.  

8 Things From Star Trek You’re Using Today

8. Drones – In the first season episode “Arsenal of Freedom” the crew was attacked by an advanced weapon that was small in size but deadly in nature.  Today, not only does the military utilize drones of the same size, but you can go to Amazon or Walmart and purchase one for your children. 

7. iPad/Notebooks – Throughout the shows run, characters used a mobile computing device known as PADDs (Personal Access Display Devices) that bears a striking resemblance to the well-known Apple product   These generally small, rectangular-shaped devices comprised largely of a screen allowed their users to take advantage of wireless computer networking as well as reading messages/books/schematics, recording logs, audio playback, writing of messages and even communicating with other PADDs.  Rather astonishingly, the idea of the smooth, portable computing device was the result of imagination since the budget did not allow for switches, knobs or buttons – which leads us to the next item on the list.

6. Touchscreen – Not only did the PADD and iPad both make the use of touchscreen, but every computing terminal featured a touch-based interface.  This has expanded to other computing terminals; the most common being your own laptop computer.  There is much greater ease in taking online tests or placing orders.  Even your car – your ability to operate the radio, answer a call or operate your A/C with a touch of a screen.  Hard to believe 30 years ago, people wanting to listen to music would use a knob to find the frequency and a button to lock it in. 

5. Smart Phones – The similarities of the flip phone to the original Star Trek communicator have long been observed.  Consider now the similarities to the Tricorder to your smart phone – a handheld device that was used in data analysis, data sensing, recording and other multi-functional uses.  Each day, we literally carry a mini-computer every day with accessibility to apps that can track everything from gathering biometrics, scanning the environment around you with GPS to get a picture of the building your are trying to find and see active weather patterns.   And the irony of the math teacher saying you won’t be able to use a calculator when you grow up wasn’t exactly an accurate prediction.

4. Teleconferencing – Watching Captain Picard talking to Admirals in his ready room over a laptop sized device face-to-face became routine, but the ease of doing it now is amazingly simple.  Through a series of methods like Webex or Zoom with webcams to conduct meetings or just using your Facetime to make a call and talk face to face on personal level, it happens you can be sure that it happens every day.  Just make sure you use a secure channel when talking about sensitive topics!

3. The Cloud/Wireless Interface – How many times did Lt. Commander Data link up with a computer system from another planet to access their database while trying to solve the episodes mystery? It seemed very convenient, but with approved access, the ability to access that type of information has become ordinary – and not just granting access to another individual computer over the network, but to access the entire network and share files, make authorized changes and see your co-workers project progress is extremely commonplace and it’s even more so today and can maintain longer history (we all know the feeling of lost files and pictures when our old hard drive crashed and we didn’t back it up on an external device.)

2. AI/Artificial Intelligence– AI is definitely not an exclusive domain to Star Trek TNG, even existing in the original series.  While we do not have fully functioning Androids like Lt. Commander Data – when I tell people that right now there are 150 self-driving trucks hauling to and from distribution centers there is usually a look of surprise.  The concept of the autonomous car is familiar to most and while it’s not on the market yet, features of parallel parking, sensing impediments ahead and setting alerts when drifting lanes are becoming common in newer model cars.  That doesn’t even begin to mention the assistants on our tricorders/smartphones like Siri/Google to ask questions is very reminiscent of accessing a database of information whether you are speaking to Data or if Captain Picard requested information from the computer; leading us to #1:

1. Voice Command Interface – This was one I had a hard time believing, but it’s amazing how Captain Picard could simply say “Computer, locate Commander Riker” or Data verbally requesting the computer for specific information or extrapolating a hypothesis.  I can walk in the house and request lights be turned on or the oven to pre-heat.  I even have a friend who configured his device to register as “Computer” so he can literally say “Computer, turn off living room TV” just because of his love for Star Trek.  While you cannot yet expect to pick up your iPhone and ask Siri to extrapolate a theory, but you can have searches done and verbal answers to what is programmed in – but you can easily have functions performed and searches conducted.

One thing that Star Trek TNG has not accomplished:  Economy using no Money

I always wondered how you could construct the Enterprise in a society that doesn’t use money – getting the raw materials just to construct it would be an enormous task.  Of course, they did have Replicators that could materialize on command whatever was needed, be it a phase coupler or chicken sandwich and coffee.  However, you come back to the paradox of who would design, build, program, test and maintain that device?  It would obviously take years of learning and studying it’s a bit of a stretch to believe individuals would take that on without the incentive of greater financial gains and security.  It would be a bit risky to work in space to build the ship – call me crazy but I would think you’d want to be compensated for that risk!

So until that paradox is solved, we can look at the advancement of the last 10 years in the DOW and the NASDAQ – while there are still investors and still people working on these projects it will matter – and Star Trek TNG will have to leave that question unanswered.