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.

Thoughts On COVID-19 and the Economic Fallout

My colleague Bill Washinski compiled some data on the COVID-19 crisis and shared his thoughts. Enjoy!

Charles

It’s hard to find anyone who does not have a take on COVID-19.  The impact is unprecedented. I never imagined living in a world that has seen countries implement nationwide quarantines.  Its impact on the world has been nothing to take lightly from the enormous economic impact and the danger of overloaded hospital systems.  There is still a lot of fear and uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, with the two that seem most prevalent being how long the crisis will last and why the heck does it cause people to hoard toilet paper? 

Okay, the second obviously is not as prevalent, though its more mysterious.  One has a better chance to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem, but the good news is that there is more to data to make informed speculations about how long the crisis will last.

How far away are we from COVID-19 crisis ending?

The U.S. exceeded China in the number of cases on March 26 – reaching 83,836.  In monitoring the trajectory of testing in the U.S. over the last week; we’ve seen the enormous upticks in both cases (945%) and deaths (925%).  The U.S. testing response has been a little slow, as just a week ago the confirmed cases was less than 8,000 (118 deaths) which does give perspective to those percentage increases.  We simply do not know what the actual number of infected persons there were s prior to the increased level of testing.

As the U.S. has now surpassed 1,200 deaths, it’s hard to get a real estimate on where this is going and whether we begin to look like Italy, particularly in New York.

Surgeon Dr. Marty Makary from Johns Hopkins University has stated “The virus is following the playbook, this is playing out exactly as predicted in all the models and projections” and speculates that “we are probably still about 3 to 4 weeks away from its peak.” 

COVID-19 – Endgame

The initial death rate estimates on COVID-19 by the World Health Organization was 3-4% though that number is now disputed.  The UK has already declassified COVID-19 as a high consequence infectious disease as the death rate was significantly lower than expected. 

Different countries have handled it better than others.  China took draconian measures to Flatten the Curve, South Korea had a system in place to respond quickly due to its experience with the MERS outbreak in 2015, and Italy had numerous factors that have placed it at higher risk.

WHO Expected Death Rate too High?

That 3-4% number comes from a case fatality rate which has a numerator and denominator.  The numerator represents the number of people who have died from COVID-19, which is very easy to see and measure.  The denominator should be the number of people who have been exposed to and got the virus.  The problem is that the test being used is a test of RNA content to see if you have the virus actively in you.  However, what if you had COVID-19 and recovered?  At that point the virus is gone, and you have the antibodies to it and are likely immune.

A far more useful number is a denominator for both those populations (those who actively have the virus and those that have the virus and are cleared of it.)   The central piece of scientific information is the zero prevalence (the proportion of the population that has antibodies to the virus). With that information we could know the true death rate and how extensively it has spread.  Another missing number in the denominator represents people who are symptom free and have the virus, so there is no factual way to know if the disease is as deadly as initially forecasted.  The problem is that not knowing this data leads to uncertainty as there is no obvious best course of action to take. 

Antibody Testing – The Solution?

We need to expand our capacity on antibody tests very rapidly and the scientists that want to measure the problem do it and find funding to pay for it. The FDA itself was a hurdle and only recently approved the first antibody test for use in the United States.   If antibody testing can prove successful and you are immune with no risk of spreading it, then we can systematically get people back to work and end the lockdown faster.

Lockdown – The Solution?

With the absence of data to determine what the actual rates are and lacking a miracle cure, the only apparent way to halt the pandemic was to starve it.  The goal referred to as “Flattening the Curve” referred to avoiding a sharp increase in cases in favor of a lengthier outbreak that stays within the bounds of what the healthcare system can handle.

The decisions going forward are critical. Often characterizing the lockdown and resulting $2 trillion in stimulus as a choice of dollars vs. deaths, it’s important to take into consideration that economic depression leads to people dying too.  It’s impossible to determine how well the lockdown has been successful in preventing excess cases and deaths – which is an example of the uncertainty in practice.

There aren’t obvious answers, or at least not yet. But opinion makers — even in traditionally left-leaning publications like the New York Times, are at least starting to ask the right questions.

 

What Thanos Got Wrong

Note from Charles: I worked with Bill Washinski for years when I was living in Florida, and we collaborated on several research projects. In the spirit of the upcoming Avengers movie. I enjoyed his piece here on “the economics of Thanos,” and I hope you do too. –Charles

Tomorrow, April 24, Avengers: Endgame, the sequel to the $2 billion hit movie Avengers: Infinity War will be released in China, with releases in the rest of the world to quickly follow. This brings to a climax a story line that has been more than a decade in the making, starting with 2008’s Iron Man

In all of the anticipation, there has been a lot of discussion around social media and other outlets about Thanos and the merits his plan to eliminate half of the population of every planet in the universe with “The Snap”.  

To some, Thanos isn’t a villain at all. He’s a misunderstood hero doing what needs to be done to save humanity from the consequences of overpopulation and the exhaustion of resources. Indeed, throughout history many (if not most) conflicts have been fought over limited resources. And in an era in which global warming is one of the biggest and thorniest political issues, there are plenty of people out there who believe a smaller population is ideal.

It stands to reason that the Earth probably has a finite carrying capacity. There may be some upper population limit at which we’ve officially outgrown our planet.

It was 18th century demographer Thomas Malthus who first popularized the idea of the Earth reaching its carrying capacity. Mathusianism stated that “the power of population is indefinitely greater that the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.” 

Thanos made the same point in Infinity War:  “It’s simple calculus, the universe has finite resources and if life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist.”

However, despite his omnipotent power, Thanos is lousy statistician. Had he bothered to check, he would have seen that the birth rate has been in a state of free fall since the U.N. began keeping track of it in the 1950s.  This is a product of industrialization, as children in the modern era are no longer a source of cheap labor but rather a major expense.

The birthrate was 37.2 Births per 1,000 from 1950-1955, dropping nearly in half to 19.4 Births per 1000 from 2010-2015.  This has nothing to do with declining resources as much as it does economic factors – it can cost $200,000 – $300,000 to raise a child in the United States (not including the costs of college education).  Massive improvements in infant mortality also played a role, as parents felt less needs to have “spare” children.

But not only is population growing at a slower rate; some countries are actually shrinking. Japan’s population started to decline in 2011, and the country had a record low 15 million births in 2018.  Western European nations average only 1.6 children per woman, which is not enough to replace the existing generation. So, it is only a matter of time before Europe as a whole begins to shrink.

Thanos tried to “fix” a problem that nature and economics seems to already be fixing on its own. We’ve already moved past a point of maximum growth.

Let’s look at other aspects of Mad Titan’s madness. His cutting out half the population could have drastic negative effects.  In the movie he references how another character’s home world was a paradise after he culled the population. This is a short-sighted view, that a smaller population with more resources to sustain them made it a better world, is incredibly naïve.

Imagine if Thanos came and did his snap before Henry Ford developed the assembly line for cars or before Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin? What if Bill Gates was turned to dust before he created Microsoft or Steve Jobs before he created Apple?  What kind of brilliant minds that could have made our lives more efficient and productive would have been suddenly ripped from existence before they could implement their products?

Imagine your world today before the smart phone or software that could increase your productivity and income or you were still behind a carriage on the way to work?  Thanos may have made for an interesting villain and a great movie; but his solution of eliminating population also eliminates productivity and innovation – and this writer hopes the foolish and simple-minded snap is undone this weekend by a series of heroes that have earned a lot of respect over the years by some great minds leading the way like Kevin Fiege. 

Oh no, what if Fiege was not head of Marvel Studios because he turned to dust?  Perhaps there would be no need for this article then!