Predicting the Future—or Making it Happen?

02 January 2017

Amid the buzz around celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), it seems fitting to explore some of the progress the show has overseen during its 50-year tenure. As a point of reference, consider the other significant half-century anniversary—the debut of the original "Star Trek" in September 1966—and the upcoming 30th anniversary of "Star Trek—The Next Generation."

Scientific and technological advances rarely spring out of a vacuum. Predicting the future presents numerous complications, not least of which involves understanding how much one person’s speculations become someone else’s life’s work. Fifty years ago, we saw a picture of the future drawn from the visions of one man. Gene Roddenberry imagined a society three centuries in the future that had largely eliminated poverty, pollution, hunger, war and most of the other sources of conflict between people, reflecting his optimistic personal philosophy. It included advanced technology, a cacophony of remarkable gadgetry, and societies that cooperated with one another for the greater good. Fans of the original "Star Trek" accepted that view as a point of reference, concentrating their analytical skills on the science, engineering and technology that helped make it happen.

Flip-phones resembled the communicators from the original "Star Trek." Flip-phones resembled the communicators from the original "Star Trek." Half a century later, our technological infrastructure contains scores of examples of technology that we take for granted which eerily reflect Roddenberry’s view. Technical literature abounds with examples of how "Star Trek" correctly “predicted” the future. Consider the close resemblance of cellular “flip-phones” to the 50-year-old communicators carried by Kirk, Spock and company.

However the reality proves considerably less clear-cut. Just as watching the race to the moon and subsequent space adventures encouraged millions of young people to study physics, chemistry, astronomy, engineering and other disciplines that allowed them to participate in these exciting developments, engineers who grew up with "Star Trek" created technology that looked like what they had seen. The inventor of the flip phone got the idea for the form of his creation from watching the show.

Some examples of life imitating art come about because of deliberate action. In 2012, electronics industry giant Qualcomm launched a $10 million-dollar competition to create a "Star Trek"-style medical tricorder—a handheld device and wireless sensors weighing a total of no more than five pounds. The device measures blood pressure, heart rate, oxygen saturation, respiratory rate and temperature to diagnose 13 health conditions. Now in the final stages of comparing diagnoses on real patients with those of human doctors, the competition will announce the winners sometime in mid-2017.

The universal translator began in the original "Star Trek," although it came to fruition in "The Next Generation." The most commonly accessed current example, Google Translate, debuted in 2001 as a very flawed system. Like most technological innovations, it improved with use, amassing large numbers of translations from which it learned to construct others. Although still falling short in unbounded situations and in failing to understand language subtleties, sarcasm, humor and imagery, it performs better in technical discussions and in other text that sits in a narrow topic space. But we are not there yet. In response to an article examining the state of the art a few years ago (“Machine translation, Babel or babble,” The Economist, June 11, 2012), one commenter reported, “It’s easy to believe you’re getting an accurate, if clunky, rendition of the text, but [the translation] missed a shocking number of negations,” producing sentences that meant the opposite of the original author’s intent.

Some developments would have evolved without the boost from "Star Trek." Today's “stun guns”—or the show's “phasers on stun”—existed considerably earlier than 1966. But, at least initially, they were used only on livestock.

And lest we forget, numerous technologies depicted in "Star Trek" fell far short of the 21st-century reality, while others remain out of reach. The computer technology, for example, looks ludicrous when compared with the tools we use every day. (Constant references to data “tapes” always make me cringe.) Faster-than-light travel and matter-to-energy-to-matter transporters remain outside the limits of physics as we currently understand it.

"Star Trek" and its television cohorts did not so much predict the future as extrapolate from the present within the context of the narrative. Still, inspiring people to invent the technology that it explored in fiction provides a lasting legacy.

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