While clearly in the realm of fiction, the technologies and equipment presented in Star Trek inspired generations. Who didn’t want their own Holodeck or personal communicator?
But now, real life advancements in computing and robotics have become so robust that we are anticipating the “Singularity,” and NASA has actively been pursuing projects like warp ships. So, just how excited should you be about all of this work? Is the world of Star Trek really that far off?
In some respects, we have actually surpassed the gizmos producer Gene Roddenberry and the writers of the show originally thought up. Our cellphones, laptops, and tablets can stream video, images, and text. Moreover, our network of satellites means that, thanks to things like Skype, you can have an instantaneous video call with anyone anywhere on the planet.
In contrast, the crew’s communicators could only do verbal reports. True, their larger computers were capable of a lot more, but as far as handheld devices go, our cell phones are a lot more than what the early creators of Star trek seemed to imagine.
Similarly, the handheld, portable tricorder from Star Trek was essential to the crew. It was able to scan and record biological data from almost anything, and (like the communicators) it could do it anytime and anywhere.
Ultimately, recent technology seems to have been pulling the device out of science fiction and turning it into reality. Take, for example, the tech developed by British company Oxford Nanopore Technologies, which aims to bring portable DNA sequencing into everyday reality. They have made significant advancements in processing the information contained within an object’s genetic code, but while the early work is notable, we’re not there yet. Known as the MinION, production was a disappointment to many scientists due to manufacturing delays, inaccurate results, and lack of truly significant features (but we’re taking baby steps).
And what about warp drive? Well, to begin, the core idea behind this travel is not the propulsion we are familiar with. You don’t accelerate at all. Instead, this method utilizes the flexibility of the fabric of space itself.
The most practical design thus far has been a ring built around a smaller craft that could expand space behind it and shrink it in the front. This essentially creates a warp bubble that would shift space-time around the craft. From the inside, it would appear as though you were racing through space, when in fact there would be no acceleration whatsoever!
But there are problems. Sean Carroll, a theoretical cosmologist famous for his popular science books, went on record saying;
The Alcubierre warp drive is a very interesting arena for thought experiments to try to better understand general relativity and quantum field theory, but it should give you zero hope for actually building a spaceship some day. Some of the many problems are discussed on Wikipedia.
In short, it requires negative energy densities, which can’t be strictly disproven but are probably unrealistic; the total amount of energy is likely to be equivalent to the mass-energy of an astrophysical body; and the gravitational fields produced would likely rip any ship to shreds. My personal estimate of the likelihood we will ever be able to build a “warp drive” is much less than 1%. And the chances it will happen in the next hundred years I would put at less than 0.01%.
And, of course, there is more. Take technology like the Holodeck. Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law says, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But, as NASA notes, “we can’t assume every magical feat could be accomplished, given sufficiently advanced technology. Holograms are images that appear to have three-dimensional structure. We can’t yet imagine a way to assemble matter in the same way as the light in a hologram.”
However, we do have some pretty impressive virtual reality technology that can simulate actual places and activities. Likewise, augmented reality is progressing day-by-day. So, in a sense, we are getting there.
While many Star Trek technologies are in the works in one way or another, we still haven’t got around to making the big stuff real. Warp and ion drives, Mr. Data, fusion engines…and a whole lot of other major projects are still major engineering challenges.
In fact, even sending signals over astronomically short distances (like to Mars) still results in lag—while they may be based on shreds of actual math, subspace communications of the Star Trek Variety are still rather impossible.
But as was noted, a number of these technologies are already in the works, and we have surpassed Star Trek in several different areas. So although we might not have Klingons and interstellar travel, we have instantaneous global communication; we have computers that we speak to, and they speak back; we have people living in space…so in some ways, we already are living in a Star Trek-esque world.
And it’s that combination of real science and creative imagination that keeps us all coming back to Roddenberry’s world.