Star Trek has been instrumental in inspiring many modern technological wonders. Here are some of the most impressive predictions the show made. Later this year, fans of the legendary science fiction television series Star Trek will celebrate the 55th anniversary of its original broadcast. With its optimistic view of a future that sees people of all races cooperating for the good of humanity, Star Trek was ahead of its time in many respects, and in the years since, subsequent stories within the franchise have gone further to predict the development of the human race.
In the years since its debut, Gene Roddenberry’s most famous work has gone on to inspire a wide variety of scientific breakthroughs and developments. Many of the gadgets and household technological marvels that are taken for granted now were initially popularized on Star Trek, and in many cases, inventors have looked directly to the show for inspiration on how to develop practical uses for new discoveries and inventions. Here are 15 times that Star Trek predicted the technology of modern life.
Let us start off with one that we all have or want, and for this one, size does matter!
The Big Screen Television: It is hard to think now of what watching the original series of Star Trek at the time of its initial broadcast would have been like. Televisions of the 1960s were a far cry from the large, high-definition marvels of modern life, and it’s no doubt that the limitations of the TV sets of the era, 23 to 25 inches being the biggest a family could get, helped in some ways to hide the less than impressive elements of production, such as poorly choreographed fights and cheesy special effects, which modern viewers of the show enjoy poking fun at. It is interesting to think that in many ways, Star Trek pioneered the idea of large screen displays – when the show initially debuted, the idea of a large television or computer screen that displayed lifelike visuals was completely unheard of. In the years since Star Trek first aired, great advancements have been made in producing bigger, brighter, and clearer television sets – that the show predicted this development decades before the technology was a reality is an impressive insight into the future. I for one genuinely enjoy watching Star Trek on the larger screens of the day. It is definitely a far cry from watching the pilot episode of Star Trek: TNG on a 4-inch black and white RV television.
The next is something we all take for granted; some of you are probably used to reading this now.
Cellular Phones: Probably the most obvious prediction that the original Star Trek series got right, the idea of personal communicators that could be used as portable telephones was a fantastical concept back in 1966 that is an often-overlooked technological marvel today. To a certain extent, it is difficult to separate where Star Trek’s prediction of phones ends and its actual influence on the development of the technology begins. Martin Cooper, the man often credited with the invention of the first viable cellular phone, has stated publicly that he was very much inspired by the version of mobile communicators put forward by Star Trek. As the technology further developed, Star Trek’s influence would grow, as phone developers went on to create flip phones that exactly matched the props used in the television series. While flip phones have since been replaced with smartphones for most people, this evolutionary step for the technology comes straight from the world of Star Trek, and it is worth wondering how phones might have developed differently without the show. I hope they continue to follow more examples of Star Trek communicators; I would really like a Tri-Com.
Tri-Coms bring us to our next bit of technology, albeit not nearly as advanced.
Teleporters: Scientists have been working to create viable teleportation for decades – such technology would make transport of goods and even people across vast distances far easier. Throughout this time, whenever the subject of teleportation comes up, it is difficult to avoid thinking of the portrayal of the technology in Star Trek. While human teleportation is still a long way from being feasible, scientists are making progress on the concept. Many different versions of teleportation have been explored – one key development is known as quantum teleportation, which involves sending information regarding atomic locations between two points. While the experiments in quantum teleportation may well lead to the teleportation of larger objects in the future, it also goes a long way towards solving another technological challenge from Star Trek: the ability to communicate across vast distances instantaneously – radio waves are only capable of traveling at the speed of light, after all, and are therefore unhelpful for communicating across the vast depths of space. For a more practical form of teleportation, one German company has proposed an alternative solution: a 3D printer which scans an object and produces an exact replica at another location. This could also prove the first steps towards being able to instantaneously transport items across vast distances, although for obvious reasons it is hardly ready for human use just yet. I hope they figure it out soon; I am really getting tired of rush hour traffic!
If I were smart, I would use this next one to help me write these articles.
Intelligent Personal Assistants: Star Trek features many computers which users can speak directly to and receive logical, sensible answers from a device that both understands human speech and is able to respond in kind, without the need for any kind of viewscreen or other inputs. While even as little as a decade ago this technology seemed completely impossible, how many smartphone and computer users regularly engage in voice activated conversation with digital personal assistants such as Siri and Cortana? Developments to make these devices smarter is ongoing, and with scientists making inroads to producing machines that can pass the Turing Test (an experiment to see if a computer can accurately fool users into thinking they’re talking to a human), this technology will continue to develop to be smarter at interpreting our needs. That said, a recent AI project created by Microsoft to interpret and learn from online communications had to be shut down, as it was influenced too much by internet hate speech, so there’s still some way to go before this technology is perfected. However, you can still have some fun with your IPA today; go ahead and ask which is better, Star Trek or Star Wars!
When talking about the next piece of technology, we all have our own ideas on what we would order first!
The Replicators: (Not the Spider kind) The concept of a replicator – a device that can produce any object instantly from a digital blueprint – is one that fits right in with the advanced near-magic technology of the Star Trek universe. In creating such a device for the show, it was not necessary to think too hard about the scientific logic behind the replicator, and the convenient macguffin features as a central element of several Next Generation episodes. Everything from birthday gift shopping to O’Brien picking up flowers on the way to his quarters for Keiko. Although, in reality, replicators are not quite up to making us a 5-course meal, 3D printers are becoming a more affordable item every day, as the price of 3D printers drops dramatically. While 3D printers lack many of the capabilities of Star Trek’s replicators – for example, today’s printers can only use plastic or metal as a building material – there is a wealth of practical applications for the device. In particular, it is expected that as 3D printers become more widely accessible, repair costs for devices such as washing machines will drop, as customers will be able to download replacement parts directly to their 3D printers, saving a lot of time and hassle to keep household machines running smoothly. I know a few of our own crew have 3D printers, and we use them for all sorts of fun stuff.
Our next technological wonder is one that I’ve used myself a few times, if only for a laugh.
The Universal Translator:
In a show that deals with the difficulties and nuances of interactions between a variety of alien races, Star Trek needs a simple way of explaining away communication barriers. While in many instances aliens conveniently speak fluent English, other circumstances call for a universal translator: a device that can instantly listen to any language and output a second language for the user to understand. While Google Translate has for many years been the butt of jokes surrounding automatic translation, many companies are making real headway in developing translation software that can not only cope with complex sentences, but can produce a translation instantaneously simply by listening to the speaker. Versions of this software are available as smartphone apps, while more complex and sophisticated versions of the technology have plenty of practical applications in embassies, airports, and other international areas around the world. No matter how advanced these translation apps become, I doubt they’ll translate sarcasm very well!
“Incoming transmission, Captain!” This next one is mostly seen in Star Trek: TOS.
Hands-Free Communicators: As the chief communications officer of the Enterprise, Lieutenant Uhura is often depicted across the course of the original Star Trek series wearing an earpiece that allows her to keep tabs on communications both across the ship and with external threats. In what is likely another case of Star Trek’s interpretation of technology being used as the basis for real world inventions, modern day hands-free Bluetooth earpieces strongly resemble the technology used by Uhura as part of her job. A similar device appears in the modern Star Trek movies, and it is interesting to note that this form of technology, like much in the show, does not successfully feel as advanced and futuristic as it did at the time of the original show. Considering the technological advancements that have been made over the past fifty years, it’s no wonder JJ Abrams had to make such heavy use of lens flares in order to make his movie feel scientific and visually impressive – tricks the original show did through the use of fantastical props.
In conclusion, the world has changed a lot since Star Trek initially debuted. As fans gear up for the upcoming new seasons and new Star Trek shows on Paramount Plus, it’s worth remembering not just how far Star Trek has developed over the past 55 years, but also how far humanity has come. Star Trek may not have been the original source of many of the ideas on this list, but the television show certain popularized many science fiction concepts that were later created in real life, often by scientists who’d first been inspired by watching the adventures of Captain Kirk and his crew. For providing that inspiration, Gene Roddenberry’s science fiction universe deserves significant respect and gratitude. Which other inventions has Star Trek influenced? Which is your favorite Star Trek inspired technology? If you do not see it on this list, stay tuned for Part 2, coming in a future installment of the Tiburon newsletter.
Thanks for reading, and as always, until next time, Live Long and Prosper, my friends.
LT Timothy Epperson – Chief Science Officer