Last Friday (Feb. 27) brought the terribly sad news that Leonard Nimoy, the actor who will always be known in IT circles as Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, had passed away. For a lot of people in IT, Star Trek was incredibly important. It’s not unusual to hear IT professionals say that Star Trek first got them interested in computers or technology. And over the past half century, much of technology was influenced by the franchise. We don’t have the big ones — we aren’t getting beamed up or traveling at warp speeds (and we don’t have flying cars either, George Jetson!). But as we remember Nimoy and what his Spock meant to us, it’s worth considering the ways in which we are living in a Star Trek universe, as well as some things that the franchise just got plain wrong.
When it comes to mobile phones, it was the aesthetics that seemed to be derived directly from starship Enterprise gear. At least this was true a dozen years ago or so, when flip phones were in the ascendant. Many of them were highly evocative of Star Trek communicators. I don’t think that was a coincidence.
When Star Trek: The Next Generation brought the franchise back to TV, the communicators had evolved from handhelds to wearables: a shirt pin that looked like a Starfleet insignia. The tech world is really into wearables right now, and I’m thinking that a lapel pin or brooch that draws on the Star Trek influence would be a more efficient model for an interface than a wristwatch (à la Dick Tracy) or eyewear.
Speaking of eyewear, there are similarities between Geordi La Forge’s VISOR (Visual Instrument and Sensory Organ Replacement) and Google Glass. Both transmitted data via the optic nerve, both were used to share far more data than would otherwise be available — and both ended up getting replaced because they were too awkward.
The input method for a shirtfront device is obvious: You would talk to it. And that brings us to …
When Enterprise crew members needed something from the computer, they asked for it. In 2015, voice recognition has made great strides, and both Google and Apple have made it possible for us to talk to our phones. Voice recognition still isn’t as seamless as it appeared to be on Star Trek, but it’s gotten good enough that we might trust it more than we should. I say this because when I dictate an email through Apple’s Siri, it gets so much of it right that I often don’t bother to proofread the message carefully. A few embarrassments have resulted.
That kind of voice recognition didn’t exist back in Spock’s day or even when TNG made its debut. I remember, back in the late 1980s, interviewing an IBM fellow who was talking about the speed of an upcoming workstation. In those days, we still used MIPS — millions of instructions per second — to describe CPU speed. And he said the next machine would top 100 MIPS. What’s the significance of that? I asked. He replied, “That’s when we’ll begin to deliver voice recognition.”
I wish we could get our phones’ attention the way the Enterprise crew could access the computer. (“Computer, calculate the trajectories of all Class M planets within 500 million kilometers.”) True, Apple has introduced a “Hey, Siri” feature — say those words and your phone responds. But it only works when the mobile device is plugged into a power supply. I understand the reasoning for this: If Siri is constantly on the alert for you to say, “Hey, Siri,” that’s a huge power drain. But I’d be happier if Apple gave users the option of enabling “Hey, Siri” whenever they wanted to. If I’m driving and my battery is 100% charged and I know I will soon be at a place where I can recharge it, I would love to be able to get my iPhone to do things without me touching it. And the fact is that when I am able to plug in my phone, I tend to be in a situation where it’s easy for me to manually summon Siri.
(If I have the attention of any Apple developers right now, let me just lodge a complaint about the home button. Sometimes, in activating my phone, I’ll unintentionally hold that button down long enough to instead activate Siri. That’s not a big deal, unless I’m in a public place with no reception. Then, I and everyone around me is greeted by a very loud “Siri is not available.” My discomfort about this might not influence you to devise a new way of summoning Siri, but maybe if I couch it in Star Trek terms, you’ll be more responsive. Suppose Spock were on an away mission, making an incognito visit to an inhabited planet that has yet to develop much beyond rudimentary technologies. He holds the home button down too long on his Starfleet iPhone, and everyone hears it say, “Siri is not available.” So much for the Prime Directive!)
You can do a lot with 3D printers these days, including some rather amazing medical applications. True, no one is replicating food yet, not even anything as straightforward as a raw potato. But you could easily fabricate a spare part for your spaceship.
With this one, IT in 2015 has gone far beyond what was envisioned for the 24th century. Enterprise crew members used geolocation to get someone’s current location or, more rarely, to find a specific cabin on the ship. The way we’re using geolocation today, we could have authenticated aliens who back in the old series would fool the system every time.
This reminds me of instances when the Enterprise computer could have been more helpful. In the episode A Taste of Armageddon, the computer knew that there was a fake Capt. Kirk, but it didn’t volunteer that information, instead waiting until someone thought to ask. I guess you could look at this as predicting how Microsoft technology would work.
RFID/NFC Chip Injected into the Body
I can never see this scene without being impressed by how perfectly it depicts a CIO being called on the carpet for a failing IT rollout — and opting to defend the creation rather than concede the error.
One Big Goof-up
In a memorable plot point, Spock asked the computer to calculate the precise value of pi to keep busy an evil entity controlling the computer.
The problem: Why would a system that refuses to accept instructions about navigation and turbolift controls suddenly feel a need to obey a calculation function? Wouldn’t the entity be more likely to say “You and what army, Pointy Ears?”
Personally, though, it isn’t really a Star Trek technology that I want to use in my everyday life. There are times, though, when a Vulcan nerve pinch would really come in handy.
Evan Schuman has covered IT issues for a lot longer than he'll ever admit. The founding editor of retail technology site StorefrontBacktalk, he's been a columnist for CBSNews.com, RetailWeek and eWeek. Evan can be reached at email@example.com and he can be followed at twitter.com/eschuman. Look for his column every other Tuesday.