Star Trek tech: From science fiction to science fact

Many of the then-futuristic technologies from Star Trek are now part of our everyday lives.

star trek then now intro
Stephen Sauer

From science fiction to science fact

When Star Trek first made its television appearance 50 years ago this week, it showed us cool technologies and gadgets that people could only dream about in the 1960s.

It’s a much different world today and some of those technologies are part of our everyday lives.

There are many now-familiar technologies that Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock and Lieutenant Uhura used in the original series and that other characters, like Captain Jean-Luc Picard, used in TV and movie spinoffs.

Here are some of our favorites and what scientists have to say about them.

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Smartphones outshine Kirk’s communicator

When Kirk was on an alien planet, he often connected with the crew onboard the USS Enterprise by using his communicator. He simply flipped the handheld device open and could talk to his colleagues. It also could be used as an emergency beacon.

In the 1960s, when the original series premiered, pulling a cordless phone out of your pocket and calling someone was just a dream.

Now, cell phones and smartphones are everywhere.

“The cell phone I’m talking to you on right now is such a ubiquitous part of your life you don’t think about it,” said Jessie Dotson, the K2 project scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, which is looking for points of interest inside and outside the galaxy. “But the first time I talked on one, I was like, 'Oh my God! That’s just like on Star Trek.'” 

Barry Luokkala, who teaches a course on exploring science through science fiction at Carnegie Mellon University, said with smartphones, we’ve surpassed sci-fi.

“Pocket size communicators that can communicate over hundreds or thousands of miles? Nobody had the Star Trek communicator in the 1960s -- not even the military. That was purely sci-fi,” he said. “Everyone has one in their pocket now. We have smartphones that do more than the Star Trek communicators ever did.”

Robert Hurt, who works on NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope program at CalTech said he thought the toys, like pretend communicators, he played with as a child were simply fantasies.

“Now I think, how did Kirk survive with this stupid little communicator that didn’t even have a touch screen?” he added. “Kirk couldn’t even check his calendar on his communicator. What a useless piece of technology…. Sometimes, I think it takes an inspired work of fiction to inspire the imagination.”

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Dr. McCoy’s tricorder meets the GE Vscan

In the fictional Star Trek universe, Dr. Leonard McCoy, a Starfleet medical officer serving on the Enterprise, was often seen instantly diagnosing a patient and collecting vital signs by simply using his handheld medical tricorder to scan a patient’s body.

It was fantastical 50 years ago.

And today it’s still a wild idea that actually is finding a place in reality.

GE Healthcare has a pocket-sized ultrasound machine, the Vscan, that uses two probes to give doctors a non-invasive look inside a patient, speeding diagnostics.

“It’s something the size of a large calculator or portable tape recorder with a viewing screen to see the image and a probe to take the image,” explained Luokkala. “You can look at a baby inside a mother with this handheld device.”

He added that while Dr. McCoy, also known as Bones, used his tricorder, the GE Vscan is becoming nearly as sophisticated.

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Getting in touch with touch-screen computers

Fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation likely remember that the crew often used smooth, flat touch screens.

Instead of using keyboards, they simply tapped the screen itself.

They used the touch screen technology for major computers and for handheld machines.

Today, touch screen technology makes it much easier for people to search for directions on their smartphones, send texts and type out emails on the go.

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CBS Television Studios/Stephen Sauer

Translating between fiction and reality

ghorgh chenmoH beq uss 'entepray'Daq contact je nov Segh, nuq universal mughwI',, vaj mugh SabtaHbogh Hol pong'e' pIj lo' chaH.

Oh, you don't read Klingon? Just run it through a translator

Or, here is the English:

When crewmembers of the USS Enterprise made contact with alien races, they often used what they called a universal translator to, well, translate between the languages.

For a starship that was traveling far beyond its own solar system, it was a necessary plot device.

Today, speech recognition and speech translation software is translating known languages for us (and some fictional languages, too). 

If you're traveling to a new country and don’t know the language, translators can not only help decipher signs and menus but can translate the spoken word, as well.

“That’s something that’s truly remarkable,” said Luokkala, whose own research focuses on speech and translation technologies. “Speech recognition and speech translation tools are becoming more and more sophisticated. The trouble is that what we have available to us translates from one known language into another known language. The technology can’t translate from an unknown language.”

As someone who works on translation technology in the real world, Star Trek’s fictional technology can be a little aggravating.

“The universal translator actually causes us a little bit of grief,” Luokkala said. “People have it in the back of their heads that there was a device in 1966 that could do this so why isn’t yours working? Reporters will ask me when are we going to get a universal translator? I say, never. Probably never.”

It’s hard enough to translate between a pair of known languages, after all. To do even that, scientists have to build speed recognition technology, a translator and a speech synthesizer.

“It’s still a major area of research to try and do that well, especially for languages that aren’t in the top 10 languages,” said Luokkala. “There are more than 6,000 languages in the world. Almost all of them get almost no attention at all from technology. We’re trying to make it easier to add new languages to our translation technology.”

And now, if you want to read all that in Klingon...

ghorgh chenmoH beq uss 'entepray'Daq contact je nov Segh, nuq universal mughwI',, vaj mugh SabtaHbogh Hol pong'e' pIj lo' chaH.

'ejDo' 'e' leng Hop beyond lach'eghDI' solar pat, 'ut plot jan.

qaStaHvIS reality, Sov Hol mugh QIch recognition SoQ 'ej mughmeH software.

leng machchugh chu' 'ej Qo', Hol, Sov pagh neH qI' HIDjolev 'ej decipher QaH mughwI' 'ach je laH jatlh mu', Hoch toH mugh.

"ghaH vay' 'e' teH qaStaHvIS nungbogh," jatlh luokkala SoQ mughmeH 'ej cham focuses novvaD lach'eghDI' Qul. "moj vI'Iprup sophisticated QIch recognition SoQ mughmeH tools je. Seng DaSovrup nuq wIghaj mugh lupoQ maHvaD vo' wa' Sov Hol vaj latlh Sov Hol. pagh mugh cham vo' Hol Sovbe'lu'bogh Qoylu'. "

je vay' vIDelta'bogh Qap mughmeH cham qo' real 'Iv, Hov trek fictional cham laH loQ aggravate.

"qab Ha', 'IQtaHghach lach loQ qab puS mojpu' luH maHvaD universal mughwI'," jatlh luokkala. "vItlhutlhlaw' nuvpu' in the back of 'e' pa' jan neH 1966 'ej QuQ laH vaj qatlh isn't vum lu' ta' 'e' nach qar? ghorgh yavvetlh mughwI' universal Suq tlhob jIHvaD reporters? ghIq, not. jIchegh not. "

let yap mugh SabtaHbogh chopmeH Sov Hol, qaSpu'DI' Hoch. vabDot 'e' ta', speed recognition cham, mughwI' 'ej QIch synthesizer qach ghaj tej.

"reH chaH Dapon 'e' yI mIchHom Qul nID 'ej toH 'e', especially Hol 'ej QuQ 'e' aren't qaStaHvIS Hol yor 10," jatlh luokkala. "tu'lu' puS 6,000 Hol HochDaq. tlhoS pagh attention Suq tlhoS Hoch qabDaj vo' cham. 'oH chenmoH Dov'agh vIrur Hol chu' chel cham mughmeH 'e' nID maH."

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Reality or fiction? The virtual worlds of holodecks

When characters on The Next Generation, Deep Space 9 and Voyager wanted a little vacation or a mental break from being on an enclosed vehicle hurtling through space, they would sometimes go to the spaceship’s holodeck.

The holodeck is a virtual reality facility that can be used to create sports fields, familiar places and bars and nightclubs.

Star Trek characters could even use the holodeck to put themselves in the middle of a fictional story, like when Picard in the episode “The Big Good-Bye,” puts himself in the middle of a 1940s-style detective story and has to solve a deadly mystery.

Today’s virtual reality technology may make people feel like they are in the middle of a different place and doing different things, but it’s nowhere near the level of a Star Trek holodeck.

Real virtual reality (yah, I see what I did there) has users wearing bulky headsets and sometimes gloves. They also can’t actually touch other virtual characters or objects in their virtual world.

“We’re not quite to the level of a Star Trek holodeck but the realness of virtual reality is becoming astonishing,” said Luokkala. “I don’t know that we will ever have a holodeck where there are objects external to your body that feel like real objects. We can still only do perceived images. But you can wear gloves that offer some resistance when you try to grasp an image.”

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Humanoid robots still can’t catch up to Data

When a lot of people think of humanoid robots, they think about Data.

A character in Next Generation, as well as in four franchise movies, including Generations and First Contact, Data is a life-like humanoid robot run by artificial intelligence. Self-aware and sentient, Data is a trusted member of the crew, even serving as the second officer and chief operations office.

Despite his life-like appearance and abilities, Data is constantly striving to better understand humanity and achieve human emotions.

Scientists today are building increasingly capable humanoid robots but they are light years away having Data’s capabilities.

During last year’s finals of the DARPA Robotics Challenge, for instance, top roboticists from around the world competed to build more autonomous, balanced and generally more capable robots that could one day be sent into disaster situations.

While some of the two-footed robots were able to open doors and climb stairs, others simply had a hard time staying standing during the various tasks.

And they could move some joints and limbs autonomously but they still had human controllers feeding them basic directions.

“In Star Trek, you trust your life to Data,” said Hurt. 

Scientists are pushing for robotics to reach that point in real life -- but it’s not there yet.

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Cyborgs: Part human, part machine

Resistance is futile.

That’s the message from the Borg, an alien race that “assimilates” other races into their collective in order to create the perfect race. 

A combination of organic and artificial life, the Borg serve as antagonists in the Star Trek franchise. Once an individual is assimilated into the Borg collective, they become a drone that only functions as part of a collective consciousness.

There is no individual thought in the Borg.

That’s a pretty scary and bleak image of an individual that is part human and part machine.

It’s not the case in reality, however.

For years now, scientists have been working to combine living organisms with machines. 

In 2007, for instance, when researchers successfully connected a moth’s brain to a robot, some said it one day would lead to hybrid computers, running a combination of living tissue with technology.

Then in 2008, scientists took this one a step further, using a monkey’s brain signals to control a robot. At the time, researchers said they might only be a few years away from enabling paralyzed people to walk again.

And that’s what is happening today.

A robotic exoskeleton, developed by UC Berkeley, helped a student who had been paralyzed for four years, walk across a stage to receive his graduating diploma in 2011.

And Harvard scientists have been working on an Iron Man-like suit for the U.S. military. The suit, which is expected to include sensors and its own energy source, is designed to give soldiers added strength and decrease their fatigue while carrying heavy loads.

Just last year, researchers at CMU and North Carolina State University, reported that wearing an exoskeleton could make it feel like the user had lost 10 pounds.

And getting closer to an actual cyborg, the U.S. military reported earlier this year that it is backing research into mind-controlled prosthetics.

The robotic arm, developed at the Research and Exploratory Development Department at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, is attached to a piece of metal surgically implanted into the bone of the user's arm. The user’s own nerves and muscles send controlling signals from the brain to the prosthetic, which responds like an organic arm.

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Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.

Picard’s frequent order to the replicator onboard the starship Enterprise is for his favorite cup of tea.

The replicator, which originally was used to create meals and beverages for the crew, later came to create everything from oxygen to spare parts. Though it wasn’t exactly clear how the machine worked in the fictional series, the replicator seemed to turn energy into matter -- whether it be dinner or a cup of tea. 

Today, 3D printing is making great advances in becoming something of a real-life replicator. 

Last year, NASA experimented with creating needed tools and supplies with a 3D printer on board the International Space Station.

The printer made a wrench and ratchet -- in space.

Several years ago, NASA even approved a $125,000 grant to develop 3D-printed food.

Using powder that might be good for 30 years, the goal is to create 3D-printed food, like pizza, that astronauts could eat on long space missions in replace of freeze-dried meals.

NASA has said it is investigating whether 3D printing can be used to build tools, food and spare parts in deep space to help decrease the weight a spacecraft would have to carry on a long journey to Mars.

“Right now there’s been tremendous interest in additive manufacturing and 3D printing,” said Emily L. Howard, PhD, a senior technical fellow at The Boeing Company, “Though we mostly focus on physical materials at Boeing, I know the same technology can be applied to more organic materials. Earl Grey. Hot from Next Generation was the standard request from Jean-Luc Picard. There’s probably very little that can’t be 3D printed.”

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Stephen Sauer (Creative Commons BY or BY-SA)

Computer? Hello, computer. A keyboard? How quaint.

When Star Trek crewmembers needed information from their computers, they often simply asked for it.

They didn’t type in long searches and scroll through potential answers.

They talked to their computers.

And their computers talked back.

“Command functions are offline.” “The captain is not on the ship.” “Picard command codes are no longer valid.”

Today, people are comfortable using intelligent voice assistants on their smartphones, like Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana. 

While the smart assistants can be frustrating and not as helpful as people expect them to be, they’re still a major advance.

Users can ask their voice assistants to send a text, tell them the temperature or set a reminder to call home.

“Every time I see someone, especially my daughter, using Siri, I have a flashback to Star Trek and them talking to their computers,” said Dotson.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.