The Candy Apple
Star Trek Gadgets Have Arrived
In the back of my head, I have been adding up gadgets from Star Trek that are in use today. The Star Trek universe was created in the late 1960s, and since then there has always been a television series or movie in production, or book in publication, based on its ideas. In the original television series, which ran for three seasons from 1966–1969, we were introduced to all sorts of electronic gadgets that were futuristic at the time. Science fiction has always projected gadgets and doodads, some of which exist now. It’s hard to say whether such things are invented because they were dreamed up in fiction, or whether most of them would have been invented anyway. In either case, it has been fun watching the ones from this particular show come into being.
The Universal Translator
The device that pushed me over the edge is a thing that translates your unspoken words into another language, allowing you to talk to someone who does not speak your own language. Yes, I said unspoken words. The device, introduced in October, uses electrodes in your mouth and throat to figure out what you want to say by measuring your mouth movements. Machine translation into other languages follows.
On one level, I hope this device will be helpful for folks with disabilities, and those who wish to speak in their native language. No need for translation, necessarily. I don’t know if it was originally designed for this purpose, with the translation element added later, but the idea of machine translation has been around for a while. It is evolving, while linguists deal with homonyms and regional accents. But it is far better than what we used to have, which was (and often still is) a paperback book to help us find the right phrase.
A co-worker says his PlayStation Portable has a translation thing on it that makes it a game, correcting your pronunciation, or laughing at it, I’m not sure which. Maybe both. Those of you with PSPs will know. It can translate among half a dozen languages, among them English, Korean, and what he says is Chinese, which I assume is Mandarin. I am unable to find this software on the PlayStation Web site, but maybe it is a third-party application that they do not acknowledge. In any case, it sounds like we are making progress toward something we saw on TV nearly 40 years ago: you speak into a machine, and I hear what you said in my language. It is not the universal translator of television, but who really thought that was going to happen?
I finally bought a flip phone. The one I’d been using, for five minutes a month, on a plan so old it is not listed anywhere, is antique. I decided I would join this century—but still only rarely. The new phone, as do most of them now, has a feature where you can say to it the name of the person you want to call. Assuming you have put that person’s name in your directory, it will make the connection without you having to punch the numbers, or use the screen directory. I have not tried it yet, as I do not want anyone watching me speak to an inanimate object. I do so several times a day at home, but the cat ignores me. I am intrigued by the idea of a thing that will do something if I ask it to, unlike the cat.
So. You say something to a metal thing in your hand, and a minute later, your friend talks to you on the metal thing. How is that not a communicator?
On Star Trek, the doctors and nurses would give you your meds not with a big needle, but something they called a hypospray. We were to believe the liquid just entered your bloodstream by magic, as if introduced to your arm by a syringe without a needle.
I’m told that now we have needle-less shots. The PowerMed vaccine gun, called the PMED, uses pressurized helium to get the stuff under your skin—in this case, DNA particles—so maybe this will only work with certain kinds of medicine. But we also have nicotine and other time-release patches, and lots of folks use nasal inhalers instead of getting a flu shot, so we are on the way toward getting away from needles.
On the show, tricorders had two main functions: to scan the environment to determine its chemical makeup and to scan the body to assess its condition. It is obvious that we have achieved much of the second function with MRI and CAT scans, and the like. We cannot diagnose intestinal disease this way, or a myriad of other things, but that stuff is on the way. It is already the case that we scan a drop of blood for certain conditions.
The notion of scanning the environment for its chemical composition, I am not so current on. An air quality engineer friend tells me he has used such devices for years, and that they are becoming more accurate every day. He calls them quadcorders, since they measure four gases in the air. I will leave the discussion of devices to those who understand them, but I bet my hat we can do a lot of stuff in this area. I would say a barometer is such a measuring device, but we had those before Star Trek.
I am just as happy that we do not have handheld phasers right now, or we would all go around stunning each other or worse. I hear we are not far off from this concept, but right now the closest thing that is commercially available is a Tazer. These are used by police in many areas, are designed to stun someone resisting arrest or worse, and can indeed be fatal if used excessively. The device shoots wires from the gun into the target, and then an electrical charge travels along the wires into the target.
I have not figured out how we get the wires out of the person being Tazed. It is too icky to think about for long.
When I was preparing this column, I asked some friends to remind me of gadgets from the Star Trek world we do and don’t have. The holodeck was suggested as a thing we don’t have, but I argued that virtual reality simulations are on nearly the same level. If you have not seen the shows (the holodeck was introduced in a 1980s series, not the original), the holodeck is just a room with a grid in it. The computer creates sensory information to match whatever environment you have programmed: a beach, battle, or Sherlock Holmes mystery. Anything. When the writers ran short on story ideas, they put a crew member in danger on a holodeck episode.
The modern equivalent is virtual reality systems, in which you are hooked up to a set of goggles or some other kind of eyepiece, and one or both hands are attached to a glove with sensors. You play along with the software, learning to drive, popping bubbles, or whatever the software is set up to do. I have read reports of folks who have undergone therapy for September 11 trauma, by using such programs to gradually acclimate themselves to the idea of planes flying into buildings. I have not done it justice with such a short summary, but the therapy is benign, and it works. By now this kind of immersion therapy is becoming more accessible, I would think for firefighters or police officers who experience trauma, or just for trainees. I like the idea of pilots and astronauts training in such environments before having to do it in the real world. Virtual reality software can also be used to help learn biofeedback techniques to control pain.
I was seeing the holodeck as a machine feeding us sensory information a la Descartes’ brain in the vat, but I have come to understand that the holodeck created actual solid matter. In that sense, today’s virtual reality set-ups are not comparable. I still think as far as our experiences go, it is on the same path, but it is less analogous than our earlier examples.
We do not have transporters. These devices I guess would compress your DNA and atoms into bits, and then fling them electronically to another location, where they would be reformed. The TV show also used this device as a plot launcher: it was cool to have someone get stuck in the transporter beam, and then get mixed with someone else’s DNA, or stuck for 80 years, or whatever. Made some great stories.
This is the device I think we need to get cracking on. If we want to solve the fossil fuel and energy problems, we could save a ton of gas by transporting our atoms this way. I realize we would need to burn some kind of energy to accomplish the transport, but the Law of Conservation of Energy is outdated and needs to be replaced.
Also in This Series
- On Temptation · July 2010
- Beyond Pen Pals · July 2007
- Just Because We Can Do a Thing, Does Not Mean We Should Do a Thing · March 2006
- Google Tells Big Brother to Take a Hike · February 2006
- Wikipedia Is Not the Lovefest We Thought · January 2006
- Star Trek Gadgets Have Arrived · December 2005
- The Silver Screen Keeps Shrinking · October 2005
- It’s Just Business · July 2005
- Age Has Its Advantages · June 2005
- Complete Archive