For decades, science fiction has imagined the impossible to be true. From author H. G. Wells to TV series Star Trek, one of the first mega-series that spanned across generations, sci-fi has spawned imagination and inspiration for technological advancements.
Fifty years ago, on September 8, the first episode of Star Trek: The Original Series was aired. The series introduced the world to various kinds of technological possibilities that didn't exist then—big screen televisions, hand-held tablet devices, video calling, and an automated intelligent personal assistant akin to today's Siri and Cortana.
For instance, Star Trek had predicted that in the future, people would be connected with each other through a communicator in the form of a flip phone with an antenna. Even within the Star Trek canon, the communication devices evolved from push-button devices to smaller badges that could be pinned to the chest. Here are a few more such technological predictions that we're close to emulating into real life:
Replicator: A 3D printer, but not quite
PICARD: Tea, Earl Grey, hot (a pot plant appears in the replicator)
- Contagion, Star Trek: The Next Generation (season 2, episode 11)
The replicator didn't turn up in the Star Trek universe until The Next Generation (TNG), in 1987. In the Original Series, a similar device called the food synthesiser was used to conjure up food from energy. Today, the 3D printer is nearly the same the replicator, but works differently. While the replicator converts energy into material based on a stored schematic, the 3D printer creates objects by filling up material to form the shape and size of the object. A more complex object, like a wrench (3D-printed by a NASA astronaut in space in 2014 after scientists on Earth emailed the schematic to the printer), would come in several parts that need to be assembled.
Phasers: Tasers to stun, not kill
“Set phasers to stun.”
- Multiple episodes
The phaser is a go-to weapon common throughout the Star Trek canon. Powerful and highly effective, the phasers shoot a bolt of energy, to either stun the victim or kill them. Developed in the 1970s, the taser gun is the closest we've come to this technology. A taser or stun gun shoots out two electrodes that attach themselves to the skin of the victim and administer shock bolts. According to reports, during the Iraqi war, a 'dazzler' could directly shoot a bolt of electromagnetic radiation to stun. So far, no gun that can kill by shooting electricity has been developed—probably for the good.
Hypospray: Painless jet injectors
MCCOY: Is this Vulcan chivalry? The air's too hot and thin for Kirk. He's not used to it.
T'PAU: The air is the air. What can be done?
MCCOY: (holding up a hypo) I can compensate for the atmosphere and the temperature with this. At least it'll give Kirk a fighting chance.
T'PAU: Thee may proceed.
KIRK: ...What's that?
MCCOY: It's a tri-ox compound. It'll help you breathe. Now be careful!
KIRK: Sound medical advice.
- Amok Time, Star Trek: The Original Series (season 2, episode 1)
A common medical tool used in Star Trek, the hypospray is a non-invasive injection administered painlessly. Developing it into real life is a dream come true for people with fear of needles. A stream of the liquid dose, thin enough to pass through the pore of the skin, is forced deep into the skin by high air pressure. In 1962, the first jet injector was developed, but lacked precision and increased chances of infection. It got popular after the 1966 series of Star Trek. It was only recently that the WHO approved of a certain standard for jet injectors, used mainly during mass vaccination programs.
Virtual Display Device: An advanced Google Glass
BASHIR: I wish I had had more time to study the side effects of wearing that headset.
SISKO: At least we know one side effect. Headaches.
BASHIR: Well, the headsets were designed to be worn by the Vorta and the Jem'Hadar, not humans.
(Sisko hands over the second headset.)
GARAK: It's like having a viewscreen inside your brain.
- A Time to Stand, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (season 6, episode 1)
There are all kinds of eye-wear used by characters in Trek, especially the Virtual Display Device, that resemble the design of the Google Glass, a head-mounted optical display device. In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, view-screens were substituted with these mounted devices aboard battle cruisers and ships. Also called an eye-top machine, it seems far more advanced in the Star Trek universe, and the real world hasn’t caught up to the technology yet. With projects in development, we might soon be able to use the eye-wear to perform more complex tasks.
VISOR: Bionic eye that sees more
HANNAH: How does it work?
LAFORGE: Well, the visor scans the electromagnetic spectrum between one hertz and one hundred thousand terahertz, converts it all to usable frequencies and then transmits that information directly to my brain.
- The Masterpiece Society, Star Trek: The Next Generation (season 5, episode 13)
In TNG, we are introduced to a new engineer aboard starship Enterprise, Geordi La Forge, who was born blind. He wears a VISOR, or Visual Instrument and Sensory Organ Replacement, which enables him to see—much more—in a way that the human eye never could. With a VISOR, one could “see” beyond the infrared and ultraviolet ranges too. The bionic eye in the real world, in development since the 1980s, only touches the tip of what a VISOR could do, but it's a good start. These retinal prosthetic devices include implanting a chip behind the retina or in the primary visual cortex, and another that uses intracortical electrode arrays.
Transparent aluminium: Stronger than Plexiglass
SCOTT: Ah, what else indeed? I'll put it another way. How thick would a piece of your plexiglass need to be, at sixty feet by ten feet to withstand the pressure of eighteen thousand cubic feet of water?
NICHOLS: That's easy, six inches. We carry stuff that big in stock.
SCOTT: Aye, I've noticed. Now suppose, ...just suppose, ...I was to show you a way to manufacture a wall that would do the same job but be only one inch thick. Would that be worth something to you, eh?
(Scott rapidly types a formula into the computer that appears on the monitor screen)
NICHOLS: Transparent aluminum?
SCOTT: That's the ticket, laddie.
- Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
On their return to twentieth-century Earth in Star Trek IV, Scotty introduces Plexiglass plant manager Nichols to the marvels of transparent aluminium, in exchange for a sheet of Plexiglass. Scotty explained that transparent aluminium was lighter and thinner—replacing a 14cm Plexiglass window with a 2cm-thick see-through aluminium window—and stronger. While it was mentioned in a fleeting moment in Star Trek, it was later developed in real life. Called aluminium oxynitride (AlON), it is the hardest available ceramic material, used commonly as armour for military vehicles. It is also stronger and lighter than bulletproof glass.
Universal translator: Alien language interpretor
KIRK: There are certain universal ideas and concepts common to all intelligent life. This device instantaneously compares the frequency of brainwave patterns, selects those ideas and concepts it recognises, and then provides the necessary grammar.
SPOCK: Then it translates its findings into English.
COCHRANE: You mean it speaks?
KIRK: With a voice or the approximation of whatever the creature is on the sending end. Not one hundred percent efficient, but nothing ever is.
- Metamorphosis, Star Trek: The Original Series (season 2, episode 9)
A universal translator automatically translates alien language into a known language by detecting brainwave frequencies to convert the speech into recognisable speech with proper grammar. Its output was through a voice that the device would acknowledge as male or female depending on the brainwave patterns of the life form speaking. Within the canon, the universal translator developed from a hand-held device to a communication badge. We're not quite there yet in terms of immediately translating speech. There are a few apps that claim to do this, but depending on internet connectivity, could take time.