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Beyond 'Star Trek'

By David Allen Batchelor

Communications of the ACM, Vol. 60 No. 5, Pages 104-ff

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The 50th anniversary in 2016 of the iconic franchise saw multiple checklists of the speculative technologies that have become real due in part to the inspiring vision of "Star Trek," and many fans continue to cheer for even more treknology. This is an amazing record for a low-budget 1960s TV show (approximately $190,700 per episode) that first struggled for ratings but then spawned three subsequent "Star Trek" TV series and 13 movies.14 "Star Trek" has inspired technological innovation from smartphones to quantum physics, and the enduring popularity of the original show in syndication continues to make it a launchpad for future ideas and advances "Star Trek" creators never imagined. Here, I explore some of the technologies, from simple to far-out, that might yet find a place in the "Star Trek" universe if the forthcoming series gets the budget and ratings it deserves.

Many technologies would have improved the "Star Trek" universe in terms of realism and physical common sense. Some, like seatbelts, are simple and primitive, and would have kept numerous crewmembers assigned to the bridge from being shaken up when the starship Enterprise took a hit from, say, a Romulan plasma torpedo.11 As another example, when furry, prolific Tribbles experienced a population explosion aboard the Enterprise,4 they could have become a nourishing resource for a remote Federation colony, not sent to some horrific fate aboard a Klingon battle cruiser. What if, instead of consuming Tribbles, Federation scientists had genetically enhanced them for intellect? A talking Tribble or other bioengineered alien could offer companionship and amusing views in a future universe of starships some human viewers found sterile.

Early "Star Trek" scriptwriters did not anticipate a network of computers, even though, in 1946, science fiction writer Murray Leinster predicted a worldwide Internet-like network in his story "A Logic Named Joe."6 Social networks are not a feature of computer use in the "Star Trek" universe. The writers stuck with isolated mainframes like the ship's computer, even though such monolithic machines went awry, as with the M5 multitronic unit,3 or were hacked by more computationally advanced aliens, invaded and pwned. A shipboard network of special-purpose processors might be less vulnerable.

Telepresence robots today let us explore space and deep-ocean environments, perform remote surgery, visit the insides of malfunctioning nuclear power plants, and disarm bombs. Such a device might have spared the life of Mr. Spock when he sacrificed himself to save the Enterprise by repairing its radioactive warp engine in the heartrending death scene in the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.13

The great project of artificial intelligence, begun in earnest in the 20th century, foundered in the world of the original "Star Trek" series. If artificial humanoids were encountered, they were threats or fatally flawed. In one episode, Nomad, a robotic space probe, returned from its mission with newfound destructive intent.8 In another, the robot colony that captured Harry Mudd, led by its chief, Norman,5 decided to seduce all humanity with offers of service and had to be subdued with illogical assertions and paradoxes. Afterward, the tamed robots were left to themselves, as if for them to serve any useful role would have been a disturbance in the established order of the Federation. Another episode featured a humanoid robot woman called Rayna who was deceived by her maker into believing she was human,1 but Captain Kirk ruined that project by attracting her to himself and forcing her to confront her beloved creator. The stress and awakening emotional conflict destroyed her robot mind. In the universe of 23rd-century "Star Trek," that particular AI project seemed ill conceived. Maybe the scriptwriters feared the robots would rebel and go into business for themselves, as with the Nomad probe.

In the 24th-century environment of the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" TV series, robots would be even more scarce than before, except for Enterprise crew member Data, who seemed to be an isolated experiment. NASA today explores Mars and interplanetary space with autonomous rovers and spacecraft. Robotic assistants and artificial intelligence are objects of intense public and academic interest and business investment. It is indeed surprising that they would not be widespread by the 24th century. Robots of various kinds are common in "Star Wars" "... long, long ago, in a galaxy far away ..." Maybe it was that alternate futuristic world that tempted the creators of "Star Trek: Voyager" to finally accept a cybernetic holographic character, "the Doctor," into the crew of the starship Voyager.

Replicated androids like Data would make exponential cascades of robots building robots building robots ... providing a workforce to render the Federation a paradise of leisure. The robots could "terraform" desolate planets and further expand the Federation. They might even build spinning space stations for artificial gravity or an inflatable planet.

Another technology being developed today is direct neural connections with electronic devices. Body hackers have surgically attached toy devices to their nervous systems, and brain-machine interfaces enjoy a flourishing research environment. Compared with direct wireless control of starship systems through thoughts alone, as relayed by, say, Bluetooth, the Enterprise control panels might seem insufficiently futuristic. It is but one more step to augmenting human memory and, perhaps, intellectual capability.

Some of the thousands of exoplanets that have been discovered by earthly astronomers in recent years may be ocean worlds. The Federation in the far future might thus expect to encounter floating or undersea cities in their meetings with aliens. We might then ponder the plot potential of combining another 1960s TV show, "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea," with "Star Trek" on such a planet. The writers of the forthcoming series "Star Trek: Discovery" should keep this in mind for the sake of realism, as well as for the promise of future TV spin-offs and residuals.

Space elevators have inspired many technology lovers since Konstantin Tsiolkovsky conceived and proposed them in 1895. They offer exciting possibilities for expanding access to space at low marginal cost, along with low marginal impact on air quality from rocket exhaust. One episode of "Star Trek: Voyager" concerned a space elevator,2 but the existence of a transporter beam apparently made the technology unnecessary. Aliens lacking a transporter beam would be interesting nonetheless. But a space elevator would have been a good alternative given the hazardous possibilities of transporter failure. You could never get me to use such a glorified Xerox machine; if the transporter malfunctions, as in "Star Trek: The Motion Picture,"7 one could materialize as a nightmare of disorganized body parts, and worse.

The stress and awakening emotional conflict destroyed her robot mind.

Compared with medical practice in the 1960s, medical technology advanced dramatically in the "Star Trek" universe, but no scriptwriter considered the conquest of ageing and death, or immortality. Such a narrow view of the limitless "Star Trek" universe is a pity, because one would need immortality to have time to read and view all the interesting "Star Trek" and other science fiction media our own civilization is creating. My DVR is figuratively bulging with episodes of "Dark Matter" I have not had time for, and the three-part Syfy channel adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke's novel Childhood's End, among other titles, awaits. Science fiction productions I want to see are proliferating like Tribbles. I need the ability to absorb scenes at accelerated speed, the way Lt. Commander Gary Mitchell did when mutating into an advanced being.10

Only rarely did Starfleet crews pursue contact with advanced non-human beings. For example, Captain Kirk's meeting with the advanced but creepy Balok, the trippy childlike alien with adultvoice in a gigantic starship led to no perceptible gains for the Federation.12 Moreover, the Federation managed to incorporate no new classes of technology from the "new civilizations" it encountered, putting in doubt the value of the "seeking out" in the "Star Trek" slogan "... seeking out new life and new civilizations ..." In "Star Trek: The Next Generation," Lieutenant Barkley undergoes a mind meld with superior aliens who were curious about humans and apparently friendly, yet had no effect on the Federation.9 These genius beings were never seen again. Although they brought the Enterprise 8,000 parsecs across the Galaxy and then sent it back, the Federation never benefited from its super-warp drive; no scientific knowledge or even sources of nutrition became available. Maybe if the beings were warlike and dangerous to humans, the screenwriters would have found them more compelling and followed up. Another genius civilization, the Q beings, had, however, transcended technology and viewed the Federation with contempt. The story of how the Q achieved their transcendence would have been fascinating. What might we gain if we really did contact advanced civilizations, unconstrained by the boundaries of an episodic weekly TV show? Imagine the possibilities ...

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1. Bixby, J. Requiem for Methuselah. Star Trek episode 74; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Requiem_for_Methuselah

2. Braga, B. (screenplay) and Diggs, J. (story). Rise. Star Trek: Voyager episode 61; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rise_(Star_Trek:_Voyager)

3. Fontana, D.C. (teleplay) and Wolfe, L.N. (story). The Ultimate Computer. Star Trek episode 53; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ultimate_Computer

4. Gerrold, D. The Trouble with Tribbles. Star Trek episode 44; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Trouble_with_Tribbles

5. Kandel, S. I, Mudd. Star Trek episode 37; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I,_Mudd

6. Leinster, M. A logic named Joe. Astounding Science Fiction (Mar. 1946).

7. Livingston, H. (screenplay) and Foster, A.D. (story). Star Trek: The Motion Picture; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Trek:_The_Motion_Picture

8. Lucas, J.M. The Changeling. Star Trek episode 32; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Changeling_(Star_Trek:_The_Original_Series)

9. Menosky, J. The Nth Degree. Star Trek The Next Generation episode 93; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Nth_Degree_(Star_Trek:_The_Next_Generation)

10. Peeples, S.A. Where No Man Has Gone Before. Star Trek episode 3; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Where_No_Man_Has_Gone_Before

11. Schneider, P. Balance of Terror. Star Trek episode 14; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balance_of_Terror

12. Sohl, J. The Corbomite Maneuver. Star Trek episode 10; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Corbomite_Maneuver

13. Sowards, J.B. (screenplay) and Bennett, H. and Sowards, J.B. (story). Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Star_Trek_II:_The_Wrath_of_Khan

14. Sternbach, R. and Okuda, M. Star Trek The Next Generation Technical Manual. Pocket Books, New York, 1991.

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David Allen Batchelor ([email protected]) is a scientist and computer engineer for data systems at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD. His first science-fiction novel, The Metalmark Contract, was published in 2011 by Black Rose Writing, Castroville, TX.

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