Nine Ways Star Trek Anticipated and Celebrated the Future
In the field of future technology, life has a tendency to imitate art. The creators of science fiction are often able to imagine something before science fact makes it possible. The real technology then catches up when somebody sees it in fiction and asks: how could we actually do that?
This is true of Star Trek perhaps more than any other science fiction franchise. It’s no coincidence, because the show’s creators consulted with scientists and technology experts about what was possible or might be possible. They took the future seriously and wanted to know what things might look like when we got there. In a lot of ways, they got it right.
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first episode of the original series, let’s look at nine ways Star Trek anticipated the future, helping us to imagine the next wave of innovation and to think about how we will live with it.
1) The Gadgets
Star Trek predicted or inspired a lot of the devices we have now, and the Internet is full of lists of them—even thought this is just the start of my list.
Of course, a lot of Star Trek technology still isn’t here yet. No, your 3D printer is not just like a real-life replicator. We don’t know how to “beam up” anyone or anything in a transporter. And no one has figured out warp drive yet. It’s not just that we don’t know the specifics of how to do these things. We don’t even know if they’re possible. So we still have something to aim for over the next century or two.
But a lot of other Star Trek technology is ahead of schedule. The communicator has already been and gone, in the form of the good old late-1990s flip phone.
Some compare the tricorder to certain new medical devices, but I don’t think that gets to the essence of it. You have to cast yourself back into a 1960s mindset and realize that what was really radical about the tricorder is that it was a handheld computer—at a time when your average computer took up an entire room.
Speaking of handheld computers, “Star Trek: The Next Generation” brought us what is clearly a touchscreen tablet computer—an iPad 15 years early.
Star Trek’s universal translator works a lot more smoothly than anything we have today, but you can still go on Google and get your text translated in seconds with a reasonable degree of accuracy. Throw in a few more decades of progress in artificial intelligence and language processing, and real life is on course to match fiction way ahead of schedule.
And speaking of AI….
2) Artificial Intelligence
Yes, we’ll get to Commander Data in a moment. But the closest thing in Star Trek to what we’re doing with artificial intelligence right now is the Star Trek computer, which is capable of communicating in normal spoken English. It responds to commands, gives relevant answers to requests for information, and can even perform some fairly complex (in a few cases implausibly complex) analysis.
It is well known that this is the inspiration and goal for Google: to be able to ask a question in normal English and give an accurate, relevant answer. We’re still not there yet today, but we’re headed in exactly the direction imagined by Star Trek.
As for higher-level artificial intelligence—the kind that goes way beyond the advanced pattern-recognition we’re experimenting with now and actually achieves sentience—”Star Trek: The Next Generation” gave us Commander Data, and it used him, in true Star Trek fashion, to explore some larger questions about what it means to be conscious, to be alive, to be human, and to be a person with rights.
While the original series suggested that uploading a human consciousness into a robotic body would result is a loss of humanity—Ray Kurzweil take notice—Commander Data suggested that a sentient robot could become fully human, or if not actually human, it could be as interesting as a human. All of this came to a head in one memorable story arc in which Data’s status is put on trial.
What stands out most about this, two decades later, is that this is a benevolent, sympathetic portrayal of a sentient android. Yet sentient robots are featured today mostly as the monsters in our horror films—a dozen different variations on the Frankenstein myth in which the creation turns on its creator and seeks to kill him.
Star Trek is famous for its optimism and for its humanism, so it is no surprise that it brought both to its portrayal of AI. It is a surprise, perhaps, that those characteristics are lacking from so much of our contemporary science fiction.
Oddly, though, Star Trek did not show us the use of robotics. We got Commander Data, but the Star Trek universe doesn’t really have anything below his level—simpler robots performing menial tasks.
Except with maybe one exception.
3) Autonomous vehicles.
This is not emphasized much in the franchise, and we rarely even see anything like an automobile. Why drive when you can beam up?
But by the “Next Generation” era, the shuttlecraft seem to be “piloted” exactly the way we would expect autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles to be piloted. There’s not stick and rudder, no steering wheel. The operator sits at a console and gives the computer instructions, which it appears to execute in its own way.
In the new “reboot” movies, we’re starting to see more of this. Star Trek into Darkness features a fight scene on what appear to be flying autonomous garbage barges.
But material from the reboots doesn’t hold as much weight, from the futurist’s perspective, because autonomous vehicles are almost upon us and don’t really count as a “prediction” any more.
There are other technologies from today, though, that have older roots in the franchise.
4) Virtual Reality
It’s fair to say that everything people are doing with virtual reality right now is just an attempt to recreate what “The Next Generation” did with the Holodeck.
The Holodeck went beyond mere holographic projections—the stuff of most previous science-fiction speculations—and offered a fully immersive experience with what we’re now calling “haptic” feedback: a sense of touch and solidity to virtual objects. It also included taste and smell, which is presumably the next step.
What is most interesting about the Holodeck today is the rich and varied ways it is used. It is used for entertainment, for games, for exercise, as a set for plays, a place for a first date. and for bringing favorite works of fiction or historical settings to life in an interactive way.
We’re basically working on the same thing today.
The biggest lesson for today is that Star Trek’s most interesting uses of virtual reality are to create a shared experience. Today’s VR headsets tend to be a closed-off, individual experience. It’s kind of hard to have a first date with one of those visors on. But the Holodeck reminds us that Virtual Reality is going to have to expand to become something that people can enjoy together.
The one thing Star Trek didn’t really envision was the mixing of virtual reality with the real world, i.e., augmented reality. The only prominent science fiction franchise to present a really prescient vision on this was The Terminator—so much so that before the Pokemon Go popularized the term “augmented reality,” it was generally known as “terminator vision.”
And that’s one thing that I think is going to end up looking dated, particularly when it comes to computer interfaces. In “The Next Generation,” everyone is interacting with the starship’s super-advanced electronic systems through the super-advanced technology of…touchscreens. And the displays are all in Okudagrams, which give Star Trek’s visual displays a distinctive look but not a futuristic one, certainly not now. I’m afraid the “Next Generation” user interfaces are going to seem as dated as the clunky push-buttons of the original series.
But not always. The closest they got to anticipating elements of virtual reality, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence—and how they could all work together—was Geordi La Forge’s holographic brainstorming session with an AI reconstruction of a starship engineer.
5) Technological Progress
Star Trek doesn’t just feature a lot of futuristic technology. It also takes for granted that technology is constantly changing and advancing.
I don’t want to get into the never-ending battle of the franchises between Star Trek and Star Wars, but this is a striking contrast between them. The story line of Star Wars now spans about 60 years, but the technology is all pretty much the same from start to finish. Sure, maybe this was a period of war, political chaos, and dictatorship that caused the Galactic Republic and the subsequent Empire to stagnate. But not much seems to have changed for a very long time.
Star Trek was so founded on the idea of future progress, and the vaste changes in technology from then to now, that when they made “The Next Generation,” they decided to keep it going, giving the new crew more advanced technology and better gadgets with sleeker design. Just the way it works in the real world.
But for all its optimism, Star Trek didn’t actually celebrate all new technology. It made a few key exceptions.
6) Genetic Engineering
This is an area the Star Trek franchise is notably reluctant to explore. The franchise created a major recurring villain—Khan—to stand for the evils of genetic engineering (eugenics in the original series). We’re led to believe that the technology has been banned after a group of genetically engineered superhumans tried to subjugate everyone else.
This is explored a little bit more in “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine,” but still mostly in a negative context. The Founders who rule the Dominion, the main Federation enemy in “Deep Space Nine,” have genetically engineered whole subject races of administrators and warriors that they use as their minions.
This is an interesting contrast to most of the future technology in Star Trek, which is either accepted as natural progress or at least regarded in a balanced, open-minded way, as something with advantages and disadvantages. It is perhaps a missed opportunity to explore the pros and cons of changing human nature itself. The same is true for another form of human enhancement.
“The Next Generation” features a major character with a visor that allows him to perceive non-visible wavelengths of light and which connects to him through a brain-machine interface. So how come Geordi is the only one who gets this funky new technology? In the real world, everyone else on the crew would be looking at him and thinking: I want one of those.
Instead, the franchise’s main portrayal of the cyborg future is though their biggest, most reviled villain: the Borg. The Borg are a collection of cybernetically enhanced drones integrated into a kind of collective mind. And while I appreciate the use of the Borg as a metaphor for the evils of collectivism and its subjugation of individual identity, it is the integration of technology with biology that is portrayed as the main mechanism for stripping away individuality.
In the real world, we’re going to be cyborgs in our own small way. It’s just a matter of time. We sure could use a more encouraging model to follow in figuring out how to do it without losing our humanity.
Fortunately, Star Trek generally does a good job of that in other areas, and that leads us to one of its happier omissions.
8) No Media Frenzy
The’re no Twitter in the Star Trek universe and no Facebook. People aren’t glued to their devices all the time waiting for the latest news updates or celebrity gossip—thank goodness.
It is certainly true that there are whole parts of life Star Trek deliberately omits for dramatic reasons. For example, it’s pretty clear that the Federation is not a dictatorship—but we never hear about elections, and the crew never debates politics. We get to see some of the internal political wrangling among the Federation’s competitors, and the politics of the Klingon High Council intrude pretty frequently into “The Next Generation.” But the Federation’s own politics are opaque.
Economics is also pretty much absent from the Star Trek universe. This is sometimes a bit embarrassing, as in the (fortunately infrequent) references to the idea that the Federation no longer uses money, which is definitely science fiction—with an emphasis on the “fiction”—from the standpoint of the science of economics.
Both of those omissions are corrected a bit in the later spinoffs, especially in “Deep Space Nine,” where Quark’s bar is the thriving commercial hub of the space station, and Commander Sisko and his crew get swept up in Federation galactopolitics. But they’re not a defining feature of the Star Trek universe.
Which is probably just as well, because part of the point of tuning into Star Trek is to get away from politics. Yes, the franchise has always dabbled in political and social commentary—the Klingons vs. the Federation were an obvious analogy for the Cold War—but it generally did so allegorically. It distances us from the details of current controversies by projecting some deeper issue onto a weird alien species, which makes it feel more like the show is raising questions and less like it’s taking sides.
And there’s one more reason to omit these things. If the future inhabitants of the Federation don’t have their noses always stuck in some future equivalent of the smartphone, you could see that as a failure to project the impact of technology, or maybe as hope that we will outgrow our current ways of using it.
Which leads us to the final way Star Trek anticipated the future.
9) Human Progress
While Star Trek’s futuristic technology draws a lot of attention, the biggest improvement isn’t in our machines. It’s in ourselves.
No, I don’t mean in our basic physical or mental capabilities—and maybe that’s part of the reason Star Trek doesn’t embrace genetic engineering and cyborgs. The franchise tends to be more interested in the progress of our minds and character. The future envisioned in Star Trek is a better place because we are better people.
At root, Star Trek is a vision of the eventual triumph of humanistic values. This triumph is portrayed as hard-won, with humanity having suffered through a period of warfare and chaos, a kind of mini dark age. The beginning of this dark age keeps getting pushed back as we keep catching up to it in real life (though sometimes in this election cycle I’ve thought we might finally be getting there). But we have come through that and emerged into a very hopeful future. One of the things that was shocking and refreshing in the original series is how it showed all of mankind united and at peace, including a ship with black and white crew members and Americans and Russians working together. It was certainly a contrast to the real world circa 1968.
This triumph of humanism is occasionally tied in with a certain degree of smug, conventional liberalism. But I can assure you that the show has plenty of fans on the right, too. After all, it would be the ultimate in smug liberalism to assume that only the left cares about a world without racism, poverty, war, and oppression.
Star Trek is a little vague about the details of how we achieve this humanistic progress, but there is one aspect it repeatedly dramatizes: the importance of reason, science, and technology. The activities of scientific exploration and technological problem-solving are made into the central plotlines of whole episodes, and these are regarded as a Star Trek crew’s most important activities.
This is the root of the technological optimism of the series. Not that our machines were automatically going to make the future better, but that we are going to have to be better people—and clearer thinkers—in order to get to the point where we could build that amazing future.
When it comes to technology, we’re moving along toward the future anticipated by Star Trek at a pace that keeps us right on schedule. I hope we will be reminded to put the same degree of effort into the progress of our souls.