By Robert Owens:
In many ways I have always been a dystopian believing that the inevitable rise of a future technology enhanced totalitarian state will regiment and control a society that is as dehumanizing and as unpleasant as possible. I was influenced by early and repeated readings of such works as 1984, The Brave New World, A Clockwork Orange, and the Iron Heel. I was also influenced by the History of the Twentieth Century and the steady erosion of freedom in America that marks the evolution of the Progressive agenda. In spite of all that I also believe that technology has the potential to change the game and deliver us to an unexpected future.
Back in 2005 there appeared a two-hour television documentary, commissioned by Discovery Channel Canada and co-produced for History Channel in the United States and Channel Five in the United Kingdom., How William Shatner Changed the World. In this well-done and very interesting film William Shatner presents a light-hearted look at how the “Star Trek” TV series has influenced and inspired today’s technologies including: cell phones, medical imaging, computers and software, SETI, MP3 players and iPods, virtual reality, and spaceship propulsion.
Ever since, I have been recommending that people watch this as a way to inform them of how much science fiction is becoming science fact. Several recent announcements have spurred me to devote this week’s column to a more public pronouncement about where technology is leading us.
Think about the Star Trek franchise where there was the original Star Trek, then the Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager, Star Trek: Enterprise, the movies, and even an animated series. For decades these imaginative shows have tantalized us about a future where humanity has left the death cage of a world that has been repeatedly almost wiped clean of life by meteors, volcanoes, and ice ages. It is only by spreading beyond the womb of our home world that humanity can ensure its survival.
Technology also offers the prospect of transforming our societies and cultures in ways we need to examine unless we intend to fly into the future blind.
The first hour focuses on the original Star Trek series and the ideas that Gene Roddenberry had about the future of space travel.
It begins with the life of Dr. Marc D. Rayman, the chief propulsion engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and shows how Dr. Rayman became interested in propulsion through Star Trek. It also discusses how NASA’s newest deep space probe’s ion propulsion was inspired by the Star Trek episode Spock’s Brain. Shatner also states that “those pesky trekkies are everywhere in the space program,” hence the name for the first Space Shuttle: Enterprise.
The show then examines the life of Martin Cooper, the chief engineer at Motorola, who invented the cell phone. Cooper states that Star Trek was his inspiration for the cell phone, and discusses the similarities between the modern day cell phone and a Star Trek communicator. He also discusses how Star Trek introduced the concept of computer voice recognition dialing.
Next, Mae C. Jemison describes how Star Trek inspired her to become the first African-American in space, and Seth Shostak, of SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence), tells how it led him to astronomy.
The show also explores how Star Trek popularized the notion of the user-friendly personal computer, and how Trek fan Ed Roberts, invented the first home computer, the Altair 8800, named after the solar system Altair (Altair 6) in the Star Trek episode Amok Time. This led to Bill Gates writing the computer programming language BASIC for the Altair and forming Microsoft.
Medical technologies are discussed, in particular the inspiration for non-invasive Star-Trek-style imaging technology.
Warp drive and faster-than-light interstellar travel with theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre‘s theories are mentioned. Lawrence M. Krauss, physicist and author of The Physics of Star Trek, is also featured.
The show then investigates the research work of Kevin Warwick at the University of Reading and considers its links with the Borg. Warwick’s cyborg implants, linking his own nervous system into the internet, are featured.
Second hour The second hour focuses on further programs in Star Trek franchise: Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Star Trek: Voyager and Star Trek: Enterprise and their impact and how they differed from the original series.
As eye-opening as this documentary was it first saw the light of day back in 2005. That was ten years ago, and according to Moore’s Law, based on the observation made in 1965 by Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits had doubled every year since the integrated circuit was invented and his prediction that this trend would continue for the foreseeable future, there has been an exponential rise in computing power every year since. With rising computing power comes acceleration in the speed of innovation based upon the research and design enhancement that computing power provides. So where are we today?
Communicators: Remember the two way links provided by those handy little medallions the Star Trek crew wore? They could speak to the ship and each other. Never more than a click away everyone was in constant communication. When we first saw these most of us still had rotary dial phones and only the rich and powerful had something we called a car phone. Today more people on Earth, six out of seven billion, have access to cell phones than have access to toilets. And on those cell phones we not only have audio communication on mobile devices we have video, face-time, pocket computers, calculators, and cameras.
Phasers: In the real world we call these lasers, and they have been real for a long time. Used in many ways lasers have become a part of everyday world with laser pointers and laser cutting. Today after decades of development and testing they are moving into the world of weapons. The U.S. Navy has already mounted them on ships and they are being tested on jet fighters, drones, drone killers, and rifles.
- Print organs used in medical procedures, and to create prototypes for manufacturing speeding up the time needed to develop new products. Dr. Anthony Atala at Wake Forest’s Regenerative Medicine department was able to create artificial scaffolds in the shape of an organ with living cells. First the scaffold is printed and then it is coated with living cells. Now the Regenerative Department is working on building 3D printers that can print artificial scaffolds and living cells at the exact same time.
- Ford Motor Company uses 3D printing to make prototypes of many parts in their vehicles, such as cylinder heads, brake rotors, shift knobs and vents. 3D printing was used at Ford’s Torrence Avenue Assembly Plant for the production of the Explorer and EcoBoost engines. Jim Kor and his team of engineers are building a whole vehicle with 3D printers called the Urbee 2. The body of the original Urbee was made through the use 3D printing. However, the Urbee 2 as a whole will be mostly 3D printed. The Urbee 2 will also look more like a production-ready car compared to the original.
- NASA has fabricated rocket engine injectors. NASA is also going to send a 3D printer into outer space as part of a plan to set up a “mini factory” at the International Space Station (ISS). If astronauts run out of tools, they would simply be able to print out more. Astronauts would no longer have to carry spare parts for each mission.
- Defense Distributed a high tech gunsmith group created a fully open-sourced 3D printed gun. Fifteen of the gun’s sixteen parts were made out of 3D printed plastic and the body can be etched overnight.
- Dr. Tariq Rahman of the Nemours Biomedical Research facility at the Alfred DuPoint Hospital For Children worked with engineers at the hospital to build a durable exoskeleton that is helping those who cannot walk do so.
- In Japan, Yahoo! is working with a creative agency called Hakuhodo Kettle to help a school for the blind. Yahoo! is teaching blind children to search the web using a machine called Hands On Search. The Hands On Search is shaped like a cloud and it combines voice recognition technology with a MakerBot 3D printer to turn voice queries into physical objects.
It may be a few years before we all have 3-D printers in our homes or before we can merely say, “Earl Grey Tea – Hot” and have it appear in a cup ready and waiting; however, at this rate it may not be long.
Cloaking Device: In the Star Trek universe the Romulans were always popping in and out of view with their cloaking device. This was a stealth technology so advanced that it not only made their war ships invisible to enemy technology it made them invisible to the naked eye.
Today scientists are hot on the trail of invisibility. Step by step and inch by inch we are coming closer and knowing the way the military has what we think is impossible long before we know it is reality many believe it is already in use. In a reversal of the old saying, “What you don’t know can’t hurt you,” invisible war ships, planes, tanks, and men will be extremely difficult to counter. Except by blind luck you can’t hit what you can’t see
Impulse Power: This is the slower than light drive used in Star Trek. It may be slower than light speed but it is way faster than the primitive solid and liquid propulsion systems we have been using to dip our toe into the space faring sea. The ships of the Federation in the Star Trek universe used it to zoom around inside solar systems and that may be a close approximation of what is looming on our horizon.
The no longer secret development of the Electromagnetic Drive (EM Drive) is about to take human space exploration to a whole new level. Imagine going to the Moon in four hours or to Mars in ten weeks. This is what scientist are telling us is the potential for the EM or Electromagnetic Drive being called an impossibility that works because it violates Newton’s Third law of Physics “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” It produces thrust by using solar power to generate multiple microwaves that move back and forth in an enclosed chamber. This means that until something fails or wears down, theoretically the engine could keep running forever without the need for rocket fuel. Once it starts it is that holy grail of pseudoscience: perpetual motion. Everyone knows perpetual motion is impossible. The only problem is that it works.
This is being called a reactionless drive. Reactionless drives lack the “reaction” defined in Newton’s Third Law so for this to work there must be an as-yet-undefined phenomenon taking place or our current understanding of physics is completely wrong.
With this technology it becomes feasible for humanity to make a real beginning of mass exploration and one day migration to the stars. We are poised to leave the womb of the world and be re-born as a star faring race. One day soon we may have cousins on Mars and brothers on the Moon. One day soon we may leave ourselves and help secure the survival of humanity in this cosmic pinball machine where eventually a meteor will punctuate our equilibrium.
And there is the Borg. Which, according to Memory Alpha, “were a pseudo-species of cybernetic beings, or cyborgs, from the Delta Quadrant. No single individual truly existed within the Borg Collective (with the possible sole exception of the Borg Queen), as all Borg were linked into a hive mind. Their ultimate goal was the attainment of ‘perfection’ through the forcible assimilation of diverse sentient species, technologies, and knowledge. As a result, the Borg were among the most powerful and feared entities in the galaxy, without really being a true species at all.”
Is there any possibility that we are the seed of the Borg? According to Ray Kurzweil, arguably one of the most intelligent men to have ever lived and demonstrably one of the most prescient futurists of all time in his seminal book The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology it is not only possible it is coming soon to a reality near you. According to About the Book in this book Kurzweil examines,
The next step in this inexorable evolutionary process: the union of human and machine, in which the knowledge and skills embedded in our brains will be combined with the vastly greater capacity, speed, and knowledge-sharing ability of our own creations.
That merging is the essence of the Singularity, an era in which our intelligence will become increasingly nonbiological and trillions of times more powerful than it is today—the dawning of a new civilization that will enable us to transcend our biological limitations and amplify our creativity. In this new world, there will be no clear distinction between human and machine, real reality and virtual reality. We will be able to assume different bodies and take on a range of personae at will. In practical terms, human aging and illness will be reversed; pollution will be stopped; world hunger and poverty will be solved. Nanotechnology will make it possible to create virtually any physical product using inexpensive information processes and will ultimately turn even death into a soluble problem.
If this sounds too farfetched consider these recent headlines:
- DARPA is testing implanting chips in soldiers’ brains
- The Age of Enhancement: Technology is starting to give us superpowers once reserved for comic-book heroes.
- Building the Real Iron Man
- The Real Cyborgs
- Plugging In Your Brain and Body – The Future Of Implanted Computers
- Brown University creates first wireless, implanted brain-computer interface
- Intel: Chips in brains will control computers by 2020
- Will Microchip Implants in Humans Become Mandatory?
After even a cursory search of the Net, just a few clicks and these types of stories begin to appear endless. This isn’t pie-in–the-sky sometime off in the future somewhere, this is today. This is happening now. There is a mad dash to enhance and improve upon God’s creation: man. In our infinite wisdom we have decided that it is time to take control of evolution and kick it up a notch.
When I speak to people about this aspect of the near future I am often told, “I’ll never get any of that implanted in me.” I always answer with this question, “If someone invents a chip that is implanted with a simple shot that makes you 1000 times more intelligent and you don’t get it, how do you compete with those who have?”
I have yet to receive a satisfactory answer.
As the Historian of the Future I am compelled to point out that the current events of today are the History of tomorrow, and just as the past is always the past the future is yet to be. We live in a constant present where, as the future slides into the present the present slides into the past and our lives are the History of the future. So live your life as if it matters. Face the future with a consciousness of the past so that the present can be used to shape what the future will be. Because it is coming whether we want it or not, and resistance is futile.
© Copyright by Robert Owens, 2015. All rights reserved.