How close is Star Trek tech from reality? Part 1

In 1966 Captain James T. Kirk and the Starship Enterprise began to boldly go where nobody has gone before. The show was groundbreaking. Not only was it a rare case where a Hollywood studio asked for a second pilot but its cast broke racial and gender barriers. Key to what the crew of the Enterprise could do was the technology that they used as they sought out new worlds and new civilizations. In 1966 it seemed so far ahead of its time but now 50+ years later how close are we to using what Mr. Spock or Dr. McCoy used?

Not all technology is close. We are nowhere near close to traveling faster than the speed of light, though according to the Star Trek timeline we have another 45 years until we do. No one in the Star Trek universe ever properly explained how warp drive worked but that does not mean it is not possible. NASA has even said it is possible and is working on it. Of course trusting the Star Trek timeline can be hazardous since Khan Noonien Singh never rose to power in the 1990s (unless he did it while we were all watching Star Trek: The Next Generation at the time) so don’t hold your breath for warp drive. There are some innovations that we are using today though or close.

Star Trek IV featured the crew navigating the streets of 1980s San Francisco to bring two humpback whales into the future to stop an alien probe from destroying the Earth. In order to store the whales the chief engineer Mr. Scott needed a strong but lightweight material that could hold not only the wales but the sea water as well. He gave the formula for transparent aluminum to a manufacturer to get those materials. One inch thick transparent aluminum would have the same strength as six inch thick plexiglass. It sounded so futuristic but it is here. Transparent aluminum armor or ALON is capable of withstanding a bullet in crystalline form and by polishing the material it becomes even stronger. It is lighter and stronger than bulletproof glass and the US Air Force is testing it in the hopes that it will replace their cockpit windows.

In a vast universe there are countless other cultures to come into contact with. Telling those people that we come in peace is not always the easiest thing to do. Of course on the show everyone spoke English which made it easier for the viewer at home. Most people don’t speak Klingon after all. Misunderstandings were rare and that was thanks to the universal translator, a handy device that was capable of instantaneous translation but also capable of quickly interpreting a new language. For the Federation it was completely automated and voice activated, amazing technology for 1966 or even 1996. Two decades later we have this technology. Universal translators exist and are voice activated. There is no more need for someone to sit at a microphone and translate something seconds later. It can be done immediately via an app capable of translating 71 languages. The only drawback is that it can’t translate a new language so we still have a ways to go but then its not like the Klingons are showing up anytime soon. That same voice recognition technology allowed for crewmembers to interact with the ship’s computer. While Siri or Alexa are nowhere near as powerful as the Enterprise’s computer the voice recognition systems are exactly the same. Google even code-named its voice-based service Majel after creator Gene Roddenberry’s wife Majel Barrett. It’s now known as Google Now.

The Enterprise’s mission was scientific first and at the heart of any scientific endeavor is the gathering of information. When on a landing party Mr. Spock would use his tricorder to scan the environment and generate quick reports. It is helpful to know if you could breathe on a new planet after all. Dr. McCoy had a device of his own that could diagnose diseases. Well, we have them too. NASA uses the LOCAD device to detect microorganisms on the International Space Station. Handheld devices are in development that will be able to examine blood flow, check for cancer, bacterial infection, diabetes or even the functions of the heart. Another device uses similar technology to MRI machines but is non-invasive. A Canadian scientist built a working prototype of a tricorder in 2012 that can scan for magnetic fields as well as interference.

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