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the realization of star trek technologies

23 october 2017

Lawrence Krauss's Physics of Star Trek is now more than 20 years old, but remains one of the more entertaining critiques of any science-fiction world, appreciative and irreverent at the same time. Physics has moved on quite a bit since Krauss, however, as has Star Trek. Meanwhile, engineering has boldly gone where even SF scenarists might not have dared to go before. It was time for an update. Mark Lasbury's Realization of Star Trek Technologies takes Krauss's vision into quantum, nano, and hyperdimensions. Apparently all it takes to get a 21st-century fabricator tinkering is for a starship captain to intone "Make it so."

It'll be a little while before we get to invisibility cloaks and transporters, but phasers, replicators, tricorders, Geordi-like visors, and universal translators are either already here in some form, or getting closer by quantum leaps. In some ways we are already beyond Star Trek – well, we've known this ever since we got our first smart-phones, and Captain Kirk was left behind in the flip-phone era.

One item that Krauss speculated about, but Lasbury doesn't touch, is warp drive. Faster-than-light travel is necessary if we want our starship captains to have adventures weekly instead of once ever other generation. But the speed of light shows little sign of bending to our technological will, and I guess Lasbury omitted it as fantastic, and unnecessary in some ways. We can have lots of amazing ST gizmos without warping across hyperspace.

To take things in order of reachability: tricorders, the topic that Lasbury treats last, are almost upon us. Nobody won the Qualcomm Tricorder X prize earlier this year (after Lasbury went to print), but several contenders won partial prizes. I always thought of the "medical tricorder" as a sort of hand-held super-imager, but state-of-the-art devices in 2017 work by detecting emanations. This sounds occult, but is quite straightforward: cells and substances in your body either emit traces through your breath or skin (dogs can detect them), or can be tagged with nano-devices that can be scanned through the skin. Either way, we are on the path to making cancer diagnoses by waving cellphones over ourselves. This ought to lead to a spike in hypochondria, if nothing else.

Weaponry, naturally, is another advanced field. Show military brass some sort of futuristic weapon, and they'll immediately start funding R&D. The U.S. Navy has a laser cannon that not only zaps drones out of the sky, but is incredibly cheap to fire, and needs no ammunition: as long as the ship has electrical power, the laser can blast away. The Army has something called the Active Denial System that works by making people uncomfortably hot. Way more than everyday Iraq-desert hot: the "ADS" emits an energy field that causes anyone approaching to back off; no human can advance into its perimeter. If it's not exactly what they had on Star Trek, its analogies to deflector shields, and phasers set to stun, are obvious.

Universal translation and speech communication with computers seemed remote just a couple of years ago, when Web translation was reliable only as the butt of jokes, and airline information numbers, unable to recognize words like "Denver," kept asking you to repeat what city you wanted to fly to. As Lasbury points out, recent progress in getting machines to deal with natural language is the result of taking a calculated step backwards. For many decades, development was focused on getting machines to understand language in artificial-intelligence terms: to learn the quirks of an individual voice, to "get" the syntax of a target language. 2010s "neural-net" technologies are extremely unintelligent, but they process data quickly, have capacious memories, and are excellent gamblers. They find the best fit for new input based on what they've heard before. Suddenly Google Translate is notably helpful and Siri understands you as soon as you shake your phone. "Neural net," Lasbury notes, is a misnomer in Star-Trek terms; we think of it as the fantastic android brain of Commander Data, whereas in 2010s applications it's more like a gigantic totalizator that rapidly bets on favorites. But we don't need machines to be as verbally gifted as we are; we need them to deliver workable results.

Geordi's visor seems frankly unworkable, and in its full-fledged Next Generation form, I suppose it is. But several devices currently in development can convey camera signals to retinal nerve endings, replace parts of retinas, or even send visual signals further "downstream" from the eye, more directly toward the brain (as was the case with Geordi). Such devices, as of the late 2010s, cannot do much more than convey rough greyscale outlines. But if you're completely blind, even seeing greyscale outlines might as well be magic – and according to Lasbury, it's quite real.

Replicators are basically glorified 3-D printers, and I reckon you know about 3-D printers. The biggest hitch in turning today's printers into Star-Trek replicators is to fill them not with plastic powder but with the atoms needed to create all kinds of organic and inorganic stuff. It seems like a matter of time before you can print yourself tofu, at least.

Cloaking devices, deflector shields, and tractor beams are practically possible today, albeit on scales more like matchbook- than starship-sized. Also, to cloak an object these days, you need it to stay absolutely still and strike it with just the right sort of electromagnetic radiation. Under the right circumstances, you can see right around something that way – some such effects really are magic, in the sense of stagecraft illusions. Cloaking a Klingon starship as it zooms around a solar system may take longer, but is assuredly on its way.

The greatest problems, short of warp drive itself, are posed by transporters. The basic insanity of the Star Trek transporter was a vivid theme in Krauss's Physics of Star Trek. Transporters on Star Trek look effortless because the writers needed an effortless way to move the planet-hopping crew around. But in "real life," a transporter needs to determine the location and quantum state of every elementary particle in your body. Let's say your laptop has a terabyte hard drive – a trillion bytes of information – and let's say you could encode one of your atoms and its current state and relation to all your other atoms on a single byte. And let's say you had a trillion hard drives. You and seven thousand other people with the same hardware could just about get your body encoded. Then all you have to do is reduce said body to those particles, or their equivalent in energy, send them (along with the code for reassembling them) as a beam across a sizable gulf of space, target the precise spot where a feisty alien or gorgeous damsel is waiting, and (with no prior prep of the landing area) rematerialize them as fast as you can say "energize." When you factor in that each of those steps is only vaguely theoretically possible, some difficulties arise, among them power requirements exceeding those of decent-sized stars. That's just to get, just you, to shore leave. Just once.

Realization is a kooky book, grubbily produced by Springer (chock-full of typos). I loved it, though. It's part techno-geekout and part wry deconstruction of the science-fictionality of the Star Trek universe. Lasbury takes the Star Trek screenwriters' bible at the drollest possible face value, often wondering WTH the creators of a given fictional technology could have thought they were talking about. The wonder of it is that those creators so often plotted such completely practical courses.

Lasbury, Mark E. The Realization of Star Trek Technologies: The science, not fiction, behind brain implants, plasma shields, quantum computing, and more. Switzerland: Springer, 2017.