Europe

Beam Me Up, Scotty

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Leicester Square is the heart of London’s West End. Within a short walk are dozens of theatres where world-famous musicals, operas, and stage productions play. Leicester Square has also become globally associated with the movies. Several large cinema-complexes front the square, and form the backdrop to most London film premieres.

As was the case a few weeks ago, when on my way home I found my normal walking route blocked off, owing to temporary fencing that had been set up in front of the Odeon Cinema. A red carpet had been rolled out, lined on either side with crowd control barricades, and searchlights were strafing the sky. Burly security guys were hovering about, supervising rows of journalists and a huge crowd of overexcited teenagers, who had taken up position all along the barricades. Many in the crowd were wearing Viking helmets, and earlier that day an eight-metre high hammer had somehow materialised right in the centre of Leicester Square. It looked a bit weird, juxtaposed as it was alongside the square’s more well-known statue, of Shakespeare.

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Turns out I had stumbled across the London premiere of Thor 2 – The Dark World, a Hollywood blockbuster where the Norse God of thunder, noted for his big hammer and even bigger hair, returns to earth, to do battle and win the girl. I was passing though Leicester Square just as pre-premiere excitement was reaching fever pitch, ahead of the impending arrival of the star of the film, Aussie über-hunk Chris Hemsworth. Not to mention his co-star, the exceedingly gorgeous ultimate Jewish boys’ fantasy, Natalie Portman.

I pulled out my phone to take a few snaps of the goings-on, and then thought this whole scene might be something my children would like to see. Only they are in Australia. But then I figured that if it was night-time in London it would be morning of the following day in Melbourne, and the kids would be sitting down to breakfast before school. So I called them on Skype, activated the video function, and took them on an impromptu walk around Leicester Square. In real-time they were able to see and hear everything that was happening, never mind that they were half a world away, in pyjamas.

The tour continued until my ten-year old daughter said “I think Chris Hemsworth is so hot”, at which point I thought it was perhaps time for her to finish up her cereal and head off to class already. And perhaps also time to begin looking into all-girl boarding schools.

—-

Later that evening I was sitting on the couch, catching up on some emails. I had the television on in the background, and an old episode of Star Trek was playing. It was from the original series, which first aired in 1966, well before I was born.

About halfway through the episode I looked up from my laptop just in time to see Captain Kirk, on some random planet, engaged in a face-to-face conversation with Spock, who for his part was on the deck of the Starship Enterprise, preaching Vulcan wisdoms. Their interplanetary conversation was made possible courtesy of a video-phone, which back then was an imaginary device of the future. Indeed, the video-phone concept was so “out there” it was a staple of science-fiction in the 70s and 80s, appearing in not just Star Trek but many other shows as well, like The Jetsons, Dick Tracy (remember his wristwatch-cum-TV-cum-phone?), Thunderbirds, and Back to the Future.

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Seeing the primitive video-phone in that early Star Trek episode immediately brought on a wave of nostalgia, followed by one of those “how interesting” moments, where random dots of my day suddenly all joined up. In this case, the obvious parallels between Kirk and Spock’s video-call (circa 2063 by way of 1966) and my own Skype-call with my kids (circa 2013).

When you actually stop and think about it, it is all pretty amazing. Not three hours before I had called my children in Melbourne, Australia, via live video-call, from Valhalla, Leicester Square, London. In so doing I had done something that even in my own lifetime was once regarded as little more than comic book fantasy. Yet now this is something we all do, casually and effortlessly, not to mention for free. Video-calling has become such a routine part of our modern world that we don’t stop for a second to acknowledge just how incredibly awesome it is to be able to connect instantly, to just about anyone, from anywhere to anywhere. Including even children eating their breakfast on the other side of the world.

A bit of quick research on the internet (an immediately accessible global repository of information, which itself is a quite mind-blowing concept to think about) and I discovered that many other Star Trek imaginings are now with us “for real”. It seems that without anyone noticing it science fiction has crept up on us, turning what were once fantasies into daily realities. Indeed, some are now so commonplace as to already be considered “old” technology.

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Cell Phones: Star Trek crew members were always able to talk to each other, even if on different starships or planets. They had a device which they would simply flip open and start talking into. Any child would nowadays recognise this immediately, as a humble mobile phone. Or indeed, they may not, given that the clam-shell design has already been and gone, with virtually no mobile phone manufacturers now making it. All of which is a bit hard to believe really, when you think that Star Trek first aired at a time when phone systems still had operators manually connecting calls.

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Communicators: Much more of the here and now is the communicator, a little device in the shape of the Starfleet logo that was pinned onto a crew members’ shirt. Touch the device to activate, and then talk. Sound familiar? Maybe that’s because you are thinking of the spate of “wearable devices” to hit the market lately, like the Samsung Galaxy wristwatch, which bears more than a passing similarity to the prototype Star Trek communicator. Not convinced? An American company has recently begun selling a “communicator badge”. You pin it to your jacket lapel. It operates by touch. It weighs about ten grams. And it allows clear two-way communication between wearers, using wireless network technology. Surely Gene Rodenberry should be claiming royalties?

Ahura

Headsets: Ahura, the Enterprise’s super-sexy mini-skirt-wearing communications officer used to wander the deck fiddling with her oversized silver ear-piece, through which she received instructions. Today this would be considered a first generation Bluetooth headset, already relegated to the scrap heap of obsolescence. Although Ahura’s wonderfully short mini-skirt will always be just fine.

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USB sticks: In the original Star Trek series, crew members inserted small squares of coloured plastic into computer consoles, as a means of transferring data (so basically a precursor to the now obsolete floppy disk). In the follow-on series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, these evolved into “isolinear chips” that look uncannily like the USB sticks we now use. One die-hard Star Trek fan has even done a study on the subject, including sourcing some original props from the show to be able to measure them and thus prove the Star Trek chips were roughly the same size as modern-day USBs. Although I’d say that more than anything this proves that some people have way too much free time on their hands.

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Sliding doors: You may recall that whenever Kirk or Spock walked in or out of a room, the doors magically slid open, accompanied by a “whoosh” sound. Power doors like this are such a ubiquitous feature these days it would never have occurred to me that in Star Trek they may not have been real. But they weren’t. Every time you see the doors slide open and hear that “whoosh”, think of the human lackey who was standing just off-set in the wings, manually opening the doors using a system of levers and pulleys. One particular Star Trek fan has gone so far as to analyse the different speeds at which the doors open in various episodes, and in this way has identified the idiosyncrasies of the various human door operators. Did I mention that some people have way, way, way too much free time on their hands?

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Tablets: There was never a scrap of paper on the Enterprise. Instead, crew members lived in an entirely digital, paper-free environment. Thanks to the “data pad” – a screen, flat and square, about the size of a book, carried around easily, and on which the crew could write notes or read books. Data entry was by way of index finger, or a special pen. It seems that Star Trek’s creators saw the Apple Age forty years early. A world where iPads and Kindles reign supreme, and where Yellow Pages directories and print editions of the daily newspaper are rapidly becoming antique collectibles.

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Medical Devices: Meanwhile, over in the Enterprise’s sick bay, almost every episode saw medical officer “Bones” McCoy dosing out one form of space medicine or another. He would simply hold a cylindrical tube against the patient’s skin, push a button, and voila, all done. Today the hypospray is a commonplace medical device for injecting using air pressure. Look Ma, no needles. When it came to more complex surgery, Bones would often perform medical procedures using magical devices that were able to do what needed to be done, without ever breaking the skin. Nowadays, we call this ultrasound, a technology so widespread you often don’t even need a doctor to administer it.

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Voice Recognition: In Star Trek, no-one ever did anything as primitive as type into a keyboard. Instead, they just told the machines what to do. Something that modern-day speech recognition software has almost got down pat. The creators or Star Trek even have a sense of humour about this: in the movie Star Trek IV the Enterprise gets teleported back through time to 1980, where chief-engineer Scotty (looking quite old, even though he has just gone back in time) unsuccessfully tries to work a computer by talking to a mouse (the computer kind, that is).

Then there are those Star Trek technologies not quite with us yet, but not too far away either.

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Stun guns: When little boys of my day played “astronauts and aliens” the imaginary weapon of choice was the “phaser”. This handy little Star Trek gun worked by way of an invisible beam of energy, which depending on how you set it could stun a target (hence the oft-repeated classic line: “set phasers to stun”), or it could annihilate them completely. Real-world Tasers emerged in the 1970s, but unlike the Star Trek phaser, they require some level of physical contact with the target to work. Since then quite a few “directed-energy weapons” have been developed and brought into military service, although none have been hand-held. Until now, where the American Air Force has prototyped a gun-like device that produces pulses of energy, that can then be directed at a target from a distance, to stun and temporarily blind them. And in a case of life imitating art, the prototype has even been named the PHaSER (it stands for Personal Halting and Stimulation Response). Thus Star Trek phasers may, quite literally, soon be real.

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Replicators:  This nifty little device was used primarily to provide food and drink to those on board the Enterprise. Someone would say something like “tea, hot” and hey presto, a mug of steaming tea would materialise out of thin air. In the 1960s this would have been beyond imagining, and even today sounds kind of wild. But actually it’s already happening. 3D-printing has advanced in leaps and bounds in the last decade, with industrial 3D-printers now able to generate all sorts of things, from simple plastic models to bikinis to complex engine turbines. Coming soon: 3D-printed replacement body parts, human tissue, and chemical compounds. By which time conjuring up an Earl Grey will seem positively old hat.

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Bionic eyes: Star Trek: The Next Generation introduced the character of Geordi LaForge, a guy best known for his blinking red visor instead of eyes, which allowed him to see even though he was blind. Geordi’s visor worked by capturing images, converting them into electrical impulses and then transmitting them directly into his brain, enabling him to “see”. Back on earth, a similar device for hearing, the Cochlear implant (or “bionic ear” as it is more commonly known) has been around since the 1970s. Then just last week (November 2013) the first “bionic eyes” were approved for sale to human patients in the USA. Known as the Argus II, it looks like a heavy-duty pair of goggles, which “sends the images the eyeglass-mounted visual processing unit detects to a tiny electrode array that’s been implanted in the user’s retina. Electrical stimulation sends visual information up the optic nerve to the visual cortex of the user’s brain, allowing him or her to see”. Sounds pretty much like something lifted straight from the script of Star Trek, if you ask me.

And then of course there are those Star Trek ideas that remain so outlandish and far-fetched that they remain science fiction. At least for now.

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Tractor Beams: Countless scenes in Star Trek involve a starship being pulled, pushed, captured or held in place by a “tractor beam”, a directed energy force that operates like a giant pair of invisible hands. Not possible? Well yes, not possible on starship scale. But already scientists have something known as optical tweezers, where small laser beams are used to move things the size of molecules, cells and bacteria around. Not hard to see where that is heading…..

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Warp Drives: Everyone knows that “warp speed” means travelling along very, very fast. This comes to us directly from Star Trek, where from the very first episode the Warp Drive was introduced, being a propulsion device that could accelerate the Enterprise to a speed greater than the speed of light, thus making travel through the stars a possibility. Pure science fiction? Well yes, but not as impossible as once thought. Some of NASAs top scientists are looking into things like creating tiny warp bubbles in mathematical equations using Warp-Field Interferometers. No idea what the fuck that means, but the head of NASA’s Advanced Propulsion team does, and according to him: “perhaps a Star Trek experience within our lifetime is not such a remote possibility”.

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Teleportation: And then we come to the teleporter, possibly the most iconic device in Star Trek, and which has given us the phrase “beam me up, Scotty”, almost without question one of the most instantly recognisable lines in television history. The teleporter worked by breaking down the atoms and molecules of a human body, somehow sending them through space, and then an instant later reassembling them at the other end. Of all Star Trek’s imagined technologies, this is the one that remains as far-fetched today as it was forty years ago. Quite simply, there is nothing even close.

The scientist-inventor-futurist-author Ray Kurzweil first proposed the Law of Accelerating Returns in 1999, where he posited that “the rate of change in a wide variety of evolutionary systems (including the growth of technologies) tends to increase exponentially”. This means that if something is only 1% of the way there today it will not take 100 years to get to the finish line, but actually less than seven. Or put another way, if we assume that we will progress linearly from today, in two decades we will be 20 times more technologically advanced. But if we assume that we will progress exponentially, twenty years from now we will be 525,000 times more technologically advanced. A big difference, I think we can all agree.

That said, our brains are simply not wired to think exponentially. As creatures we are naturally prone to think of progression in linear terms. This is what makes it so hard for us, even today, to conceive of a teleportation device really existing one day. Just as forty years ago it was so hard for anyone to conceive of video-phones or bionic eyes really existing one day, although now they do.

When my kids are the age I am now, so in about another forty years time, the only thing I know for certain is that the world they live in will be beyond the reach of my present imagination.

For my children, interplanetary travel may be a reality; humankind may have achieved world peace or found a way to entirely destroy itself; medicine may well have advanced to the point that our children may be the first generation of humans to live forever. A thought that I find to be both extraordinary and just a bit terrifying at the same time, although my kids seem to be taking this whole “brave new world” effortlessly into their young strides.

Bringing me back to Star Trek, and another handy little device of the future the show gave us – a universal translator, which when spoken into could translate any language into another. This concept was later adopted in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, another of my childhood favourites. Here author Douglas Adams imagined a small, yellow, leech-like animal he called the Babel Fish, “the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language”.

Recently the kids watched the TV version of Hitchhikers, and enjoyed it so much their mother and I encouraged them to read the books, which we discussed a few weeks later once they had. The children thought that the story was really funny. They thought the idea of the earth being demolished to make way for an intergalactic highway was especially hysterical. And they thought that Zaphod Beeblebrox, the two-headed fugitive ex-President of the galaxy, was a really cool guy.

But unlike me, the kids were far from impressed by the fantastical vision of the future as presented. Like one of my girls pointed out to me, “Really Aba [Dad], what’s so amazing about the Babel Fish? Google can do that”.

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