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How Trekkies shape tech innovation

Ideas from Star Trek continue to inspire real-life tech innovation
How Trekkies shape tech innovation
  • Key technologies inspired by sci-fi series Star Trek 
  • Jeff Bezos' Arthur C Clarke inspiration drops hints about the types of tech we may envisage in our future

When Star Trek first aired more than five decades ago, the technology onboard the Starship Enterprise seemed almost inconceivable. But now our own personal devices can be traced back to designs first conceived by sci-fi writers in the 1960s. 

“Science fiction is totally imaginative,” says William Shatner, the actor who played Captain Jim Kirk in the original series, in an interview with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). “All these imaginative exercises with science fiction are merely food for the imagination of scientists who are actually working with technology.” 

It's true that the US’ national space organisation is filled with so-called Trekkies, who are leading advanced scientific research. But Star Trek’s influence also reaches into Silicon Valley, too – and with it, private innovation. Take the flip phone: its first design by Motorola in 1996 was based on Star Trek’s ‘communicator’ device. Or Starfleet’s 24th century ‘PADDs’ (personal access dislay devices) - touchscreen devices that easily mirror Apple’s (US:AAPL) iPad or Samsung Electronics (KR:005930) tablets. . 

Even the smartspeaker, pioneered by Amazon (US:AMZN), was inspired by Jeff Bezos’ love of the sci-fi series. Initially met with resistance from his product team in 2010, the chief executive clung to the belief that conversational computing and artificial intelligence would soon enable command by diction (“computer, open a channel”) for everyday use. Eventually the Alexa product was born – and a few years later Bezos later cameoed in the blockbuster 2016 film Star Trek Beyond as an alien.

We have not managed to replicate all of the technology imagined by the series yet. Take three dimensional holograms, for example – scientists have not yet figured out a way to assemble matter in the same way as light. For now, we only have virtual and augmented reality (‘VR’ and ‘AR’) environments – but closer competition in this field among the likes of Facebook (US:FB), Apple and Snapchat (US:SNAP) means that the underlying technology is developing at pace. 

But true Trekkies will remember that in the original Star Trek series, virtual reality was outlawed, after an alien species destroyed themselves by becoming addicted to their illusions. In fact, the United Federation of Planets decreed that anyone who even visited them would be subject to the death penalty. Later on, in Star Trek: The Next Generation, VR through the ‘holodeck’ – a 3D simulation room – would act as a means of light-hearted recreation for starship crews. 

For now, this seems too disconnected from reality. But sci-fi writer Arthur C Clarke, the author of the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey, wrote in his ‘third law’: "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."  

And tales of sci-fi and magic continue to inspire technological innovation today. Invisibility cloaks are the stuff of old lore – but today we have (admittedly crude) cloaking devices built from ‘metamaterials’ that can help to hide small objects within a specific range of colours. Space tourism is moving closer within reach – although the exploration of the final frontier does not appear quite so noble when the picture is complicated with environmental and ethical complaints. 

But as Brad Stone chronicles in his book, Amazon Unbound, a number of the greatest minds in Silicon Valley have been deeply influenced by the sci-fi series, including Jeff Bezos. The likes of Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Robert A Heinlien line the library of the billionaire’s Seattle home. “While others read these classics and only dreamed of alternate realities, Bezos seemed to consider the books for an exciting future,” says Stone.

It is easier to be optimistic when tracing the origins of our reality back to a series as uplifting as Star Trek. But there are parallels between sci-fi’s dystopic genres, too. Take the 2005 film Minority Report, starring Tom Cruise. Set in 2054, director Steven Spielberg envisions a future in which predictive policing is the norm, and a hyper-surveilled environment allows billboards to perform retina scans to identify passers-by for instant targeted advertising. 

We are not so far off some features of this fiction, with the likes of US tech business Palantir (US:PLNTR) already having landed in hot water over its predictive policing products, and ultra-personalised advertising fast becoming the norm within the modern marketing industry. Star Trek and science fiction have long helped to shape real-life innovation and design. And while futuristic visions of dystopia seem far-fetched, they often provide meaningful insight into our evolving relationship with the everyday technology we rely on.