From the moment it came on the air in 1966, Star Trek was influential. Children of the Space Age watched in awe at the optimistic vision of a future where humans are the masters of space and science and technology. With Star Trek: Discovery set to premiere on Sunday and perhaps influence a new generation, it's worth considering this franchise's outsized impact on our real and imagined technological futures.
SEE: The viewer's guide to Star Trek: Discovery (TechRepublic)
If you analyze Star Trek's fictionally futuristic technology, you'll discover that it actually comes in two different forms: The near-future tech that the show has cannily prefigured, and the far-out stuff that isn't likely to come true for centuries, if ever.
Star Trek largely uses the far-out stuff—transporters, warp drives, subspace radio, and matter/antimatter engines—as solutions to storytelling problems. Without the ability to travel quickly from place to place, there would be no show—and the show's budget and run time couldn't afford showing shuttlecraft landings and take-offs every week.
It's in the small stuff, the accoutrements of everyday shipboard life, that Star Trek has hit much closer to our actual futures. The question is: Did Star Trek simply guess about future technology, or did it help it come to pass by influencing the next generation?
Astronauts and titans of industry alike have cited the power of Star Trek and the approach creator Gene Roddenberry took toward depicting the future. Mae Jemison, the first African-American astronaut, professed herself a fan. Star Trek has been cited as an influence by both Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk.
In any event, it's no coincidence that one of the first popular ultra-small cell phones was the Motorola StarTAC (that name!) and looked remarkably like Captain Kirk's flip-open communicator device. The communication badges favored by later-generation crews feel more like an advanced version of our current crop of tech wearables, including smartwatches.
In this age of Siri and Cortana, the depiction of voice-driven interfaces across all series, dating back to the 60s, seems more accurate than ever. Kirk and Spock would use natural language to request that the Enterprise computer perform complex data-mining tasks nearly instantaneously. This sort of thing happens millions of times a day now—and in most cases, the assistant voices are female, just like the voice on the Enterprise.
While the bridge of the Enterprise was replete with physical switches and buttons, when it came time to design the bridge of the Enterprise-D for Star Trek: The Next Generation (which premiered 30 years ago this month), the show chose instead to depict flat, touch-based panels that reconfigured their controls as necessary. In doing so, the series prefigured the move from buttons to software-driven multitouch interfaces two decades before Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone.
From Dr. McCoy's sick bay to the tools used by the doctors of later series, Star Trek has spent a lot of time depicting futuristic medicine. While modern medicine hasn't quite reached the point where we can give a patient a pill to grow a new kidney, or reattach a brain stolen by a trio of mysterious alien women, the increasing use of wearable sensors that log patient data, store it in a database, and send it wirelessly back to the attending doctor certainly feels futuristic. And while modern medical scanning techniques require more hardware than you'd find in sick bay, the 3D images they produce are right out of something Dr. Crusher might use to diagnose a patient.
Most importantly, Star Trek has always depicted technology tempered by a rich vein of humanism. The invention of a sentient android in Star Trek: The Next Generation leads to impassioned debates about his legal rights. In an original series episode, two planetary societies decide to stop bombing each other and instead run a simulated war and quietly send their citizens to disintegration chambers—until Captain Kirk decides to give them a taste of the real costs of war.
And in one of the most resonant original series episodes for today's technological landscape, "The Ultimate Computer," Captain Kirk's job is replaced by a machine driven by artificial intelligence—and the AI turns out to be out of control and murderous. Even 50 years ago, Star Trek was using its speculation about developments in science and technology to ask questions about how those changes might affect human beings.
SEE: The IT leader's guide to the future of artificial intelligence (Tech Pro Research)
Unlike Star Wars, the Star Trek franchise is firmly a story about human beings and the technological future we are building toward every day. It hasn't just predicted technology, but influenced the shape of the future by inspiring generations of fans to try to make Star Trek a reality. And that's why it's so exciting to see a new Star Trek series arrive on the scene. There's much more future to be written yet—and we need Star Trek to help inspire it.
- Video: Real-world gadgets inspired by Star Trek (TechRepublic)
- Photos: A glimpse of the iconic scenes and gadgets of Star Trek (TechRepublic)
- Qualcomm Tricorder XPrize goes to US team for device fusing AI, IoT, health (ZDNet)
- Star Trek: Discovery continues the mission of futurism and bold social commentary (ZDNet)
- We're ahead of schedule to turn Star Trek tech into reality (CNET)
- Everything we've seen from 'Star Trek: Discovery' so far (CNET)
Disclaimer: Both Star Trek: Discovery and TechRepublic are properties of CBS.
Jason Snell was the lead editor of Macworld for over a decade and he now runs SixColors.com and The Incomparable podcast.