Is Star Trek falling behind in future tech predictions?

BRAZIL - 2023/04/05: In this photo illustration, the ChatGPT logo is seen displayed on a smartphone and the page introducing ChatGPT on the background. (Photo Illustration by Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
BRAZIL - 2023/04/05: In this photo illustration, the ChatGPT logo is seen displayed on a smartphone and the page introducing ChatGPT on the background. (Photo Illustration by Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images) /

Star Trek’s predictive record is stellar, but can it keep up?

Star Trek has always been “forward-thinking.”  Its greatest legacy, now more than 50 years in the making, is its prediction of our future technology.  Technology we now take for granted has its origins in Star Trek.  Star Trek inspired inventors to create working versions of the very same devices, right down to form and function.  The original communicator not only predicted “cell phones” but also dictated just how they would look and be used.  We all know the iconic “flip phone” was strongly influenced by “Star Trek” imagined technology.

We’ve also seen TNG’s Personal Access Display Device“ (PADD) become a real device, most notably as Apple iPads and iPhones. Micro-storage devices such as SD Cards appeared way back in the 1960s as convenient multicolored “chips” used to transfer information from one person or digital device to another.  They now exist as everyday devices moving huge amounts of data discretely and quickly.  It would be hard to find any person reading this article who doesn’t have a USB thumb drive or SD Card-like device nearby to quickly solve some data problem.

“Big ideas”, not just electronic devices, are also part of “Star Trek’s predictive capacity.  Roddenberry’s “living machine” was depicted in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”, an idea scoffed at by critics as “unlikely” in 1979.  Today it’s downright “bleeding edge” and is now identified as “artificial general intelligence” (AGI). It’s making big waves in the technology sector today.  Thanks to “Siri” and now OpenAI’s “ChatGPT”, one must seriously wonder, “Are we talking to a machine or a human being?”  Future development will focus on enhanced conversational interaction with humans. Those interactions may be so “human-like” we might even develop actual social relationships with our information device.  After all, who doesn’t appreciate someone giving us great advice to a nagging or perplexing question?

Star Trek predicted other, everyday technologies; voice-activated devices/computers, touch screens, 3D printing, Bluetooth, and many others so commonplace, that the Star Trek original designs sometimes look “clunky” compared with their real and fully functional versions.

We’ve also managed cyborg-like technologies, the marriage of human and mechanical devices, biological manipulation “Khan” style, environmental hacks, and Dyson spheres, their potential impact is all explored in Trek lore.

But have we reached the “end” of such predictions because current technology is so complex and quite frankly, very complicated to comprehend?

“Star Trek: Discovery” offers a few new ideas we’ve never explored.

Some tantalizing teases ARE out there.

“Star Trek: Discovery” predicts “programmable matter” (; changeable/adaptable nanites which rearrange matter into physical feedback control panels and spaceships that dynamically change their shape to maneuver.  Also, detached warp engines isolated from the rest of the starship, presumably acting like a shock absorber allowing an organic, smooth ride in space.

Could such a technology really exist in the future?  Certainly, engines isolated via some magnetic force might be possible – or some super data processing computer might modify engine contours (shape shifting) to accommodate speed and environment dynamically.  Many fans have criticized this idea as absurd.  But will that technology be possible?  Are futurists and engineers pondering some potential, practical application in the future?

“Star Trek: Discovery” also pondered moving habitats with thousands of people on board from one location to another safely.  Whole civilizations transported long distances comfortably and practically.  Just what sort of energy sources might we expect to power such a massive vehicle?

What else can today’s Star Trek predict?

Can we consider time warping/wrapping as a possibility?  Multi-dimensional realities, “Which couldn’t be proven rationally?” as Spock passionately argued in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture”.   Could we take, for example, clone technology and improve mankind by mastering and manipulating DNA thus making ourselves immortal?

Yes, we’ve discussed these topics in Star Trek stories, but there’s also an implicit need to “bury the evidence” and completely forget these same stories when such technology creates long-term ethical, controversial, or technical problems for our heroes.

There are possibly two reasons for that:

1. The new technology crams out or complicates future storytelling

A simple example is the “Warp Factor 5” environmental limitation in TNG’s “Force of Nature” which brought headaches to all future Trek storytelling.  We can’t simply fly Warp Factor “9” every time a remote part of the galaxy is in trouble.  Fans remember, but writers don’t.  Imagine more complicated “technical truths” that easily violate our character’s code of ethics, but are firmly established in Star Trek canon.

2. It makes our “Star Trek” universe less and less understandable to us.

Maybe any “crazy” technology thought up today might also seem more like “fantasy” than science fiction 200+ years from now.  Simply because present-day science cannot support a currently unsupportable concept, do we reject the idea outright?  For example, we might look at the tardigrade instantaneous transport in space, introduced in “Star Trek: Discovery’s” first season as just so implausible as to drive “a sane fan mad.”  Is the idea of simply popping across the galaxy with a spacefaring creature just too far-fetched – even though we’ve yet to find ANY kind of extraterrestrial life and we have no idea what technology or evolutionary concept might make such a thing possible?

In short, there’s a risk with speculation when the science is thin, untried, or non-existent.

So is there an answer to this question?  Can “Star Trek” continue to predict currently unrealized, new technologies?  I’m not sure.  Certainly, new advances in science and technology will come from observing the known universe (think about telescopic observation confirming Einstein’s Theory of Relativity). What about future discoveries by “Perseverance” on Mars or a confounding photo from the James Webb Space Telescope that demands rethinking current scientific understanding?  Any discovery might propel the next Star Trek story into new technology territory. Either way, any predictive “Star Trek” technology will only get more difficult to envision particularly when “the real thing” is coming at us with a universe of new discoveries and inventions.

Next. Star Trek: Discovery wasted loads of potential. dark