12 September, 2011 - 11:04 By News Desk

Star Trek – 45 years of inspiring engineering

Many engineers are Star Trek fans. A lot of technology ideas in Star Trek have influenced real life, but of course the influence goes both ways.

Star Trek would be pretty dull if it was just a soap opera set on a space ship without loads of technology ideas coming in from engineers and scientists.

Sci-fi and real life science and engineering have strong cross pollination of ideas. It is perfectly healthy, as long as you can distinguish between the two.

Reading the technology headlines in a typical week on the Business Weekly front pages is enough to tell you that real life companies can often make science fiction look very unimaginative. Even Commander Data, the android from the second generation has an official specification that is likely to be exceeded by real computers in the next few years.

I have worked all my career as an engineer, even though I got my degree in Physics. I love sci-fi, but I have come to realise that real life engineering is often much more exciting.

The original series of Star Trek has the on-board computer using a lot of technology that is already long obsolete, even though it was meant to be set in the 23rd century. Clumsy date cartridges are used to put data into the computer, really awful voice synthesis is used to get the answer. There is very little AI to be seen. Even the communication devices look out of date already.

Of course, Star Trek also gave us the idea of the pad, and the taser, but more importantly, it set up a range of challenges in every engineer's mind. Some of the stuff in Star Trek may well be impossible to realise economically or even at all, such as time travel, warp drive, everyday teleportation.

But many engineers have been encouraged in their development work by seeing the everyday futuristic star trek world. They thought, 'I could do that, and quite soon, and maybe even better'. So even if it looks out of date now, it has still given us a great deal indirectly.

What is just as surprising about sci-fi though is the enormous range of stuff that is missing. Apart from one or two films, AI is conspicuous mainly by its absence or ineffectiveness. Links to the nervous system, active skin, active contact lenses, augmented reality, video make-up, avatars, social networking, bionics, energy harvesting, the cloud – the list is endless of real near term technology that is extremely sparsely recognised by science fiction futures. Yet this stuff will be part of our real world soon; much already is. So why isn't it in there? There is a severe inter-industry communications failure.

So I am wondering: if so many engineers gained so much inspiration from watching Star Trek, and yet modern sci-fi seems to ignore much of the developments already ongoing in British research labs (or indeed any other country's), why doesn't our engineering industry do more to educate the film industry, and indeed the rest of society?

Some sci-fi films ignore real science, preferring fantasy. Some treat real science with severe contempt, the scientists are often the bad guys who can't see any implications of their work beyond the lab door, or have ludicrously bad social skills. These are problems for us that need to be fixed.

Surely it is time to do more to show to good things that science and technology is already doing for us and can do in the future. With our economy in a bad way, confidence in the future has never needed more boosting. Business Weekly does its bit to fly the flag for technology industry, but for a restricted audience. We scientists and engineers also need to reach out far more to ordinary society.



Newsletter Subscription

Stay informed of the latest news and features