When the iconic science fiction television show Star Trek first premiered in 1966, humanity had yet to walk on the moon, and things like cell phones and the internet were still decades away from becoming more or less ubiquitous.
Still, the groundbreaking show, which evolved into numerous movies and follow-up series, not to mention an entire cult following of dedicated fans, also featured an array of futuristic weapons, ships, and devices to go along with the countless habitable worlds explored by the starship U.S.S. Enterprise and its intrepid crew. This included things like Photon Torpedoes, Food Replicators, Warp Drives, Phasers, Life Sign Detectors, Tractor Beams, Transporters, and even a Universal Translator, all of which added to the forward-looking and visionary aspect of the entire Star Trek universe.
In the nearly six decades since, a series of real-world scientific advancements have brought a number of those devices and technologies closer to reality, while some others like cell phones and talking computer interfaces are already part of our everyday 21st-century universe.
Here, we look at seven of those technologies that may one day move from fiction to reality.
In the various Star Trek movies and TV series, the universal translator evolved into a device that could translate all known languages and listen to, analyze, and translate new ones, often within seconds.
Science fiction writer Murray Leinster first proposed this device in his 1945 story, “First Contact” (which coincidentally is a Star Trek: The Next Generation television episode and movie), a novella that won Leinster a retroactive Hugo Award 50 years later.
In 2021, companies like Google are at the forefront of language translation, with new tools like AI neural networks seemingly coming out daily. Still, most current tools use English as a bridge language to translate between others, theoretically limiting their ability to learn a whole new language from scratch.
Luckily for our intrepid 23rd-century explorers, more than one promising step has been made in that direction, including Facebook recently removing the English “middle man” from their translation AI and instead trying to build direct bridges between languages. The work is not done, but according to the company, they are getting close.
“For years, AI researchers have been working toward building a single universal model that can understand all languages across different tasks,” says Facebook. “A single model that supports all languages, dialects, and modalities will help us better serve more people, keep translations up to date, and create new experiences for billions of people equally. This work brings us closer to this goal.”
Although it is not Captain Jean Luc Picard’s most famous saying, “Tea. Earl Grey. Hot,” still brings to mind the absolute genius of the latter series’ food replicators. In fact, aside from the occasional joke about the ingenious device failing to duplicate certain recipes perfectly, the simple idea of food ready to eat in minutes has fascinated American culture since the frozen meal first met the microwave oven.
Today, machines that can make an entire meal on demand are not as sophisticated or as instantaneous as the replicator, but they continue to move in that direction.
For instance, 3D printed food, which combines 3D printing and automated food preparation technologies, is now available in some hospitals.
And in 2016, the first fully 3D printed food pop-up restaurant opened in London, England.
According to statistics website Statista, 3D printing products and services “are likely to total over $40 billion by 2024.” Not all of that is food, but as the overall technology in this field improves, applications like food preparation will surely benefit from those improvements.
Unfortunately, the replicators in Star Trek are described as using the same matter-energy conversion technology as the transporter (discussed later), meaning they can use pure energy to create a completed meal from a programmed file.
Shockingly, The Debrief recently covered a team of researchers that created matter from light, a significant first step toward this type of technology. It may still be decades (or longer) away before such a process can instantly replicate a plate of tuna for Commander Data’s cat Spot, but the mere fact that science has proved the Einstein-postulated interchangeability of energy and matter (E = mc2) means that such a device is no longer a purely theoretical exercise.
Life Sign Detectors
Few if any aspects of the Star Trek universe are more, well, universal than the ability of a ship’s scanners or handheld “tricorders” to detect signs of life from a distance. Today, scientists are preparing to look for signs of life around distant exoplanets by studying their atmospheres for chemical signatures that could indicate such life exists. However, the ability to detect irrefutable signs of life in and of themselves has, until recently, remained science fiction.
Then, in June, The Debrief wrote about a new technology that seems to do just that.
“A research team comprised of scientists with the University of Bern and the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) PlanetS were able to successfully identify key molecular properties of living organisms, using sensitive equipment on board a helicopter flying several kilometers above the Earth,” that story recounted.
The particular “life sign signature” that the team detected remotely was something called homochirality, or a specific chemical structure that indicates there is a 19 out of 20 chance that what they are detecting is an amino acid of biological origin. Sugar is the only other known amino acid containing this structure.
Significantly, the team’s “life signs” detection was also made by a helicopter two kilometers above the earth while traveling at 70 kilometers per hour, meaning it was done from a measurable distance and at a significant speed. This may not represent the hundreds or even thousands of kilometers the Starship Enterprise often scans from when in a planet’s orbit, but the Enterprise is also often stationary when making such scans.
Ultimately, the research team’s project summary seems to indicate that they believe this type of life detection technology can one day be applied to reading life signs from space, stating implicitly that, “in this framework, our planet is considered as a proxy for other solar system bodies and exoplanets.”
Sadly, but not surprisingly, building a huge bomb is the one tech on this list that seems not only viable but inevitable. That’s because humans already make torpedoes and missiles, so making one with this ultra-high level of destructive power that can also be launched from a spaceship is almost surely a matter of time.
From a technology standpoint, the Photon Torpedo is a (relatively) straightforward device. Take a missile, then drop in some antimatter—boom, photon torpedo. Plus, according to a calculation performed by Treknews.net: “Assuming a typical warhead contains just 1 milligram of antimatter, a photon torpedo would release 180 million kilojoules (equivalent to 43 metric tons of TNT)” of energy.
Using that calculation, a full gram of antimatter should yield the equivalent of 43 kilotons of TNT, or about three times the yield of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan by the United States in 1945 that effectively ended World War II.
Scientists using the Large Hadron Super Collider in Switzerland have reported producing microscopic amounts of antimatter since 1996. A recent Debrief story reported on an experiment where scientists used pure light to create both matter and antimatter. Still, harvesting and storing that much antimatter is incredibly difficult and not within humanity’s current technical abilities. Current projections estimate that harvesting a full gram of antimatter using present-day technologies would cost around $62.5 trillion U.S. dollars.
In the end, the technology is straightforward enough that given sufficient time to improve harvesting and collection techniques, it seems like using antimatter for a photon torpedo (or other explosive applications) is definitely within humanity’s reach at some point in the future, if not its destiny.
Phasers & Phase Canons
Like Photon Torpedoes, phasers seemed like pure fiction when they first appeared on TV back in the 1960s. Since then, huge strides have been made with conventional lasers, as power outputs have steadily increased to a level where they are even being tested as weapons.
Plus, as the space race between the United States, Russia and China continues to increase, and the role of a militarized United States Space Force grows, arming spacecraft with lasers is far more efficient than trying to carry along ballistic ammunition.
For example, in the zero-gravity environment of space, firing a high-speed projectile has significant Newtonian consequences that would propel the craft backward with every shot. Unsurprisingly, the U.S. military recently dropped its decades-long efforts to develop high-speed electromagnetic “rail” guns in favor of hypersonic missiles and high-powered lasers, both weapons that would fare much better in zero gravity.
In March, The Debrief wrote about an Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) project called Self-Protect High Energy Laser (SHIELD) that saw fighter-mounted lasers shooting down enemy drones. In that same piece, The Debrief also wrote about a secret, “Ultrashot Pulsed Laser” possibly under development by the Department of Defense (DoD) for use by the U.S. Army. Little is known about the project, but the DoD’s original December 2019 Request for Proposal (one which was closed for submissions in February 2020) offered some dazzling specifications.
“The laser must operate in the incredibly powerful terawatt range (current systems only operate in the kilowatt range),” The Debrief story said, “and be able to fire all of that energy in a shockingly brief 200 femto-second pulse.”
For comparison, a terawatt is a trillion watts, as opposed to a kilowatt which is a comparatively paltry 1,000 watts, and a femto-second is essentially a quadrillionth of a second.
That same story noted that “packing that much power into such a short burst means this laser system will be three orders of magnitude more powerful than even the most powerful systems currently in use.” Plus, compacting such an ultra-powerful beam of laser energy into such a short burst means it won’t have to linger on the target like current laser systems, but instead could blast an enemy craft with its quick pulse and blow the thing out of the sky.
As far as a handheld “phaser” pistol like those carried by Kirk and crew, that tech may be a bit farther away. However, one YouTube hobbyist built a laser “bazooka” back in 2016 that can melt through steel, and that was without the billions spent by the groups like DARPA or the AFRL on advanced military applications each year. Who knows what type of handheld lasers are under development inside those organizations, much less other nameless black projects.
Nothing pisses off Klingons, Romulans, and other Star Trek universe spacefaring species more than successfully sidling up to your quarry in your shiny new Bird of Prey, Warbird, or other menacing spaceship, only to have your cowardly enemy turn tail and run away.
Sure, it may be one thing if a measly ship of humans jumps to lightspeed using a WARP drive (which is covered next), but to simply watch them saunter away at one quarter impulse speed while laughing at you through their universal translator is downright unacceptable.
Fortunately, in the Star Trek universe, the befuddled pursuer need only engage a tractor beam to snare their enemy’s spacecraft in mid retreat before it can scamper away. However, back on 21st century Earth, where fights between different human superpowers in space seems increasingly likely if not inevitable, reaching out with a magic beam and stopping a foe’s retreat is still science fiction. Some progress, however, is being made.
In December 2020, The Debrief reported on efforts to use a laser-based “tractor beam” to control and direct lighting strikes. That method, however, only works for lighting, not spacecraft, so other than sharing the name “tractor beam,” it would likely be of little help in space battles.
In August 2021, The Debrief reported on a method developed by present-day scientists to capture objects with waves of ultrasound. The press release for that accomplishment even referred to the device as a “tractor beam” for its ability to grab a styrofoam ball out of the air and draw it in. Still, such a device would likely have no effect in the vacuum of space, where there is virtually no medium to transmit the sound waves. (You can’t hear yourself scream in space.)
Shockingly, a real-life, honest-to-goodness tractor beam has not only been developed by humans but has been in use since 2010.
That’s all because of a breakthrough made that year by Sang-Hyuk Lee, a researcher from the Rutgers University Department of Molecular and Cell Biology, Institute for Quantitative Biology, Yohai Roichman from the Department of Physics at the University of California, Berkeley, and David G. Grier from the Department of Physics and Center for Soft Matter Research at New York University.
“Unlike other collimated beams of light,” explains the research paper detailing the group’s stunning results, “appropriately designed solenoid beams have the noteworthy property of being able to exert forces on illuminated objects that are directed opposite to the direction of the light’s propagation.”
Dr. Christopher S. Baird, a physics professor from West Texas A&M University clarified the mechanism behind this laboratory-developed tractor beam in a 2013 blog post on the subject, which noted that such a beam was viable in physics, “if you managed to create a situation where upon striking the object, the light gains forward momentum instead of losing it.”
In that case, said Baird, “the law of conservation of momentum tells us that the object will lose momentum in the forward direction, even to the point of going backwards, towards the light source.”
In that same post, Baird notes that the 2010 method, which was already in in application by then, works because of the unique, helical shape of the tractor beam, allowing it to draw the objects through open space toward it. “You can think of the spiral-shaped light beam as a screw,” said Baird, “that twists the object up the beam.” In the case of the researchers behind the 2010 study, they were able to use this process to pull very small balls of glass toward them in a laboratory setting.
Unfortunately, Baird also points out that a laser strong enough to be a real ship-grabbing tractor beam would probably contain so much power it would more than likely damage or even destroy the targeted object rather than pulling it in. That sort of result may be just fine for Klingons, but for most other species in the Star Trek universe or ours, using a tractor beam to draw a ship to safety or simply tow it home requires not destroying the object one hopes to capture.
Bottom line, there are at least theoretical routes to a Star Trek-style tractor beam, and as of now, much smaller versions already exist. Even Baird closed his post on a more hopeful note, stating that although damage to the object from high-powered tractor beam lasers may be a real problem, “research is ongoing.”
Warp drives, hyperdrives, and all other sorts of faster-than-light craft appear in pretty much every interplanetary science fiction space opera, Star Trek included. That’s because space itself is incredibly vast, making the capability to exceed the speed of light an absolute necessity if Kirk, Spock, and the rest of the Enterprise crew hope to go from the planet Vulcan to the latest peace conference on Khitomer in any reasonable amount of time.
Such theoretical technology spent nearly three decades languishing in the world of science fiction until 1994 when a Mexican mathematician and physicist named Miguel Alcubierre offered the first mathematically viable solution for a real-world warp drive. That idea soon became known as the “Alcubierre Warp Drive.” Although it was criticized for its massive power requirements, use of theoretical “exotic” matter, and reliance on seemingly untestable physics, it nonetheless advanced the idea of warp drives from pure science fiction to speculative science theory.
Since that time, Alcubierre’s theory has repeatedly evolved, due in no small part to the work of former National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scientist Harold G. “Sonny” White, one of the founders of Limitless Space, where he continues that same work.
Introduced in 2011, Dr. White’s refinement, which became known as the “Alcubierre/White Warp Drive,” significantly reduced the amount of exotic matter the original theory required, moving it at least one giant leap closer to becoming viable.
In the decade-plus since, several new players have joined the efforts to design a real-world warp drive, with many, based at least in some part, on the Alcubierre/White design. In 2021 alone, The Debrief covered three different designs, including warp drives proposed by scientists, inventors, and engineers worldwide.
All are still theoretical, and nearly all have designs and materials that are likely decades if not centuries away from human abilities to design, test, and ultimately deploy in the manufacture of an actual warp-capable craft. Still, the relatively recent significant surge of interest, as well as a seemingly steady flow of new, mathematically viable concepts, offers some hope that such a drive may one day allow that original Khitomer peace conference to take place.
In August of 2021, The Debrief learned of two more amazing warp drive concepts under development by mainstream scientists, both of which we will be covering soon. Also, one of the standard-bearers in this field just told The Debrief that their team very recently created a tiny, albeit 100% real, warp bubble in their lab. The full interview with that researcher and their results will both hit The Debrief this fall.
Whenever Kirk and his away team found themselves evading an alien predator, the ability to open up a handheld communicator, dial up the ship’s chief engineer Montgomery Scott, and scream some variation of the phrase, “Beam me up, Scotty!” often came in handy. As such, no phrase or technology has become as inexorably linked to Star Trek’s appeal or durability.
Sadly, of all of the devices made available to the inhabitants of the Star Trek universe by its visionary creator Gene Roddenberry, the one that has made virtually no progress in the intervening 55 years is that darn transporter.
Some hopeful fans may point to “quantum teleportation,” or the ability to take advantage of quantum entanglement (what Einstein termed “spooky action at a distance”) to convey information over long distances instantaneously, as a hopeful sign that a human transporter may someday be possible. Unfortunately, they would be wrong.
As a July 2020 post on the National Science Foundation’s website notes, quantum teleportation may indeed be a real phenomenon, but “not in the way typically depicted on TV. In the quantum world, teleportation involves the transportation of information, rather than the transportation of matter.”
In Star Trek, the transporter is designed to rapidly scan a person’s entire body, break it down, transport that dematerialized person to a distant location, then essentially “rebuild” a version of that same person from that last recording of them.
Setting aside the fact that the person that appears on the other end would almost surely not be the same person who was scanned, but a clone who simply believes it is the original person since it has all of their memories (a problem highlighted in a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode called “Second Chances,” where a transporter malfunction caused a clone of Commander William Riker to be left behind on a planet while the ‘real’ Riker continued on with his life,) the scanning process alone violates known laws of physics.
That’s because, unless the scan of every single atom in the human body can take place instantaneously, something that is also impossible under humanity’s current understanding of physics, then Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle (postulated by Nobel Prize-winning German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg), which says you cannot measure an object’s momentum or position without affecting the other, kicks in.
Essentially, this principle means that such a theoretical transporter scan will not collect the exact information of the actual object scanned with complete accuracy, as all molecules are in constant motion. As a result, the copy will not match the original. Furthermore, every copy after that (or in this case, transporter use) will slowly but surely move the resulting clones away from the original person scanned, making them less and less like the original. Talk about a copy of a copy of a copy!
Outlook: Will Star Trek Predict the Future?
The most surprising thing about this list is just how many of these technologies that seemed almost magical in 1966 are moving toward becoming a reality less than 60 years later. Sure, transporters may never become real, but nearly every other tech discussed has a chance to move from the minds of science fiction writers to the world of everyday people.
Of course, it is also important to remember that the fantastical devices depicted in that series were part of a theoretical human society over two centuries in the future, so even the forward-looking Roddenberry didn’t expect these technologies to be available for another couple of hundred years.
Now, if someone could just teach me the Vulcan neck pinch.
Follow and connect with author Christopher Plain on Twitter: @plain_fiction