Science fiction is now here

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WASHINGTON POST

A woman wears an Oculus Rift headset.

Washington - In a distant part of the galaxy, 300 years in the future, Starship Enterprise captain James T Kirk talks to his crew via a communicator; has his medical officer assess medical conditions through a handheld device called a tricorder; synthesises food and physical goods using his replicator; and travels short distances via a transporter. Kirk’s successors hold meetings in virtual-reality chambers, called holodecks, and operate alien spacecraft using displays mounted on their foreheads.

All this takes place in the science fiction TV series Star Trek. This science fiction is, however, becoming science reality. Many of the technologies that we saw in Star Trek are beginning to materialise, and ours may be better than Starfleet’s. Best of all, we won’t have to wait 300 years.

Take Captain Kirk’s communicator. It was surely an inspiration for the first generation of flip phones, those clunky mobile devices that we used in the 1990s. These have evolved into smartphones, far more advanced than the science-fiction communicator. Kirk’s device didn’t receive e-mail, play music, surf the web, provide directions or take photos. It also didn’t sweet-talk him, as Apple’s Siri does when you ask her the right questions.

Soon, our smartphones will also add the medical-assessment features of a tricorder, and it won’t need to be a separate device. Apple recently announced that iOS 8 will provide a platform for medical-sensor data that will be displayed by an application called Health. Google, Microsoft, Samsung and others are all racing to build their own platforms and medical devices. We will soon see a new generation of wearable devices such as bracelets, watches and clothing that use external sensors to perform electrocardiograms and measure our temperature, blood oxygenation and other vital signs. These will later be replaced by less obtrusive sensors in skin patches, tattoos and eventually microchips embedded in our bodies. As well, we will have cameras and heat, gas and sound sensors in our bathrooms, kitchens and living rooms that constantly monitor our health and lifestyle.

What are making these health sensors possible are miniaturised mechanical and microelectromechanical (MEMS) elements made using microfabrication technology. Similar advances in microfluidics and nanofluidics are enabling development of labs on thumbnail-sized chips. Nanobiosym, for example, is developing a device called GENE-Radar that can identify, within minutes, a range of illnesses including Aids, malaria, tuberculosis and cancer. Such devices will also be ubiquitous and immediately identify a broad range of disease markers. Unlike the Star Trek tricorder, which is used occasionally, they will constantly be monitoring our bodies.

When you look at the advances that have already happened in 3D printing, you begin to realise that this is the making of the Star Trek replicator. 3D printers can create objects in plastic, metal, glass, titanium, human cells and yes, even chocolate, from a design. Today’s 3D printers are painfully slow, and it takes many hours to print a breadbox-sized object; but in a decade, they will become as common, fast and inexpensive as our laser document printers. In about two decades, we will be 3D printing our dinner as well as our electronics.

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Star Trek's Captain Kirk uses a communicator.

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We already have Star Trek and Jetsons-like video-chat capabilities. Rather than require the large, clunky monitors that we saw George Jetson and Captain Kathryn Janeway use, ours use free Facetime and Skype apps that run on smartphones and laptops. Holodeck-type video conferences have also been possible for several years. I spoke via hologram, in 2011, to a bunch of entrepreneurs in Uruguay using technology that a small company there, Holograam, had developed. Remember the holographic message from Princess Leia to Obi-Wan Kenobi, in Star Wars? That’s how my beamed image looked.

Start-ups such as Oculus, which Facebook recently purchased, are developing virtual-reality goggles that simulate the real world. Other companies are developing three-dimensional projectors that beam images on to screens that make a person look as though physically present. These technologies are in their infancy, but watch them grow and add touch and smell capabilities. We will be meeting each other through virtual reality, and it will feel as if we are really there.

The universal translator that Captain Kirk used to talk to alien species is also in development. Google Translate already does a great job of translating pages of text from one human language to another. And earlier this year, Microsoft demonstrated a real-time, voice-based, language interpreter that works on Skype. I don’t expect any progress on alien languages until we encounter some alien species, but a commercially available virtual real-time translator (a virtual interpreter) for human languages isn’t so far away.

Scientists recently announced that they had made breakthroughs in quantum teleportation. They were able to show a promise of quantum information transmission – showing the duplication in the spin state of an electron between one place and another, through quantum tunnelling – without transmitting matter or energy through the space intervening. This led to hopes that we might one day see a Star Trek-like transporter that can beam our atoms from one place to another. I am not waiting for this one, however, as there is no way that I will willingly allow my atoms to be disintegrated in one location and reassembled in another. I would worry about a software bug or a hardware crash. I’ll just stick to the self-driving cars that will become commercially available by the end of this decade.

The most exciting Star Trek marvel of all – the Starship Enterprise – may also be on its way. In discussion at Fox Studios in March 2012, Elon Musk told me that he planned to retire on Mars. He said he was inspired by Star Trek and planned to build a spacecraft like the Starship Enterprise to take him there. I really thought he was joking. But after that, his company Space Exploration Technologies Corp, or SpaceX, successfully docked a spacecraft it had built, called the Dragon, with the International Space Station and returned with cargo. On December 3 SpaceX launched a commercial geostationary satellite using Falcon rockets. SpaceX says it is planning a Dragon/Falcon 9 flight which will have a fully certified, human-rated, escape system. I’ll bet that Musk does develop a version 1 of the Enterprise. And he may well be our first real-life Captain Kirk. – Washington Post

l Wadhwa is a fellow at Rock Centre for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, director of research at Duke University, and distinguished scholar at Singularity and Emory universities

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