27 May 2011

Beam me down, Scotty.

I said recently that there are some annoying aspects to sci-fi. But when I watch old episodes of Star Trek from the 1980s/1990s, as I did this past winter as the snow hemmed us all in, what strikes me is not how outlandish some of it is, but how much they underestimate the tide of science and technology. As I said in a recent post, there are those who suggest that we are nearing a technological singularity, a point past which society will be unrecognizable to those on this side of the singularity. I said then and repeat now that I am skeptical of this idea, but there are signs that something is hurtling towards us, for good or ill.

Look at some of the 'marvels' in those old Star Trek episodes:

-I recently saw an old episode recently in which they talked about the problem of it taking months before they could sequence a genome to find the problem at the crux of the episode. In the 24th century. In 2011, it takes a few weeks and the price is in the tens of thousands of dollars. I suspect that within a few short years, it will take days and cost hundreds. I have had mine partially sequenced for USD 99!

-In one episode, set in the future even in relation to the show's timeline, a man's sight was restored by implanting cloned eyes. A few years ago, a woman in Spain had a new windpipe implanted: it was essentially her own, as it had been 'manufactured' from an old one using her own cells.* Scientists are now experimenting with growing organs on demand. Liver failing? We'll grown you a new one and get it to you next week. That's not 24th century. That's probably a few years away.**

-In another scenario, that same blind man's clunky 'visor' was replaced with mechanical eyes a few years later. This 'breakthrough of the 24th century' is already happening now, in fact. The first primitive (60-pixel) prosthetic eyes have already been developed and approved for implantation. Wearers can at least discern light and up to eight colors, and see well enough to navigate safely. And that's version 1.0. I would be surprised if we didn't have HD-quality resolution that restored most sight within another generation or so, right here in the Dark Ages of the 21st century.

-Remember the old tricorders and communicators from the original show? My iPhone can do 1000 times more than those clunky things ever could.*** I can whip out this USD 199 device and do things Captain Picard would need his ship's computer to do.

-Speaking of computers. Are you kidding me? That piece of junk on the Enterprise often did things in hours that my laptop could do in minutes or even seconds. There are already supercomputers capable of memory and speed that are comparable to those of a human brain. In ten years, we'll probably have laptops of that capacity. And how about those huge computers on the original series?! Please. We surpassed those before Shatner bought his third toupee.

-On a related note, I saw an episode in which the characters were in awe of an android that performed at 60 teraflops. I am no expert on this, but from my admittedly cursory investigation, it seems that's peanuts! Our current supercomputers are measuring in petaflops, not teraflops.

So skip the beam-up, Scotty. I am doing just fine down here.


*You know who you are when I say that at least this time I remember where I read it.

**Well, assuming they can sort out the pesky issue with the connections: making an organ and hooking it up to the body's blood supply are two separate tasks, and it turns out the latter is harder. It's like being told that creating an HD TV from scratch is easy-peasy, but figuring out how to plug it in is superlatively difficult.

***Except getting me beamed up.

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