Treknobabble #55: Top 10 Star Trek Inventions Yet To Be Invented

People are probably bored by my Star Trek invention lists by now, but I suppose I should complete the ones I intended to do. This list has the inventions that haven’t been invented, yet. So far, this invention list was the hardest one to narrow down to ten choices. At the end, I decided to write a bit about my honorable mentions, because I had some things I wanted to say about them.


10. Universal Translator

The universal translator would seem like a pretty useful device to have on Earth for dealing with human languages. We already have voice dictation software and electronic dictionaries for converting words and phrases between languages. But we don’t have software that can translate speech in real-time although I’ve read that UCTS for Skype is getting there. The ability to understand language and idioms is actually a complex AI problem.

On Star Trek, the universal translator is powerful enough to decipher an alien language given some sample spoken lines. I can sort of see how you might determine what part of speech a word is by rules of grammar, but I have no idea how the universal translator would be able to determine the meanings of words. For instance, I can’t see how there would be patterns in naming nouns.

In the Original Series (TOS), we get to see the Universal Translator as a portable hand-held device. By the time of the Next Generation (TNG), the Universal Translator is built into the communicator insignias (aka combadge).

Like many of the inventions in this list, the universal translator originated in science-fiction literature. Murray Leinster’s First Contact published in 1945 uses it. Much of alien science-fiction that is not simply about war uses the convention of a universal translator in order to conveniently facilitate communication.

9. Hypospray

This injection device administers medication through the skin without puncturing it. Someone might object to my inclusion of the hypospray in this list because there is an available form of injection device that can be used for some medications. For example, it can be used by diabetics for insulin injections. Okay, I admit it. I goofed. The hypospray should have been included in my “Top 10 Star Trek Inventions in Use Today” or, more accurately, I should have included this in a “Top 10 Inventions Popularized by Star Trek in Use Today,” because in 1960, a Jet Injector medical device was invented by Aaron Ismach and used for vaccinations. In my defense, the jet injector is not that common in everyday usage. There have been concerns about infections from mass vaccinations.

Despite the image I have chosen to use for the hypospray, I think as a kid, when I first saw Dr. McCoy injecting someone with a hypospray, my initial reaction was no more painful needles! Current jet injectors give a “wet” sensation, but some medications and vaccines can cause burning and stinging sensations regardless of the delivery system. I wonder if the injectors currently in use make a noise. That might be intimidating. Supposedly, some kids still “feel” pain with the gentlest injectors.

We never saw needles in Star Trek, but now that I think about it, how would they take blood samples without needles? Maybe it’s unnecessary to take blood samples, but we did see a blood transfusion in the episode where Spock gives blood for his father’s surgery. Surely the insertion of a catheter would require a needle.

So why didn’t we see needles in Star Trek? The use of the hypospray on Star Trek came about because the television network’s broadcasting standards did not allow showing hypodermic syringes in use. Only goes to show how something good can come out of adversity.

Before being used for medical purposes, jet injection was being used in the manufacturing industry for grease guns, paint sprayers, and fuel injectors. Accidental injections in humans could induce blood poisoning. Star Trek even showed how dangerous the hypospray could be when Dr. McCoy accidentally injected himself with an overdose of stimulant when the Enterprise was rocked back and forth. Advanced technology can be dangerous!

8. Medical Scanner

Until a year or two ago, noninvasive medical diagnosis had not reached the point where it could be done with a handheld device. Someone took advantage of cell phone technology so that a portable scanner could be hooked up to a cell phone which could communicate with computer processors at another location. The computer processors would generate processed images from the raw data and relay them back to the cell phone for viewing. This system is cost-effective, so we may see this in the near future.

I recently had a basic physical, and I don’t think the procedures have changed much in the past thirty years. I think the main health indicators can be gathered from blood analysis. I wonder how much more effective preventative medicine would be if doctors used quick noninvasive medical diagnosis.

7. Shuttlecraft

The shuttlecraft was used on Star Trek to fly between the Enterprise in space and a planet surface when the transporter couldn’t be used. We never did get to see a shuttlecraft land on a planet, but we got to see one land in the shuttlebay.

I don’t know if anyone is currently looking into building a shuttlecraft. I think the idea of personal hovercrafts has been abandoned. I’m guessing that controlling air traffic would be too difficult if everyone flew shuttlecrafts instead of driving cars, regardless of the difficulty in creating a quiet and maneuverable shuttlecraft-type vehicle.

6. Phaser

Phasers are beam weapons that can stun, kill, cut, melt, vaporize, or penetrate. Originally, phaser stood for photon maser, but it has been revised to mean phased energy rectification.

If law enforcement had phasers with a stun setting that could be set to wide dispersal as we have seen on Star Trek, then they could stun everyone at a location with a crime in progress. They could then sort out the bystanders or hostages from the crooks. If crooks used phasers, then they could rob people without killing them. If nations fought wars with stun weapons, then the nations with the bigger stun weapons would win or the nations with the larger numbers of people.

Having both stun and kill settings on a phaser scares me. I can imagine it would be pretty easy to forget and leave the phaser set on the kill setting accidentally. I suppose the first thing you would have to do when equipping a phaser is to make sure it’s on the stun setting. I would hope that switching to kill could not be done accidentally, so it would have to be like a safety on our current bullet guns.

Tasers have been getting a lot of bad press in the news. I think the problem with tasers is that individuals react differently to the same electrical shock to the system. I think the use of phasers would provide a similar problem. I would think that the variety of aliens out there would mean that a stun setting that would knock a human unconscious might kill a more delicate life-form.

5. Cloaking Device

A cloaking device makes a user invisible not to just visible light through our eyes, but to other detection as well. In the Star Trek universe, humans didn’t invent the cloaking device for hiding starships. Gene Roddenberry’s reasoning was that humanity didn’t have a need for something that would be used for covert purposes. Ostensibly, humans learned how to reverse engineer a cloaking device because an episode of TOS has Kirk disguising himself as a Romulan in order to steal a cloaking device from the Romulans. (So much for the sanctity of human behaviour. In case you were wondering, Roddenberry was not actively involved in the production of Star Trek when that Mission Impossible-like episode aired.)

In the movie Star Trek: Insurrection, we see the Federation spying on, oh, I mean studying, primitive societies by using cloaking devices to hide encampments and individuals. Cloaking suits allowed the wearer to get “up close,” but I do wonder how come the natives didn’t notice all the footprints.

Early this year (2009), Duke University engineers announced that they are now able to create materials that cloak at a wide range of the electromagnetic spectrum. They had developed a prototype in 2006 to demonstrate the feasibility of the idea. The basic idea is that mathematical algorithms are used to design and make small pieces of fiberglass material etched with copper. These are then combined to make a larger surface. Their largest piece so far was only 20” x 4” x 1”. My impression is that this cloak only works or is best for stationary objects. But this technology still has a wide range of applications beyond hiding objects. As general examples, the material can be used for redirection to improve wireless communication, for focusing to improve optics, or for protection to block sound.

In our society, I can’t think of a valid, legal purpose for a cloaking device in the visible spectrum, but the idea of having this invention is too great, especially having a personal cloaking device as seen in Insurrection. How would that work? When you’re inside a cloaked vehicle, you can still see everything when you’re inside. So if you have a suit or say something attached to your belt that generates the cloak, how would you turn the cloak on and off? I suppose you could still feel around the device on your belt even if you couldn’t see it. But what if the off switch malfunctioned and the zipper or clasp on your outfit broke? (I have some coats with bad zippers. Sometimes it takes forever to get my coat off when the zipper jams. And I can see the zipper!) Would you have to wait until the battery died before you could get help from someone to remove your invisibility suit?

Maybe the invisibility suit material has its own power source that regenerates itself. For effect, Insurrection did show Data removing the invisibility suit while the suit was still invisible. So it seems something about the suit material itself made it invisible. I guess you would need a tricorder to find your invisibility suit. Anyway…

4. Deflector Shield

A deflector shield was used on starships to protect them from enemy fire. Although I don’t think it was ever mentioned, some form of it was likely employed to deflect radiation and small particles and debris in space. With the increasing amount of satellite garbage in Earth orbit, our space shuttles are due for an accident if a suitable deflector shield is not invented. Speaking of hull punctures, a localized deflector shield was shown to be a quick patch in Star Trek Nemesis.

The concept of the deflector shield or force field has been used in science-fiction since the early 20th century by authors like E.E. “Doc” Smith.

Like a personal cloaking device, personal deflector shields would seem like a good idea, but we never saw them on Star Trek. In Frank Herbert’s Dune, I thought it was ingenious how personal deflector shields could protect you from fast moving projectiles and energy beams, but they could be penetrated with a slow moving knife attack, for example. It seemed somewhat logical to me that a deflector shield would have this limitation in order to allow the user to have interaction with objects around him.

One of the problems with developing a deflector shield is to avoid having the shield negatively affect the movement of the object using the shield. Researchers have been working with charged plasma fields.

3. Warp Drive

Warp drive is the faster-than-light propulsion system that allows the Enterprise to travel the vast distances of our galaxy and circumvent the problem of time dilation. The Enterprise has a matter-antimatter engine that requires dilithium crystals (a fictional mineral) in order to channel the energy. The two engine nacelles common on Federation starships facilitate the creation of a “warp bubble.”

The leading theoretical physicist investigating warp drive might be Dr. Miguel Alcubierre at the National University of Mexico. He has proposed a warp drive that uses dark energy, but his warp drive is not practical because of the large expenditure of energy required. Between 1996 and 2002, NASA sponsored some speculative work on warp drives. For the time being, warp speed travel is not likely anytime soon.

If we ever develop warp drive and start exploring the universe, I’m guessing we’ll find that we are alone. But I hope I’m wrong.

2. Holodeck

For these Star Trek invention lists, I’ve been confining myself to TOS only because subsequent series weren’t very innovative when it came to new technology. The holodeck is the major exception. A form of it actually originated on the Star Trek animated series, but it was TNG that popularized it. Basically, a holodeck is an enclosed room in which various technologies combine to give users inside the holodeck a virtual reality experience. By the time of Star Trek, the virtual reality experience cannot be distinguished from reality.

Before TNG, I had read about a simulated environment for a children’s nursery in Ray Bradbury’s short story, The Veldt. Not simply for entertainment purposes, the holodeck was shown to be useful for scientific simulations, combat training, and forensic re-creation of crime scenes.

Because of the potential usefulness of a holodeck for military training, there has been research focused on the holodeck. I’m sure that once the technology for the holodeck is in place, then the use of the holodeck for sexual purposes will quickly follow. Quark’s bar on Deep Space Nine had holosuites for rental to visitors stopping by at the space station. Given the scantily clad nature of Quark’s dabo girls, we can sort of guess what the holosuites were primarily used for.

One episode of TNG explored holodeck addiction (aka holo-addiction), which is something I think I could succumb to. If you could spend your time in a fantasy world that was under your control, then I suspect you would rather spend your time there than in mundane reality, especially if you’re on a starship and you rarely get a chance to go on an away team. But I suppose holodeck programs could become boring after a while. Most people need a feeling of accomplishment in order to be happy.

The writers were aware that it was all too easy to have stories based around the holodeck malfunctioning even with safety protocols. You could even die. Given that I drive an automobile and the high fatality rate associated with automobiles, I think I would risk using a holodeck.

1. Transporter

The transporter is the one invention that would revolutionize the way we live. Not only would it affect how we travel, but the technology for transporters could possibly be adapted for use in replicators. And let’s not overlook the ultimate potential benefit. Immortality! I’m assuming we would be able to fine tune the teleportation process to replace worn out tissues.

The metaphysical implications of teleportation are mind-boggling to me. Can the mind survive the teleportation process? When we go to sleep, our physical bodies undergo changes as cells die and others come to life. But we wake up believing we’re the same person we were yesterday. Some people thought that humans would undergo weird changes if subjected to faster-than-sound travel, never mind faster-than-light. “Man wasn’t “created” to go that fast!” they thought. But the mind and body held up fine to the rigor. Similarly, perhaps our minds will readily adjust to having our brains reconstituted.

Teleportation had been a science-fiction staple for years. Star Trek’s adoption of it was necessitated by the foreseen cost of showing the Enterprise landing every week. Apparently, someone had shown Gene Roddenberry the movie The Fly while he was in the process of creating Star Trek. (For those not familiar with The Fly, a scientist developing a teleportation device accidentally fuses his DNA with a fly’s. The original movie was remade later with Jeff Goldblum as the scientist.)

Despite the physicist Lawrence Krauss’ doubts about a transporter ever being invented (see his book, The Physics of Star Trek), the physicist Michio Kaku thinks that a teleportation device similar to the transporter will be invented within a hundred years! I think I’ve read about how a scientist was able to transfer the quantum state of an elementary particle across a distance. We still have a ways to go.

Honorable mentions go to the force field door, database portal, LCARS adaptable interface, and handless wheelchair.

Force Field Door

I imagine a force field door would use the same technology as a deflector shield. For a prison cell, it provides an unobstructed view of a prisoner. If force field doors were able to prevent objects from moving through it in one direction, then prison guards could slide a food tray in without having to turn the force field off. You wouldn’t be able to use the ploy of getting a guard close to the door so that you could reach through the bars and disable the guard with a head-lock. You wouldn’t be able to pick the lock or destroy it with an improvised phaser beam. You could still feign sickness in order to get the guard to drop the force field and foolishly come in to check on you. In case of power failure or disruptions, I suppose there must be emergency power back-up. Oh, don’t mind me. I’m just trying to rationalize whether or not force field doors are practical.

Database Portal

I can’t remember where I got the term “database portal” from. I’m referring to the thing that Spock and Chekov would look in at Spock’s science station on the bridge. We never got to see what they were looking at, but a blue glow would emanate from within the portal. Since Spock and Chekov seemed to get information from it, I imagine they were looking at some sort of television monitor.

For privacy reasons alone, having a database portal would seem like a reasonable device to have at the office. It would clear up some desk space although the hunching over might be uncomfortable.

Sulu had a similar device at his navigation console. Sulu only used it during battle conditions when it would rise slowly and unfold. Imagine an emergency situation and having to wait for that thing to unfold itself?

LCARS Adaptable Interface

On TNG, all the consoles used a Library Computer Access/Retrieval System (LCARS) adaptable interface. Basically, the display and interface controls would change depending on what system you wanted to see and control and how precisely you needed to see and control. With touch interface becoming popular in the real-world through devices like the iPod Touch and Blackberry Storm, a standardized look such as the LCARS would be ideal.

I often wondered how the Enterprise on TOS could be controlled with so few buttons and toggles. But maybe the AI is so powerful that you only need a few buttons?

Handless Wheelchair

Presumably there’s some wireless communication taking place between the occupant’s thoughts and the wheelchair. If you suffer from a degenerative brain disease, then I suspect you wouldn’t be able to use this chair. The lack of robotic manipulator arms and hands would seem to be a major deficiency of the model used by Captain Pike.

Everyone makes fun of the communication system on the wheelchair. There’s a single yellow light on it. One blink means “no,” and two blinks mean “yes.” No, wait; it’s the other way around. To avoid possible confusion, you would think that the wheelchair makers would have two separate lights: a red light for “no,” and a green light for “yes.” Maybe the next model higher up has two lights?

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  • rus in chicago

    Didn’t Reed already do this list? I’m not up on all my Treknus, but isn’t there instant food or protein bits, or something? I would think Reed would be all over that since he is trying to invent that technology with his “Leftover Office Lasagna Consumed Over the Course of a Year” experiments.

  • rus in chicago, this list is different than my previous two lists. These are inventions that we don’t have, yet. There’s still one more list to go: “Top 10 Inventions That Star Trek Failed To Foresee.”

    In the Star Trek future, leftovers get dematerialized and reconstituted to fresh product. I’m a bit ahead of my time because I’ve trained my stomach to extract nutrients and ignore contaminants from leftovers. I think eating regular meals is still a valued, leisurely activity in the future. (BTW, I’m just playing along with your joke. :-))

  • Chris

    On the universal translator, they are getting closer all the time. Take a look at the phraselator: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phraselator

  • dk

    transporter issue.
    didn’t the fly come out in the 80s?

  • David Cronenberg’s 1986 “The Fly” was a loose re-make of a 1958 film called “The Fly.” Both films used the idea of a transporter. Thx for reading, dk.

    I saw the original film when I was 7 or so years old after I begged my parents to let me watch it. I ended up having to sleep with a night light until I was at least 10 years old.

  • Erica

    I just got a jet injection for a migraine, and let me tell you, it hurts! I can identify with the picture! It also does make a loud whooshing sound when activated.

  • Thx for the comment, Erica. By the 23rd century, I think the jet injector will have available a silencer attachment.