Without a doubt, no show has done more to promote a positive vision of the future and a limitless sense of possibility than Star Trek. It's a series that has inspired several generations of fans, and helped to spur the development of actual technologies we now take for granted.
So it's a crying shame that Star Trek's vision of the future is totally incorrect. But the sooner we admit this, the faster we can embrace more realistic futures. Here's everything that Star Trek gets wrong.
Nobody can deny that Star Trek made the world a better place. In fact, Star Trek is famous for its portrayal of all sorts of technological wonderments that we now possess in real life: flip phones, teleconferencing, wireless earpieces, touch screens, tablet computers, and more. We even have medical hydrosprays in the form of Jet Injectors and hand-held chemical detection units that resemble tricorders. And looking to the future, it's very possible that we'll develop replicators like the ones featured in the Next Generation series — what will eventually be referred to as molecular assemblers.
So ingrained is the Roddenberry vision of the future, most people assume it's precisely how humanity's future will play out — and anyone who disagrees with it is either a spoil-sport or a complete Luddite. It's assumed pretty much across the board that we'll eventually leave the cradle and fly off in our spaceships in hopes of rubbing elbows with green-blooded aliens. But there's no way the future could actually look like Star Trek.
Instead, the future will be far different — and much weirder — than Roddenberry and other ST writers could have ever imagined. The challenge now is to admit that humanity is headed into a very different kind of future. It's time to set aside Star Trek's outdated vision of the future and focus on real possibilities.
Where are all the human GMOs?
If we're to believe the Star Trek future, humans will largely look, act, and function just like they do today. The future, it would seem, is still run by a bunch of run-of-the-mill meat puppets who have forsaken the potential for human augmentation. This is very hard to believe, given all the recent advances in genetics, cybernetics, and the cognitive sciences.
But it's also a lot to swallow, once you consider the necessity of augmenting any human who wants to travel into deep space. Human enhancement is coming, and it's going to be pretty hard to avoid it. And as a result, the "human" of the 24th century will scarcely resemble that of today's.
It's at this point that Trekkies will be squirming in their seats, eager to point out that there's a very good reason for this. Owing to the catastrophe that was the Eugenics Wars, the United Federation of Planets banned genetic engineering. The prohibition was intended to prevent another event like the Eugenics Wars and the rise of a despot like Khan Noonien Singh.
Fans of the show will also be quick to point out that some augmented humans do in fact exist in the Star Trek world. Dr. Julian Bashir of Deep Space Nine is genetically enhanced, albeit illegally through the intervention of his parents and on account of his learning disability. Consequently, while this endows him with superior intelligence and physical abilities, it also marks a serious point of embarrassment and shame for Bashir; human enhancement is not something that's done very regularly in this world.
Now, while all this Star Trek canon is fine and well, the fact of the matter is that human civilization has not gone through any kind of cataclysmic event like the Eugenics Wars, and it's highly unlikely that we ever will. The idea that the presence of smarter, fitter, and happier people will result in a war that causes the death of 30 million people is a bit of a stretch.
Parental demand for "human trait selection" is steadily increasing, and it'll only be a matter of time before families will be able to "enhance" their offspring in this way. Moreover, if parents don't do it, individuals will start to do it to themselves. Already today there's growing demand for such things as performance, cognitive and mood enhancement. It's a burgeoning grassroots trend that's only going to increase as more effective technologies are developed and as they become more accessible.
There's also the potential for radical life extension. Some experts believe that we may be less than a hundred years away from solving the aging problem — a series of medical advancements that will lead to indefinite lifespans. In the Star Trek future, fantastic medical technologies exist, but there's not much talk about thwarting human aging. (Although we do see a very ancient Leonard McCoy in the Star Trek: The Next Generation pilot.)
Moreover — and this is important — if we're to venture out into space, we will almost certainly have to dabble in some form of human enhancement. Humans simply don't do well in space, mostly on account of the awful effects of prolonged exposure to zero gravity and cosmic rays, not to mention excessively long trips undertaken in extreme conditions. In fact, it's this exact realization that spawned the entire field of cybernetics in the first place. The term "cyborg" was coined by Manfred Clynes and Nathan S. Kline back in the early 1960s to describe the potential for space-faring modified humans who had both biological and artificial parts.
More recently, Craig Venter made the case for human enhancement when speaking to a group of scientists at NASA Ames. He reminded them that NASA already does genetic selection when it picks astronauts — he just wants them to get even more systematic about its process:
Inner ear changes could allow people to escape motion sickness... [You could have genes for] bone regeneration, DNA repair from radiation, a strong immune system, small stature, high energy utilization, a low risk of genetic disease, smell receptors, a lack of hair, slow skin turnover, dental decay and so on. If people are traveling in space for their whole lives, they may want to engineer genetic traits for other purposes.
Sure, Star Trek does portray cyborgs, but mostly through the portrayal of the ominous Borg Collective. It's a monstrous and dystopic cautionary tale of a cybernetic future, a projection of our fears and apprehensions as we enter into the era of human cyborgization. It's a warning rather than an endorsement. And it's also a form of denial that we need to move past.
More radically, there's also the possibility of rejecting corporeality altogether. Humans may eventually choose to discard their bodies and transfer their minds into supercomputers — what is referred to in futurist parlance as "mind uploading." In such a "posthuman" state, humanity's descendants may choose to live out their lives in virtual reality environments or intensive computer simulations.
The human of the future, it would appear, will be anything but. Our species will likely undergo a kind of speciation, with different humans occupying various technological and environmental niches. For a more realistic interpretation of this kind of future, be sure to check out Greg Egan's classic novel Diaspora which features a world of uploaded posthumans, cyborgs, and genetically enhanced humans.
The spaceship is dead
One of the more indelible aspects of the Star Trek franchise is the use of spaceships. They are the futuristic analog to naval ships, both in terms of their ability to transport people to distant, unexplored lands, and as a way to defend against external threats. Without spaceships, there would be no Star Trek, and by consequence, no human future in space. At least, that's the conventional thinking.
It's very unlikely, however, that space will be explored and colonized in this way. As science fiction writer Charles Stross has noted, the spaceship is a myth. It's an old-fangled vision of how humans might go about space travel that doesn't take into account the problems of distance, time and available resources — and of course, new innovations.
Instead, Stross and a number of other thinkers argue that it would be more realistic to drop the word "ship" from discussions of interstellar travel and instead contemplate the requirements for an "interstellar transportation system." An indisputable reality of space travel is that virtually nothing will await our intrepid explorers once they reach their destination — and that's assuming they could survive the journey. At best they could hope for are some rocks, sunlight, and slushy water. All materials required to build an initial infrastructure would have to be brought along for the ride — not an easy undertaking.
What Stross proposes is a system that utilizes machine-phase diamond-substrate nanotechnology, mind uploading, and artificial general intelligence. The end result wouldn't be much like a "ship". Rather, it would consist of a diamondoid data storage device (which would hold the data patterns of the uninstantiated space travelers) hanging below a light sail. The sail itself would be energized by lasers that are powered by huge orbiting solar power stations. Technically speaking, there would be no biological travelers aboard — just uploaded minds or some other kind of machine intelligence. Nanotech assemblers would take care of any need for physicality. Once at its destination, the device would come to a stop, settle on a planet, and go about the farming of materials to build a biosphere (or some kind of infrastructure), including a way to communicate back home.
So with my due apologies to Trekkies, no Galaxy Class Starship await your descendants.
Hey wait a minute, what ever happened to the singularity?
One of the more surprising aspects of the Star Trek future is that a technological Singularity never happened. This is highly unlikely, given the timelines provided by some futurists like Ray Kurzweil and Hans Moravec who predict one later this century. This is made all the more weirder by the presence of advanced machine minds in the Star Trek universe who choose to limit their capacities and agendas based on some rather flimsy sorts of rationalizations and convenient script-writing.
Take Lieutenant Commander Data, an android capable of over 60 trillion operations per second (compared to 13 trillion per second for humans) and who has a total storage capacity of over 93 million gigabytes (humans have a capacity of about 1,024 GB). He's got an incredibly powerful positronic brain — and the capacity for self-improvement — so he could become much more powerful if he wanted to.
But he doesn't and he (perplexingly) chooses to limit himself and work among his human and alien shipmates, often utilizing his great intellect to save the day... but nothing more. At no point does Data ever consider taking over Starfleet even though it is within his capacity to do so. Nor does he consider re-working his brain to achieve ever-increasing levels of intelligence (what is referred to in AI circles as recursive self-improvement). Data, we are lead to believe, is bound by a kind of Asimovian "ethical programming", but he has been known to kill in situations where it has been absolutely necessary.
This doesn't jibe the latest thinking on the matter. Some AI theorists predict a "hard takeoff" event in which a machine intelligence will quickly advance itself to something millions of times more powerful than the human brain. In other words, when an AGI hits human-level intelligence, it won't just stop there or even a little above it (i.e. Data), but rather, it will advance several orders of magnitude beyond it.
Hence, the Singularity.
Interestingly, Star Trek did provide a small glimpse into the potential for an uncontrollable advanced superintelligence in the SNG episode "The Nth Degree", in which Reginald Barclay's brain is taken over by aliens residing at the center of the Galaxy. In this episode, Barclay's intellect gets radically enhanced, allowing him to integrate himself with the ship's computer and take complete control of the Enterprise-D. The ship's crew is completely helpless and unable to intervene — call it a singularity-lite. It's a disturbing example of how machine minds could run amok and seriously undermine human interests.
Science fiction author Vernor Vinge has famously said that an ultraintelligent machine will be the last invention humans will ever have to make. After that, it's anyone's guess as to what comes next. The presence of Data in the Star Trek world undermines Vinge's apt observation, as Data's presence would have resulted in an entirely new technological paradigm for the human species.
And given that we may be only about 50 years away from a technological singularity, it's highly unlikely that a space-faring civilization of the 24th century would have somehow avoided it.
The final frontier isn't what you think it is
The deeper we get into the 21st Century, the more our future seems cyberpunky than wagon-trainy. The Fermi Paradox is shouting out to us that space is not the final destination for an advanced species, and that alien races don't hang out with each other at the edges of the Alpha Quadrant.
Humanity's advancing technologies strongly indicate that its trajectory is inwards rather than outwards. Our ongoing presence as static and mortal flesh-and-blood creatures is in serious doubt. We stand poised to build Dyson Spheres and Jupiter brains instead of spaceships and transporters. And at the same time, the possibility of us having to share this planet with artificially intelligent life vastly superior to our own gets more and more real with each passing decade.
So while the future may not look like anything portrayed in Star Trek, that doesn't mean it's going to be any less fantastic and vast. In fact, it may introduce us to some entirely new frontiers.