Posts Tagged ‘Tech Time’

Welcome back! This is my third article in this series where I take a look at past sci-fi shows and evaluate their technology to see if it has been introduced into today’s society.   Previously I talked about ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Babylon 5,’ but this time we’re going to shift gears and think back to the times when ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ aired.

I can’t believe I’m admitting this, but I remember watching ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’ on television.  I’m not reluctant to admit this because I’m ashamed I watched the show – that couldn’t be further from the truth.  This show was, in my opinion, one of the best ever.  My shame comes because I’m actually at an age where I can recall its appearance on TV as part of regular programming.  Yes, I’m getting old.  Mid-thirties, actually.  But to my credit, I’ve only ever watched the reruns.  By the time it was taken off the air in 1978, I was a mere 16 months old.

If you’ve never seen it (and many of you “youngin’s” haven’t) it’s about a man named Steve Austin who’s severely injured in a crash.  He’s subsequently rebuilt during an operation that (you guessed it) cost about six million dollars.  Because of the enhancements he received, he experiences increased speed, hearing and vision which far surpass a normal human’s ability.

The purpose of this article isn’t to get into a history of the show (which I could easily continue to do since I loved it so).  My goal here is to discuss technology, so let’s switch gears a bit, shall we?

So – is it possible that people could have mechanical parts which would allow them to live full lives?  Some would argue that a pacemaker is a good example of this, and they wouldn’t be wrong.  But I want you to think bigger than this.  Think prosthetics, but not the usual kind that one would attach and detach from themselves.

According to an article by The Telegraph, people are already receiving “bionic implants” to help them achieve a higher quality of life than before.

For those who suffer from hearing loss, cochlear implants have made a world of difference.  These little robotic devices are installed in the patient.  They turn sound into electronic pulses, which in turn the brain is able to interpret, thus allowing the wearer to “hear.”  Amazing stuff.

But what’s even more exciting is what’s being done in the realm of limb replacement.  A perfect example of this is a little boy by the name of Patrick Kane.  When Kane was just 9 months old, he lost his left hand after contracting meningitis.

This prosthesis is unlike many others out on the market.  His actually works with sensors. Basically when he tenses his muscles in his arm, two electrodes that make contact with the skin transmit electricity from the nerves and cause the hand to open or close respectively.

“It’s the little things that the hand allows me to do that have really made the difference. I can open bottles with both hands now, hold my fork and tie my shoelaces,” said Patrick.

Another interesting case is that of Claudia Mitchell.  In 2004 Mitchell was in a motorcycle accident that caused her to lose her left arm.  However, thanks to some cutting edge technological bionic implants, she’s able to live an independent life.  The bionic limb, designed by  Todd Kulken, helps her by rerouting the nerves that would’ve normally ended in her arm and hand to end in her chest.  It is here that the bionic arm is able to pick up on those nerve impulses.  So when Claudia thinks about moving her arm, it does just that.  A computer in her arm interprets her thoughts and turns it into motion.

But what if you’re looking for something even more advanced than this?  What if limb replacement isn’t enough?

Researchers are currently trying to find ways to replace individual muscles with bionic implants.  Some are experimenting with synthetic polymer gels which expand and contract similarly to that of real muscle tissue.  This type of implant is actually geared toward those who are suffering from serious types of sports injuries or who may have lost muscles in accidents.

Amazingly enough, researchers at the University of Texas have actually produced artificial muscles that are 100 times stronger than their human counterparts.  Wild, isn’t it?

But what about the sense of touch?  Many who have used prosthetics have complained that not being able to feel is very frustrating to wearers.  Well, this may very well be an issue of the past.   Scientists in Italy are currently designing a synthetic skin that actually allows robots to have a sense of touch.  While this was initially designed just for our robotic friends, there are other researchers who are attempting to adapt this technology to allow amputees and others who have lost limbs a chance to actually feel again.  They’re trying to find a way to bond the robot skin to a human’s nerve cells.

Are we close to building our own Steve Austin?  Not yet, but we’re not as far off as one would think…

Welcome back!  This is the second article in a continuing series where I evaluate sci-fi shows of the past and determine whether or not their technology has made it into today’s society.  Last time we reviewed Babylon 5, a show that’s near and dear to my heart for so many different reasons.

This week though, we’re going to be looking at Star Trek in honor of William Shatner’s The Captains that’s debuting tomorrow in New York City.

Star Trek’s the logical next choice for this column.  When Star Trek first debuted in the 1960s it took countless people by surprise. No one had ever seen a space show quite like this before. They witnessed never-before-seen technology being used in the adventures of the Enterprise, and it definitely left its mark.  

Star Trek has always been ahead of its time and was pure inspiration for the countless other space shows that would emerge years later (yes, even Babylon 5 might not have been if Star Trek hadn’t left its mark).

 Alright, enough with introductions – let’s venture ahead and look at the technology that was used in Star Trek and how it relates to what we’re using today.

Tractor Beam:  The tractor beam was such a crucial piece of equipment to the crew of the Enterprise.  Not only did they use it to tow away disabled ships, but they also utilized it to get themselves out of some serious situations.  It seems like a far-fetched concept but the truth of the matter is that we could be utilizing a similar technology soon ourselves. 

Researchers in China have written recently about certain conditions that would make the creation of a tractor beam plausible.  It’s already quite well known that light can be a source of propulsion (due to radiation pressure).  Well, you might be surprised to learn that in 2010 Japan successfully launched a spacecraft called IKAROS that’s based on solar sail technology, and it made its way past Venus in only six and a half months.  Amazing, isn’t it?

Unfortunately pulling is much harder to accomplish because it presents its own set of challenges.  However, it should be noted that research in this area will no doubt continue so we should continue to see advancements in the future.
 

Communicator:  How many times have you seen these little devices get the crew of the Enterprise out of many difficult situations?   “Beam me up, Scotty” became one of the most familiar lines of the series.  And if there was no way for the communicators to work due to blocked signals, confiscation of their equipment, etc. our favorite starship captain and his crew found themselves in a very difficult scenario.  Do we have these today?  Absolutely.  We call them “smart phones.” 

Many wireless providers now offer “push-to-talk” technology, which in essence, turns our phones into little Star Trek communicators.   While we’d hardly use these to escape from the grasp of hostile Romulans, we still rely on them to help us when we’re in a bind.   Not only can we be in touch with most anyone, but there are a myriad of apps we can use to assist us in our journey (maps to help us plot our next course, banking apps so we can manage our finances on the go, etc).

Universal Translator:  I loved this device, probably because I have a never ending fascination with languages and pick them up quite easily.   This handy piece of equipment helped the crew of the Enterprise communicate with different races that they may never have been able to speak with if they didn’t have it.   Even if the speaker wasn’t a human life form, this device helped translate what they said into English so the crew could determine if they were looking at a possible friend or foe. 

If you ever wanted to know if we’d have this technology today, wonder no more.  We don’t have anything that’s matches what the crew used but we do have our own (somewhat archaic) version.  It’s something our troops use on a regular basis since they’re stationed in parts of the world where English is not the primary spoken language.  It’s called the Voxtec Phraselator P2.  U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and Southeast Asia are utilizing this device; it has the ability to translate over 50 different languages into English and then back again into a different tongue.  It knows more than 15,000 common phrases.  Of course it needs to do better than that, but as far as beginnings go, it’s not bad by any means. 

Transporter:  Oh, how I wish we had these!   How many times have you found yourself in this scenario?  You’ve lost track of time and are now subsequently late for a very important appointment.  You’re about to throw your hands up in a state of frustration, or even worse, break out into a complete panic.  That is, until you remember you have a transporter for situations such as these.  Setting your destination, you step into the machine.  A bright light flashes, followed by a slight humming sound.  When the light turns off, you look around and realize you’re exactly where you need to be.  Had it not been for this technology, it might’ve taken you hours to get to where you needed to be.  I know, it seems unlikely we’ll ever have them, but scientists are actually working to make progress in this area.

Claire Moskowitz recently wrote an article about the progress that’s being made in teleportation.  Here’s an excerpt from that story:  “To teleport light, researchers led by Noriyuki Lee of the University of Tokyo had to destroy it in one place, and re-create it in another. This mirrors the teleportation process on Star Trek, where transporters scan a person, atom by atom, and dismantle him, only to rebuild the person by configuring a different set of atoms in exactly the same pattern in another place.”

We’re not at the point where we can teleport people, but no one can say we’re not making advancements in this area, however small they may seem.

Well, there you have it!  With any luck I surprised you with some information on the technology that was used in Star Trek and how it relates to what we currently use.  Be sure to stay tuned for the next article in this series where I take another popular science fiction show and see what we’ve adopted for use in our society.

 

Is it just me, or have you ever watched your favorite retro sci-fi shows and wondered what life would be like if our lives contained the type of technology they’re experiencing every day?  This only truly happens to me when I watch Babylon 5.  If you’ve ever watched it, you’ll probably know exactly what I’m talking about!

Babylon 5, the oh-so-controversial space station of the 23rd century, was not only the technological innovation of its time (when the show ran in the 90s), but this applies even in our time today.  Chock full of data storage crystals, PPGs, space shuttles to Io, Centauri Prime, Narn, Minbar and other appealing locations along with molecule-binding links to allow crew members to communicate privately with each other, Babylon 5 is second to none when it comes to technology.

What’s interesting to note is that while some of this technology is not in existence at this time, it could be useful in today’s society.  For instance, those handy links could be vital to our own survival. Instead of the incessant texting taking over the world today (and causing hazardous driving conditions), I think it would be beneficial to have a link that binds to the top of our hands so we can talk AND keep our eyes on the road.   I’m for it!  Why don’t we have this technology already?

In addition, routine space travel to different planets would be exceptionally awesome; wouldn’t you agree?  While I doubt beyond the stars we’ll ever find a planet that’s comparable to Narn, Minbar or the others, sometimes I cannot help but wonder what it would be like to jump on a shuttle and visit strange and distant planets.  Have a criminal record and need a fresh start?  Perhaps the Narns will accept you!  Want a place to go where you’ll encounter peace, tranquility and endless hours of meditation?  Jump on the next shuttle to Minbar!  The possibilities are endless.

As for PPGs, if you’re not familiar with the series you might be relieved to know it’s not a type of illegal drug (unless you wanted it to be an illegal drug? Nevermind).  These little devices are actually Phased Plasma Guns.  They fire a shot of super-heated helium contained in a type of electromagnetic bubble or shield.  An opposed magnetic field aids in its propulsion.  When the plasma bolt hits, both its kinetic and thermal energies are dispelled.  PPGs are the norm on B5 as all the security staff and the officers are armed or at least have access to them.

What I find extremely fascinating about PPGs is the way they work.  When one is fired, they cause a wound yet the thermal heat automatically cauterizes the area.  So basically, you can down a suspect and not have to worry about him bleeding to death.  Not bad.  I think our police officers deserve to have this weapon in their arsenal.

And that leaves us with our next technological innovation – data crystals.  It is believed that data crystals were originally crafted by the Minbari, but regardless of whoever designed them data crystals are both convenient and necessary.  Think about it.  You want to save some very important data.  Instead of putting it on a USB drive, you can save it to a data crystal.  This crystal would have a much higher recording capacity than a USB drive (which would obviously seem archaic to those who live on B5). And don’t forget you get aesthetics with a data crystal.  USB drives are so boxy and old looking.  Sparkly and modern, data crystals should be the new up-and-coming technology because they’re both fun AND functional.
   
But what else have we learned about life on B5?  The truth is that, aside from the technology, life here in our time isn’t as different from theirs as we believe it to be.  Remember the globalization that was so blatantly obvious in B5 (aka “Earth Gov”)?  The United States wasn’t identified at all in terms of government; it was all “Earth this” and “Earth that.”  If you’ve been watching the news recently you’ll see that we are headed down the same road.  Our own leaders have identified us as being “citizens of the world” and we are looking at critical issues from a more global point of view than ever before.

What do you do when the unfavorable aspects of the show seem to be coming true?  For instance The Night Watch seems far-fetched but in reality it is very similar to a national government agency existing today.  The Night Watch tells you to watch your neighbors, listen to what they say and be sure to report to them so Earth Gov can keep dissention down to a minimum.  Does this ring a bell?  I don’t know about you, but it definitely sounds like our own Homeland Security.

When it comes to Babylon 5, there are great differences but also great similarities. In the future I’ll talk about the space ships and the technology they utilized.   Not familiar with the show?  You can catch all the seasons in their entirety on Netflix.  Don’t miss it!