Monday, August 20, 2012

Prophecy of Star Trek

Bones held the medical Tricorder up to the patient. "Jim, this is an acute case of postprandial upper abdominal distention. We have to do something now or she may barf!"

Back in the late 1960s the vision of Star Trek with its sliding automatic doors, beamed energy weapons, remote sensing and remote manipulation with "tractor beams" introduced many ideas to the young minds of people who were destined to become engineers, doctors and, yes, astronauts. It seems that almost nothing proposed by the series is too fantastic to actually come up with real-world engineering solution for.

The Magnetic Resonance Imaging scanner for example is a wonder of modern medicine that relies on being able to detect the "ringing" left over in atoms after they get thumped with a magnetic pulse. With MRI we can look into brains and bodies to discover what is going on without touching the patient with anything more than a magnetic field that penetrates skin and bone as if it were air.

Today, a robot car is on Mars, blasting rocks with a laser gun to enable scientists to analyse the elements in those rocks. Today, you have a cellphone that does far more than Captain Kirk's Communicator and that same cell phone would be the envy of Mr Spock's talking computer.

There is even an X-Prize for the first working medical Tricorder that will scan people and diagnose a few illnesses in the same way that Doctor McCoy's Tricorder diagnosed the Horta in "Devil In The Dark"

Science fiction is more correctly known as Speculative Fiction. The Sci Fi image of over-the-top geek fans in costumes belies the fact that many science-fiction authors are themselves scientists and have a pretty good idea of what is actually physically possible in the universe as we understand it. The speculations of Star Trek have been coming true with alarming regularity over the past four decades. There is no real reason why at least some of the more esoteric ideas shouldn't also be realised.

In the Star Trek universe. Money is no object to human advancement. Riches come from knowledge and power comes from an ability to command respect. In "Shore Leave" the objects of desire of the crew were manufactured on the spot without even the mention of price. An antique gun, a World-War II fighter aircraft, some rather comely lady robots and many other luxury items were conjured up with nothing but a few watts of power spent in the process.

Thousands of years ago, brass foundries were the height of technology and the metallurgists who worked them were the kings of commerce and power. So much so that the bronze axe head became currency because they were precious, difficult to produce and sufficiently rare to have an intrinsic value. These objects were useless as axes but were used as currency for a while. When the art of making Bronze became more common and the ways of casting the metal became commonplace too, the bottom dropped out of the bronze axe-head market and they fell out of use. Meanwhile, hordes of axe heads that had been buried, possibly for safe keeping remained forgotten and useless in the ground.

Soon, money will be as useless as the bonze axe-head. Coins and banknotes will be an intriguing memory of times when people exchanged tokens for goods. When goods were laboriously made in factories and shipped all over the world instead of being printed up from a reservoir of atoms that are lying around. The only real cost will be the cost of electrical power and that will all be free anyway, gathered from the sun or made in cheap and inexhaustible fusion reactors here on Earth.

For the moment, money and commerce remains but it will go away. It must because there is no logical reason for it to continue, just as the bronze axe head became simple to replicate in days gone by, so too will the tokens of modern commerce become simple to create in a home based molecular printer. Counterfeiting will become as simple as scanning and printing is today despite the phenominal resources governments put into anti copying measures.

For the moment I'm a computer programmer but I know with confidence that soon, the computers will all program themselves. You, I, and indeed everyone else has to find a different way of doing things. Get busy, the Singularity is coming.

No comments: