How today's smart tech inspired Star Trek: Discovery
SPOILER ALERT: This review contains minor plot details about Star Trek: Discovery.
All hope is nearly lost. Violent clouds bellow from a massive sand storm and threaten to envelope Captain Philippa Georgiou and First Officer Michael Burnham as they trudge across a vast desert planet in search of water. The Star Fleet commanders have precious few moments to inspect a terraformed well controlled by animatronic artificial intelligence before the sky is obscured by clouds, preventing them from beaming back to the starship.
“We come in peace,” says Georgiou. Fortunately, she also comes loaded with incredible technology. And of course, technology saves the day in Star Trek: Discovery. Georgiou and Burnham beam to safety at the last minute, before their ship zips away at warp speed.
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Two major themes are present in every Star Trek story: humanity and technology. Both are key pillars of the latest iteration of the science fiction series that, since its inception in 1964, has defined and inspired generations of Trekkies. And techies.
From flip phones to tablets, as TechRepublic’s Brandon Vigliarolo smartly notes, Star Trek has inspired real-world gadgets for generations. Conversely, contemporary tech—augmented reality, IoT and the smart home, artificial intelligence—inspired much of Star Trek: Discovery‘s tech. The gadgets and innovations that surround Georgiou and Burnham the moment they’re beamed to the ship are familiar all have contemporary analogues.
A starship, of course, is inherently technological. The crew manipulate functions of the space vehicle, but flight is largely automated. The ship itself is a souped-up Alexa device, and the crew speak to the ship in natural language. Naturally, the ship responds like a well-tuned smart home.
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A twist at the end of the third episode involves bio-hacking the universe. Automated transportation along with innovations produced by clever genetic manipulation, the captain tells Burnham, are the key to peacefully resolving the Klingon conflict.
Augmented reality, recently the star of Apple’s iPhone announcement, is also the technological star of Star Trek: Discovery and is copiously deployed. Every monitor on the bridge is loaded with modern displays that project objects into the hands—literally—of crew members outfitted with holo-gloves. In one daring maneuver, Burnham pilots an exosuit through space. Her survival depends on display-based AR inside her suit. Star Trek: Discovery was shot and edited long before Apple jumped into AR, but the show makes it easy to understand the industry’s obsession with AR and the long-term potential of the technology.
The show presents technology as civilized and modern, and the antagonistic Klingon race is tradition-bound and violent. When the starship encounters a fleet of Klingon warriors, Georgiou insists on adopting Star Fleet’s UN-inspired diplomatic posture. In a thematically troubling scene, the captain—daftly and wonderfully played by veteran actress Michelle Yeoh—empathizes and negotiates with the Klingons.
Modernity versus primitivism are complex themes with no easy answers. But they’re also themes that Star Trek is well-positioned to answer. Right or wrong, Georgiou’s stance—genuine and unyielding—results in a tragic battle and eventually war between the species. Star Trek has never been known for nuance, and this episode sends a clear message: Technology can save humanity, but it does not define humanity and often results in conflict.
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These themes also define today’s real-world technology landscape. Mobile devices existed long before the iPhone, yet Apple’s iconic device transformed culture and ushered in a new age of technological expansion. The iPhone and and other mobile devices connect billions of humans, enable technological profusion, and are a guiding star for the future of humanity’s future.
And so does Star Trek: Discovery.