By Stephen Harris
April 21, 2014
One of the cute ideas that made the original “Star Trek” TV show — still shown these days in reruns by one of the classic-TV channels out of the Triad — so intriguing starting in 1966 was the science-fiction idea of the food replicator.
When Captain Kirk or another starship crew member wanted something to eat, he or she would walk up to the replicator and speak the order to a computer. And then something like a vending machine door would open and out would slide a food tray.
In the years following “Star Trek” the march of progress by the early 1990s came up with voice-recognition technology. It allows you, for instance, to call your bank on the phone and speak to a computer. The computer will reply with the amount of your deposits, account balance and other such information. My live-in accountant places a call after every pay day.
It’s like ordering dinner from the voice replicator on the starship Enterprise without the food.
Also in the early 1990s the march of progress came up with genetically altered grains and even meat. They found a way to swap around genes to produce what some describe as better food, though detractors derisively call it frankenfood.
For instance, after a year of public pressure, General Mills in January took bioengineered corn starch and sugar cane out of Cherrios, one of my staples. But other frankenfoods remain.
It’s not quite making food out of thin air as on “Star Trek,” but it’s a step in that direction.
They also had something on the Enterprise called synthetic alcohol, which was not supposed to make you drunk. But it earned the scorn of the well-experienced Chief Engineer Scotty. No word yet on making that a reality.
But of course the most popular, wild idea on “Star Trek” was the transporter, a cute writers’ ploy to bypass the tedium of having characters spend valuable TV time riding spaceships down to planets and back all the time.
The idea was that Spock or someone else would step onto a platform and then onto one of a number of circles on the floor and under a spotlight in the ceiling. Then an operator would move a lever and people and things could be transported almost instantly to another location.
Ship’s Doctor McCoy once cynically described the process as “spreading a man’s molecules all over the universe.”
How I wanted one of those transporters when faced with a long, boring, tedious drive to the beach or elsewhere. Why, with a transporter, I reasoned as a kid, I could go to the beach every weekend by just stepping onto my circle.
But, of course, that’ll never happen, right? Since the original “Star Trek” they’ve indeed been able to create computers that talk and artificial food. But you’ll never be able to dissolve in a beam of light and reappear somewhere else, right?
Uh, have you’ve been seeing what I’ve been seeing lately?
They’ve come up with something called a 3-D printer. I’ve only seen demonstrations on television.
These printers are supposed to be able to print solid objects, not just words on paper in two dimensions.
A company in Research Triangle Park makes these futuristic printers, and not long ago during a talk in Chapel Hill the lead inventor showed off her shoes that she said she had made with a 3-D printer.
I look at my old office printer here that has remained broken-down for a few years now. I don’t know how to fix it. On its best days I can’t see that heap of junk printing out for me even a decent picture of a pair of flip-flops.
But they say that someday, sooner than later, I will be able to, say, call up a shoe company. I will be able to order a pair of shoes, the company will send the specifications to my 3-D printer, and it can print my shoes in minutes.
I won’t have a “Star Trek” transporter beaming me down to the beach and saving me a 10-hour round trip and a lot of gas.
But I will be able to, say, have beamed down ahead of me a pair of really neat flip-flops. And a beach bucket and sand shovel. Maybe a beach umbrella? How about a metal detector? And who knows what else?
So what else from “Star Trek” could they turn into reality?
Remember how, on the show, Spock could read minds?
So now we move to the year 2054. A pesky boss suddenly blurts out, “Come here, Harris, I want to read your mind and find out what you really think.”
Let’s hope they never turn that one into reality.
Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.