On September 8, 1966, fifty years ago, Star Trek premiered in the U.S. on the NBC television network. By the broadcast television standards of the day, it was not a great success. The ratings were mediocre, the reviews were mixed, and it was canceled after three seasons, despite a fan-driven letter writing campaign. Defying this inauspicious beginning, Star Trek has become an international cultural phenomenon, with multiple series, movies and casts since the original television premiere.
Much has been written about why Star Trek has lived long and prospered. I suspect much of its enduring appeal lies in the intertwined personal relations of the three original starring characters (Kirk, Spock and McCoy), along with technological optimism and the ethical questions and conundrums posed.
Star Trek has also entered the cultural lexicon in deep ways. “Beam me up, Scotty!” and “Set phasers to stun” being just two of many examples. The small town of Riverside, Iowa, near where I now live, even has a commemorative monument to the “future birthplace” of James T. Kirk. (Yes, Captain Kirk was born in Iowa.) More importantly, Star Trek has inspired generations to pursue science and technology careers, not a few of whom have transformed part of that television science fiction into technological and commercial fact.
Through a B&W Broadcast, Darkly
Alas, I missed the premiere and the entire original run of the Star Trek broadcasts because my family did not own a television. Today that seems incredible, given television’s nearly universal market penetration, the plethora of cable channels, and ubiquitous streaming media services. At the time, however, there were only three broadcast television networks in the U.S., and cable service was not available in many rural areas. In the 1960s, channel surfing often involved climbing on the roof to rotate the antenna while responding to guidance from an open window. Instead, it was best to pick one of the three broadcast networks and stick with the choice, particularly in winter.
When Star Trek entered syndication a few years later, I was able to watch it in B&W, and when I saw it later on color television, I was amazed by the bright, garish colors. Whether in gray scale or color, the series immediately engaged both my teenage angst and my scientific aspirations. Mr. Spock’s stoicism and logic comforted many who felt the pain and loneliness of cultural isolation, including this geek. The series also gave hope that a better world was possible, one where we could celebrate our differences as strengths, while embracing the common core of our shared humanity. During the height of the Vietnam War and our ongoing struggle for civil rights, this was and is a powerful message of hope.
From Fiction to Reality and Back
Though one might also rightly argue convergent evolution, cellphones (communicators) and tablet computers both owe some elements of their form and function to Star Trek’s vision of ubiquitous computing and communications. The tricorder X Prize competition, to create a portable, wireless health monitoring device, is a direct homage to Star Trek. (No, he’s not dead, Jim.)
My former colleagues at Microsoft Research frequently reference the Star Trek universal translator as an inspiration for their work on real-time language translation. (Thank you, Rick Rashid.) More generally, our community’s work on deep learning and intelligent assistants is inspired not only by technical goals but by a motivating vision of artificial intelligence that runs deeply through Star Trek and the science fiction world. From weak AI to ambitions of strong AI, we yearn to build a machine that will be proud of us.
Across computing, we ponder issues of AI ethics and their instantiation in autonomous vehicles, consider the limits of silicon-based computing and quantum alternatives, and debate the future of ubiquitous sensors and digital privacy. These and hundreds of other technical challenges also inform our imaginations and our dreams of the future. This virtuous cycle of invention and imagination drives us forward.
To Boldly Go or Go Boldly: The Frontier Awaits
The original Star Trek series opened with Captain Kirk intoning that the Enterprise would “boldly go where no man has gone before.” It was powerful and inspiring message of exploratory optimism, though I have to admit that the split infinitive has always bothered me. But, the gender-specific pronoun was the wrong message, one Captain Picard rightly corrected.
Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its continuing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no one has gone before.
… without scientific progress no amount of achievement in other directions can insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world.
We yearn to discover. Engage. Make it so.