Sunday, October 21, 2012

Star Trek technology: how 21st century scientists are making it so

Many have been inspired by Star Trek to become scientists, and some are starting to make its gadgetry a reality

Patrick Stewart as Jean-Luc Picard
Captain Jean-Luc Picard after assimilation by the Borg in 2366. In 2012, scientists are toying with the possibilities of cybernetics. Photograph: Sportsphoto/Allstar/Cinetext
Destination Star Trek London has kicked off at the ExCeL exhibition centre, and I'm willing to bet that among those heading down for a weekend of pointy-eared fun, there'll be a high proportion of scientists and engineers.
Many have been inspired by Star Trek to take up a career in science, technology or engineering. I think the franchise deserves more respect as a science popularisation medium – how many other prime-time TV shows would allow their characters to toss out phrases like "I performed a Fourier analysis on the harmonics, Captain"?
Since its inception in 1966, Star Trek has familiarised us with the lingo and applications of science. At least, that was the case for me. I felt pretty disenfranchised from science at school: it wasn't until I discovered science fiction that I realised I could understand "difficult" technical concepts.
Since the show began, many of us have become more tech-savvy than we could possibly have imagined at school. More than that, we're now seeing emergent technology here on Earth that was once little more than a Star Trek scriptwriter's dream. To get you in the mood for this weekend's festivities, here's a roundup of some of the best Star Trek-inspired technology.


Who wouldn't want their own replicator? Well, you can have one – of a sort. Three-dimensional printers have been on the open marketcommercially for most of the 21st century. Their basic technology isn't that dissimilar to a standard ink printer: a starter material, such as polymers or resins, is deposited layer by layer, building up to a 3-D shape. You can even print your lunch: over at Cornell's Creative Machines, a 3-D printer can make your food to order.
Brilliant as these devices are, they don't actually create new compounds: it's more a fancy version of your mum's cake piping. But earlier this year, Professor Lee Cronin took the idea to a new level with his prototypeChemputer: a modified 3-D printer with the ability to synthesise inorganic molecules – to date, an organic heterocycle and two inorganic nanoclusters. Ultimately, Cronin envisages the printing of complex pharmaceuticals to order.


Earlier this year, Nature reported that photons had been teleported 89 miles, between La Palma and Tenerife. OK, it wasn't exactly transportation: instead, each photon's state was teleported, via quantum entanglement. In essence, the photon was instantaneously copied and reproduced across the distance, while the original was destroyed. Still, this represented light-speed transmission of information, which could be useful for communications between Earth and space.

Bioneural circuitry

The ship's computer aboard USS Voyager incorporated a novel form of 24th century technology – bioneural circuitry, in which neurons perform complex computations in a way similar to brains. In the 21st century, biocomputers may find similar inspiration in an unlikely source — the humble slime mould. Physarum polycephalum is capable of sophisticated spatial computations: calculating the most efficient route through a food network, for example.
And in February of this year, the Scripps Research Institute published details of a DNA-based biological computer based on an original design by Alan Turing.
Like Voyager's bioneural circuitry, contemporary bimolecular computers have the potential to run trillions of steps in parallel, and to store vast quantities of data compared with electronic computers.

Cloaking devices

Ah, this is a good one. In January, our first real "invisibility cloak" was unveiled at the University of Texas.
This cloaking technology relies on plasmonic metamaterials: composite materials composed of structures smaller than the wavelength of the light striking them, so that light falling upon them is scattered. The resulting interference renders the plasmonic metamaterial – and anything behind or inside it – invisible.


Valiant attempts to create a functional tricorder have been made, notably by Peter Jansen at the University of Arizona. Brilliant as Jansen's work is, it focuses on atmospheric analysis. Where's our medical tricorder?
The answer could lie with diagnosis by smell — analysing the volatile organic compounds our bodies secrete. "There's a growing trend towards patient comfort, and utilisation of noninvasively obtained biomarkers", comments Aadi Malkar at Loughborough University. "It seems well within our reach to make devices like tricorders to selectively monitor a biomarker or a set of biomarkers of a disease."


Those with a fear of needles can be grateful to MIT's Bioinstrumentation Lab, which has constructed this prototype hypospray, in which near-supersonic air is used to get drugs through the skin barrier.
MIT researchers demonstrate the hypospray
In the UK, a team at the University of Southampton is using ultrasound to make cells permeable to drugs, without injection, using a phenomenon called sonoporation. "We've shown that ultrasound can be used for delivering drugs and large molecules into cells in the laboratory," says researcher Dyan Ankrett. "Providing that all the ultrasonic parameters are tightly controlled, the cells remain unharmed. We're ultimately aiming to develop this technology for delivering drugs to patients."


Federation medics frequently make use of microscopic robotic devices called nanites. As do Mark Davis and his team at CalTech. They've constructed a set of nanorobots, with inbuilt chemical sensors, that can silence genes within cancerous cells. Davis's nanorobots target cancer cell receptors. Once inside a cancer cell they break down, releasing gene-silencing siRNA.
Phase 1 clinical trials provide evidence that the nanorobots can silence a gene that makes an essential enzyme called ribonucleotide reductase. Whether this will translate into effective treatment has yet to be seen.


Japanese scientists have created some remarkably human-looking androids, though they wouldn't beat Data in a game of three-dimensional chess. Can existing robots reason and learn, in a way that we would define as "intelligence"? Maybe: Kevin Warwick, Professor of Cybernetics at the University of Reading, has constructed robots with mini-brains made from living rat neurons – "rat-brain robots" that he says can, over time, develop the intelligence of a bee or wasp. Prof. Warwick takes his cybernetics work personally, having previously volunteered to have his nervous system linked to a computer via a surgically implanted "brain gate". This probably gives him more in common with Seven of Nine than with anything Dr Soong created.
So it seems 21st century science is slowly but surely catching up with Star Trek. Live long and prosper, old friends.

Friday 19 October 2012 18.07 BST

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