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Captain Kirk and Carnegie Mellon University

on Thu, 07/11/2013 - 00:00

As Captain James T. Kirk of the USS Enterprise on the original Star Trek of the 1960s, actor William Shatner came face-to-face with many fictional technologies of the future, from warp drives to communicators, super-intelligent computers to fiendish robots. As the Twentieth Century was coming to a close in the 1990s, meanwhile, Shatner came face-to-face with such real-world technologies as cell phones, personal computers and the World Wide Web. With his curiosity piqued, Shatner enlisted the aid of science author Chip Walter, a former Carnegie Mellon University professor who lives in the Pittsburgh area, to assist in an investigation of the technology seen on Star Trek in relation to that of the modern day world.

“I couldn’t help but notice a certain familiarity in the technological leaps I was witnessing all around me,” Shatner explains in the subsequent I’m Working on That: A Trek From Science Fiction to Science Fact (Star Trek Publishing, 2002). “It was a kind of déjà vu. And as with all déjà vus, I couldn’t put my finger on it. But after some shower-stall rumination, it hit me—every day the world was becoming more and more like... Star Trek! Not that I saw people walking around on the decks of Starships and not that I had encountered many Klingons lately, except on the floor of Star Trek conventions, but I sensed that there was this decided Trekian trend rippling through the world as we prepared to turn the corner on the Twenty First Century.”

As research for their book, William Shatner and Chip Walter travelled the country, visiting cutting-edge research facilities and leading scientists and engineers as the writing team explored the real-world potential for such Star Trek-like technologies as transporters, warp drives and computerized implants. Their journey inevitably led them to the Steel City and Carnegie Mellon University, where Shatner and Walter met with three separate divisions of the highly-acclaimed institute of higher learning in order to discover the latest innovations in regards to personal technology, robotics and virtual realities.

William Shatner’s first encounter with Pittsburgh involved Dan Siewiorek of the Human-Computer Interaction Institute and Francine Gemperle of CMU’s Wearable Computing Group, part of the university’s Institute for Complex Engineered Systems (ICES). Remembering the tricorder of the original Star Trek and how “communicators” were shrunk down to the size of a Starfleet insignia in Next Generation, Shatner wanted to explore the potential for computers and cell phones to follow a similar miniaturized evolution, devices so small that they could become part of one’s ensemble and hardly noticed. As fate would have it, the ICES of Carnegie Mellon University was investigating the ability to fit modern technology onto the human body in ways that were accessible, comfortable and even stylish.

“Part of Star Trek’s popularity derives from its cool style, and therein lies a lesson,” Shatner writes in I’m Working on That. “Even if you can create wearables that are as comfortable as a bed of Tribbles and work better than Scotty’s warp engines, they had better look good, or forget it. Which is why I like the final phase of the work I saw at Carnegie Mellon’s ICES. They call it Streetware. The Streetware project took the whole concept of wearables, with all of its usability and human anatomy issues, and laid them out before a gaggle of Carnegie Mellon design students. Since CMU also happens to have produced some of the nation’s top industrial designers, applying the talents of design students to the problem of style seemed like a good match.” Suffice it to say that the former Starfleet Captain was impressed by what he saw.

Next up for William Shatner and Chip Walter were robotics and artificial intelligence, two areas that James T. Kirk had more than his fair share of expertise. “I have personally grappled with so many smart-aleck robots, computers, and androids over the years that I’m sick to death of them,” Shatner observed. “Remember V’Ger in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, hell-bent on the destruction of pretty much everything? And the M5 multitronic computer created by Dr. Richard Daystrom which was supposed to replace my crew. That SOB had the gall to relegate me to the status of Captain Dunsel (a Starfleet midshipman’s term for a part that serves no purpose). But I had the last laugh. When it started acting up and nearly wiped out 500 Starfleet personnel, I outsmarted it and it self-destructed.”

The robot creations of Hans Moravec at Carnegie Mellon University gave William Shatner less trouble than those encountered by his alter ego, and the Robotics Institute professor even offered his own timeframe for the future evolution of robotics. When asked, for instance, when Moravec believed an android like the one seen on Star Trek: The Next Generation would become reality, his answer was the mid Twenty First Century. “Really!” Shatner exclaims in response within the pages of I’m Working on That. “Data by 2050. Not even Gene Roddenberry would have predicted that! In fact Data doesn’t show up until 2335.” According to Hans Moravec, however, technological progress is moving at an exponential rate and all the obstacles that currently stand in the way of a functioning robot with humanistic qualities will fade away within a short period of time. Shatner refers to it as the Tribble Effect, after the classic Star Trek episode “The Trouble with Tribbles” in which a small furry creature reproduces itself at such an alarming rate that the entire USS Enterprise is overrun with them in a matter of days.

If Data is possible within the next few decades, what about another staple of Star Trek: The Next Generation—the Holodeck? For the answer to that question, William Shatner and Chip Walter visited Randy Pausch and Don Marinelli, co-directors of the Carnegie Mellon University Entertainment Technology Center. Upon entering the center’s virtual reality lab, Shatner was immediately outfitted with a helmet-like device filled with sensory displays and transported back to the bridge of the Starship Enterprise from the original 1960s Star Trek. While the imagery was three dimensional and realistic in nature, however, there were no Leonard McCoys or Mr. Spocks to interact with. “Well, this is just a simple demonstration,” Randy Pausch explained. “Something we threw together over the weekend. Creating virtual places is actually relatively easy. Creating virtual people, that’s something else.”

The major problem is current day computer power capacities. As William Shatner turned his head with the virtual reality helmet fully in place, a computer program calculated the movements, re-drew the images he was seeing to reflect the new angle and perspective, and then fed those images to the visual device within the headpiece. Adding “virtual humans” that are meant to interact adds complexities to the programming that take longer to re-configure. “The kind of raw computing power needed to conjure a digital reality that is so full-blooded that it is indistinguishable from the true and authentic thing is not possible, not today, not yet,” Pausch added. “Even when it comes to visual images, we’re a ways off from the Holodeck.”

By his own admission, William Shatner is not a “tech guy,” one of the reasons he asked Pittsburgher Chip Walter to co-author I’m Working on That: A Trek From Science Fiction to Science Fact with him. The numerous stories within the pages of the finished book, however, demonstrate that not only are modern day scientists and engineers influenced by the adventures of Captain James T. Kirk and his crew, but the technology of the present and future is as well. With the work currently underway at Carnegie Mellon University—and other cutting-edge facilities around the nation—the world envisioned by Gene Roddenberry may indeed become reality sooner than anyone expected.

Anthony Letizia

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