Aug 072016

Hindsight is 20/20, especially when it comes to science fiction. Then again, what constitutes a “hit” or “miss” regarding a predicted future may be ambiguous or nuanced. Consider the claim that Star Trek (speaking here strictly of the TOS franchise, the only with which I’m really familiar) successfully predicted cell phones with the use of “communicators.” Even in the 60’s there were two-way radios, aka “walkie-talkies” but they were not integrated with the telephone infrastructure. Similarly, Star Trek’s communicators are only person to person or person to ship, which is really just a two way radio in space. The great failure of TOS to predict cell phones was in imagining that future communicators would be single function devices. Modern smart phones are vastly more complex, and effectively integrate text, video, data storage, and an array of apps that gives them essentially unlimited functionality.

Let’s extrapolate the use of another technology into TOS universe. Consider the so-called “body cam” that many police officers now wear. The moral argument is that police officers are public servants who have been given great authority and tools capable of applying lethal force, and therefore it’s a virtue to have an objective record of their actions. Though it’s never made explicit, as far as I know, we are given to understand that the Star Trek crew are essentially a combination of social emissaries, explorers, and scientific researchers. They are not soldiers, and they don’t appear to be employed by a corporation engaged in commerce. This three-fold job description makes them perfect candidates for body cams.

Consider the role of social emissary: In the TV show, situations are neatly wrapped up at the end of each episode. In the real world, alien contact is often just the beginning of often long-running relationships. Imagine the historical value of knowing EXACTLY how “first contact” occurred. Imagine how much more rich an historical record could be if we could SEE and HEAR exactly what happened during first contact. An electronic recording device is superior to human memory in not having a bias that might color descriptions of the way historical events really occurred.

Ah, counters the imaginative interlocutor: Consider a future in which drugs or neural implants give humans perfect recall. Such advances could obviate the need for even electronic devices. Yet consider what I call the “Bloomsday” analogy: The amount of time it takes an author, in this case James Joyce, to describe the events of a single day is VASTLY greater than a single day. Captain Kirk is a busy man. There is a reason his Captain’s logs are brief and pithy. Let future historians mull over his actions and question his motives at their leisure.

Consider the role of the Star Trek crew as explorers. Real world explorers periodically encounter danger, often abruptly and with little warning. Now imagine body cams that might do more than passively record events; imagine multi-function devices that could sense infrared or ultraviolet light, radio waves, charged particles, toxic chemicals, ultrasonic sounds, or other sorts of stimuli beyond the limited senses of the human organism. Futuristic body cams might warn the wearers of danger, or alert them to anomalous places or structures worth investigating. Unlike bulky tricorders, future body cams would not need to be held in the hand and constantly monitored. Imagine body cams that would relay this information in real time back to the ship. It’s safe to assume a future in which ALL the data is stored. It’s easy to imagine an AI level computer engaged in command level decisions, perhaps as trivial as “investigate over there” all the way up to “Don’t trust this guy, Jim, his heart rate just went up and his eye saccades suggest he’s bluffing.” At the very least, an AI aboard the Enterprise could help ~augment~ command level decisions, based on body cam input alone.

It’s safe to assume a future in which voice recognition technology would be more or less perfect. An AI integrated body cam could recognize the words and vocal intonations of crew members, and alert others automatically in perilous situations. But imagine a future using neural implants. Imagine Jim Kirk’s neural functioning being transmitted from the neural implant to the body cam, or even directly to an AI aboard the Enterprise. While frighteningly invasive, perhaps neural implants would be intentionally “de-tuned” perhaps programmed to automatically broadcast warnings, or distress calls. No more need to fire up a communicator to order “beam me aboard.”

Imagine body cams that were easily removable from one’s uniform. They could easily be integrated with a video enabled smart phone style communicator. Left discretely, such a body cam could turn a Klingon vessel into the Watergate Hotel.

Consider the purely scientific role of the Enterprise crew. Besides Mr. Spock, other command level crew members lack specific scientific training. It’s still safe to assume a future in which humans are specialized in their training and expertise. A multi-function body cam could help overcome the scientific shortcomings of untrained crew members. A body cam, transmitting in real time to an AI computer, might help a crew member avoid a plant that would shoot freaky spores that contain MDMA…

It’s been suggested that cell phones would have quickly obviated 90 per cent of the misunderstandings that drove sitcoms until very recently. In the same way, intelligent body cams would certainly increase the degree of power and control that the crew of the Enterprise enjoys. The next time you watch an episode of TOS, imagine how such devices would change if not simply eliminate the fundamental premise of the episode. To give drama a fighting chance, no doubt the crew would encounter malefactors that would simply strip them of any and all of their devices.

While “warp drive” and faster-than-light travel may forever be science fiction, a world full of humans wearing body cams is not at all unreasonable. Data analysis is only going to get better and data storage is already dirt cheap. A future world in which the heroism of explorers is so coupled or even eliminated by small electronic devices may not make for good fiction, but is in fact a much safer bet as to what will really happen.

 Posted by on 08/07/2016 Opinion, Personal History Tagged with:  Comments Off on Star Trek and Body Cams