Orange River Media - Computer Science in Star Trek

Orange River Media – Computer Science in Star Trek

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Hey guys, what’s up? Tyler here. In one of my previous Star Trek essays, I talked about an emergent social rift in human society between those who pursue cybernetic upgrades versus those who do not. Although this aspect of humanity is not deeply explored in canon, it is certainly hinted at, at various points and expanded upon in the novels. I describe this social rift as “Traditionalists vs. New Humans,” and posit that the latter are an ever-growing portion of the population. If you haven’t checked out that video already, click the card in the corner of the screen or the link in the description.

As a follow-up, I wanted to discuss another technological element in the Star Trek universe that also doesn’t receive enough attention: computer science. We know that artificial intelligence is all around the crews of Starfleet vessels; the ship’s computer provides sensor readings, responds to voice input commands, and presumably handles the calculations needed to keep the ship running. But what kind of hardware do these systems run on? That’s one of the chief questions I want to answer today.

Ships such as the Enterprise that we see in The Original Series operate on a duotronic computing platform, developed by Dr Richard Daystrom in 2243; duotronics succeed circuitry that uses components such as resistors and transistors, a.k.a. what we use today. Although not much information is provided on the inner workings of duotronics, it is likely that such systems build upon developments in quantum computing during the 21st and 22nd centuries. Daystrom’s research into duotronics involves pinpointing the mathematical relationship between subatomic structure and data processing; by the 23rd century, the hardware required to address problems such as energy loss from quantum decoherence would have been perfected. Thus, duotronics are able to perform calculations at an unbelievably high speed.

(CBS) Isolinear Chips

A major component compatible with duotronics is the transtator, which interacts with subspace fields to make technologies such as phasers, transporters, long-range sensors, and subspace communicators possible. Transtators are known to exist as early as the 22nd century, albeit in their infancy, as evidenced in the Enterprise episode “Dead Stop.” Despite further advances in computing technology, such as bio-neural gel packs and isolinear chips, the transtator continues to be used well into the 24th century due to its reliability.

Duotronics’ ubiquity during the mid-23rd century allows for crew functions to be supplemented by artificial intelligence to an even higher degree than previously possible. The question of why so many humanoid crewmembers are needed to operate starships with all this A.I. is a point of contention among fans and critics of Trek. Attempts to explain this phenomenon often invoke the Federation’s post-scarcity economy, a topic which I’ve covered before. When it comes to starships, the computer systems seem to function simply as tools to aid in crew operations, and the chain of command necessitates a hierarchy of ranked officers to carry out Starfleet’s exploratory missions.

The complexities of crew-computer interactions are one of the driving forces behind multitronics, Daystrom’s design to supersede duotronics. Multitronic systems utilize very sophisticated technologies that mimic the human neural network, drastically reducing the crew complement needed for starships to run smoothly. Daystrom’s first four attempts at creating a functioning multitronic computer end in failure; however, the M-5 unit is given the opportunity to undergo field testing on the U.S.S. Enterprise. This test, as seen in The Original Series episode “The Ultimate Computer,” also ends in a failure, resulting in the total loss of life aboard the U.S.S. Excalibur.

bioneural gel pack
(CBS) Bio-neural Gel Packs

Subsequently, multitronics is abandoned and Dr Daystrom goes into isolation; the M-5 incident is considered a major catastrophe for Starfleet, forcing computer scientists and engineers to look at alternate pathways of computer advancement. The biggest step forward comes in 2329 with isolinear optical chips, which use holographic technology to store information three-dimensionally. They are faster and more efficient than duotronic enhancers, featuring onboard nanotech processors to aid in memory access, and possess a maximum capacity of 2.15 kiloquads. Although a “quad” is never defined in relation to contemporary RAM or storage limits, current trends would suggest it is several dozen orders of magnitude greater than the processing power we have today. In addition to large-scale computer systems, isolinear chips are implemented in devices such as tricorders, PADDs, and other handheld devices.

In the 2370s, engineers begin to enhance isolinear systems with bio-neural circuitry, which consist of bio-neural gel packs. Just like with organic matter, bio-neural circuitry is prone to bacterial and viral infections as well as subnucleonic radiation. The fibers in bio-neural gel packs are capable of making billions of connections, generating an incredibly sophisticated computing architecture; this allows the organic circuitry to “think” by using “fuzzy logic,” effectively arriving at a “best guess” to complex problems rather than working through all possible calculations. Bioneural circuitry is also employed in ocular implants in the late 24th century, replacing earlier interfaces such as the VISOR used by Geordi La Forge.

Although it is not implemented in ship-wide computer systems, positronic circuitry represents another evolution of duotronic and isolinear computing technology. The positronic neural network is first developed by Noonian Soong and forms the basis of Soong-type androids; the network is designed to imitate the humanoid brain and generate artificial intelligence. One of the reasons that Soong’s androids are the only successful implementation of positronic technology could be related to the failure of multitronic computing in the 23rd century; we clearly see androids in the era of The Original Series, but these are measurably less advanced than androids of the 24th century and beyond.

quantum computer
(Image Source) Today’s Fastest Computer The Quantum Computer

While some of the distinctions between various computing systems in Star Trek might seem arbitrary, on the contrary, they are grounded somewhat in real-world science. Future projections based on Moore’s Law and other trends predict that by the early 23rd century, super-advanced AI could help create subatomic matrices at unimaginably tiny scales. Ultra-compact designs could be used to incorporate fractalized structures with properties for encoding information at levels far below femtotechnology, or engineering on the scale of one quadrillionth of a meter. Max Tegmark explores the implications of this in his bestselling book Life 3.0, which is about being human in the age of artificial intelligence.

Besides increases in storage and processing power, the hardware capabilities required to deal with heat management are developed around this time. In modern terms, generating a vast amount of energy to operate such systems would cause a thermonuclear explosion—but technical considerations for this and other challenges are solved based on “new physics.” This is clearly demonstrated in the creation of duotronics, which achieves gains in performance and energy efficiency by harnessing quantum interactions at the smallest of scales as well as tapping into subspace. Here’s to hoping we can achieve similar feats with our technology one day.

I have to admit, I struggled a bit with figuring out how to structure this essay, as there were a number of topics I wanted to touch on. However, I think focusing on the incremental developments in computing power provide an interesting perspective into the technological side of Starfleet, and comparing these developments to real-world predictions shows us what priorities the writers took when crafting their stories.

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