When Technology Gets Creepy

A couple of years ago I received a copy of William Shatner’s book, Star Trek®; I’m Working on That, from someone who knew I was a science fiction junkie. Shatner, of course, was the original Captain Kirk in the short run science fiction TV show, which originally aired in 1966 and lasted only three seasons.

 

Shatner’s book is interesting primarily because it points out just how many gadgets the show’s writers invented solely for the purpose of the TV fantasy series, only to find real inventers later came up with the product in the real world. Early in the book Shatner recounts a chat with Neil Gershenfeld, Director of the MIT Media Lab, who told him that there was a “curious connection” between Star Trek and much of the work being done in the lab.

 

Stating that “the number of times that we’ve realized we are inventing something here in the lab from Star Trek, is spooky,” Gershenfeld went on to say there were two theories for this curious connection. The first was that ideas planted by the TV show were subconsciously guiding ideas they pursued. The second was that, just as with the show’s writers, the lab folks were simply arriving at the same conclusions.

 

Many science fiction nuts, and perhaps others, give the TV series credit for being the basis of many modern technological devices. One of the best known is the “communicator’s” younger brother, the cell phone, which might either not exist, or possibly would have come into existence much later without the catalyst of the TV show.

 

The writers came up with plots which sometimes required research for plausible element to connect plot lines. One example of the plot giving birth to technology may still be in the works, and have lent itself to the title of the book. The writers’ need to plausibly explain how a future space crew could quickly travel distances we now find otherwise incredible, was resolved by creation of the “warp drive.” This new “technology” was given much thought in the TV series, and problems with the fictional technology received detailed treatment in many episodes of the show.

 

When Dr. Stephen Hawking played a cameo role in one episode and toured the engineering set, Shatner says he saw the warp drive engines and said “I’m working on that.” Hawking, a noted British physicist and author of the book, A Brief History of Time, held the same position at Cambridge University (Lucasian Professor of Mathematics) that Sir Isaac Newton held three hundred years earlier.

 

Now, it appears, science fiction is again creeping into our every day lives. Mattel has now come out with a game. That’s not too surprising, since that’s what they do. What may surprise some is that this particular game, Mind Flex, relies on NeuroSky’s technology, adapted from EEG medical equipment, using theta-waves generated by the brain to move a ball without touching it. The game is a concentration test in that the more you concentrate, the better you are able to move the ball around an obstacle course. The ball rises because of a fan, giving the user the illusion of having telekinetic powers. In reality, the ball will rise, the higher your theta waves, and fall, the less successful your concentration becomes. Another toy, the Jedi Force Trainer, is expected out later this year using the same technology.

 

Aside from the Jedi trainer seen in various episodes of the Star Wars series, I am reminded of some scenes from one of my favorite science fiction movies of all time, Forbidden Planet. That 1956 movie set a new standard for the genre. The plot involved the attempt to rescue the survivor of a crash on a distant plant. Only one original crew member remains alive, the rest of the survivors having fallen prey to a mysterious monster.

 

During an early part of the movie, the surviving crew member, Dr. Morbius, demonstrates a “toy” left behind by the once powerful but now vanished Krell race which had inhabited the planet. The toy was used by the vanished Krell as a sort of kindergarden educational device, with the “kids” using their brain waves to cause an object to levitate. When one of the uninitiated rescuers sneaks back into the Krell lab to try out this toy, which the Krell children used to increase the efficiency of their brain, he nearly dies from the strain.

 

As the movie turns out, the Krell developed such powerful minds they were able to build and use a huge machine to create a world in which they only had to think of a need and the brain-controlled machine would fulfill it for them. It seems, however, that as their minds became more and more powerful, they overlooked the growing power of the id, which also tapped into the great machine, causing it to generate unstoppable monsters which wiped them out in a single night.

 

The id monster is a reference to Sigmund Freud’s structural model of the psyche, the id, ego, and super-ego being the three parts of the “psychic apparatus.” In Freud’s model, the uncoordinated instinctual trends are the “id”; the organized realistic part of the psyche is the “ego,” and the critical and moralizing function the “super-ego.” In other words, despite their brains being expanded by devices strikingly similar to Mattel’s new toy, they still let their instinctual passions get the best of them.

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