Dec 24, 2015

Science Trek

from the July 1984
Byte magazine cover
As a nerd, the only magazines that I've ever subscribed to are purely academic journals, almost all biology journals. However, with the rise of the internet, I now have easy access to many of the old science fiction magazines of the previous millennium that are no longer behind the copyright barrier at the edge of the galaxy.

Mind Static device
(Reginald Rogers)
The image to the left is an interior illustration that accompanied the last installment of Isaac Asimov's Foundation saga as published in Astounding. This is a depiction of the climactic scene in which poor Pelleas Anthor is subjected to horrific Mind Static. Suddenly revealed as a secret agent of the Second Foundation, Anthor collapses to the floor, writhing in agony.

cover by Ric Binkley
How did Asimov's Mind Static device work? Sadly, Asimov was writing in the pre-transistor days, so he did the next best thing to using a transistorized gizmo: he used a Symes-Molff Resonator and "a few hundred micro-size circuits" with hyper-relays!

Even in the 1940s, Asimov knew that it was theoretically possible to miniaturize computers. But how? The original idea for the integrated circuit was patented in 1959 and IC technology got NASA to the Moon. The "microprocessor on a chip" revolutionized computing in the 1970s.

A Virgin Computer Is Useless
Byte magazine, issue #1, 1975
There was a period of time at the beginning of the personal computer age when I was too poor to afford a PC and the next best thing was to buy issues of Byte magazine and read about computers.

Thorsen Memory Tubes.
The relationship between the micro-
processor revolution and science fiction was made explicit in the first issue of Byte magazine.

Asimov had imagined "positronic robots" and Heinlein had his imaginary "Memory Tubes". Finally, in the 1970s, microprocessors were seen as the beginning of a brave new future that would eventually lead to artificial intelligence and machines with human-like cognitive abilities.

My first computer.
We have come a long way, but we still are not there yet.

The Way We Were
The first computer that I ever used was a Wang programmable calculator. At 39 pounds and costing $7,000 pre-oil-crisis-inflation dollars, working with this beast gave me the "look and feel" of the technology that got Humanity to the Moon. As the first cover of Byte magazine still proclaimed in 1975, magnetic cassette tape memory was the cheap but slow "solution" for "bulk memory". Of course, "bulk" had a different meaning in those days. Still, if you wanted a 256k byte disk drive, all you had to do was shell out another $6,000!

"1984 won't be like 1984!"
The first computer that I ever bought was a Macintosh. After a decade of using lesser PCs, I experienced great joy from having a "what-you-see-is-what-you-get" display screen and a built-in magnetic disk drive. It had suddenly become a pleasure to write using a computer and I've been doing so now for 31 years.

It was natural for Byte to put Spock on its cover in the Summer of 1984. The Search for Spock was in theaters. What better way to illustrate the topic of video displays and computers than to put an image of Spock on a Macintosh computer screen?

Spock's second life.

Phase II
My favorite cover from Byte was the one for the December 1977 issue. I had just gone off to college and I was using data terminals like the one shown in this amusing image (below). That summer, Gene Roddenberry had announced that he would be bringing Star Trek back to television.

Museum of Ancient Technology.
There was an interesting article in that issue called "The Computers of Star Trek". The authors of the article were two Department of Defense employees, but they began their article by mentioning the philosophy of Star Trek and its vision of a better society in the future.

introduction to "The Computers of Star Trek"

Roddenberry's imagined future was a science fiction future where technology could change human society for the better. The first three references cited in "The Computers of Star Trek" were works of science fiction by Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke.

I read "The Last Question" when I was 12 years old and it was the kind of science fantasy that got me interested in the process of writing speculative fiction about the fate of Humanity in the far future.

The "Big Three".
Natural Language Processing
One of the topics discussed in "The Computers of Star Trek" was the ability of the Star Trek computers to understand human language. Science fiction authors had long imagined machines with human-like abilities, including the ability to use human languages.

Giving computers the ability to use human language was my primary concern when I went off to college. I soon discovered that this was not a trivial problem and so I abandoned my interest in artificial intelligence research and went into neuroscience instead.

Next Generation
In 1987, Star Trek did finally return to television with a significant computer upgrade. In the original starship Enterprise, the "talking computer" was huge: thousands of square meters, much like the "giant brains" of computers in some early science fiction stories.

However, Data was depicted as a walking, talking robot like those imagined by Asimov in his positronic robot stories. When folks like Alan Turing first imagined how computers would function as universal information processing devices, they guessed that machines with human-like cognitive skills might be in existence by the year 2000. Sadly, here in 2015 we are still waiting.

2017 and Counting
Star Trek: the next television series.
The current rumor is that Star Trek will return to the small screen in 2017. Now 30 years after TNG, what will be the next generation of science fictional computer equipment deployed by the Federation of Planets (if any)? I fear that CBS will curl up inside some "safe" Star Trek reboot and not push into the future.

My preference would be that the next Star Trek television series tackle nanotechnology and introduce us to an array of artificial life forms, but I'm not holding my breath. I suspect that Hollywood will subject us to some silly "future" full of terrorists and idiotic Trump-like politicians arguing against more aliens being allowed into the United Federation of Planets.

Next: return to 1966 and the first episode of Star Trek
Producing another Star Trek reboot would not be logical. I $mell $eductive Hollywood ca$h at work!

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