They used to say that if man was meant to fly, he’d have wings. But he did fly. He discovered he had to. —Captain Kirk, Star Trek, “Return to Tomorrow”
In the 1960s, the idea of using a computer to effortlessly find any piece of information was unheard of. But Star Trek (1967–1969) depicted just that: a computer plugged into a galaxy-wide database that could answer all sorts of questions, from the dates of historic events to the weather on distant planets.
Star Trek had a small, albeit dedicated, audience during its original run, but it grew more popular when it was rebroadcast and sold abroad during the 1970s. One of the many fans it gained was Amit Singhal, a computer engineer growing up in India at the time. Inspired by the Star Trek computer, Singhal pursued a career in information retrieval. By the year 2000, he was working for a then little-known internet start-up called Google. Singhal designed Google’s search engine algorithms, which made it practically everyone’s go-to resource for information. He later recounted his journey “from a little boy growing up in the Himalayas dreaming of the Star Trek computer, to an immigrant who came to the United States with two suitcases and not much else, to the person responsible for Search at Google.”1
Whereas the computer in the original Star Trek could only respond to basic, clearly phrased voice commands to search its database and solve problems, the sequel series Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987–1994) depicted a conversational computer that could understand natural human speech and do such things as locate people on the ship or identify objects in the room. Toni Reid, who oversaw the development of the Amazon Echo and its Alexa interface, sought to emulate the Next Generation computer with her product. “The original inspiration for the Amazon Echo was the Star Trek computer,” she said, a machine that is “easy to converse with in a natural way, and people can ask it questions and request it do and find things for them.”2 That project would have been impossible without Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, a lifelong Star Trek fan. He used a large part of his fortune from developing Amazon to achieve his Star Trek-inspired dream of making commercial spaceflight a reality. In a beautiful celebration of Star Trek’s influence on his work, Bezos gave a seat on one of his company’s first flights into space to William Shatner, who played Captain Kirk on the original series.3
Fiction has enormous power to inspire, and Star Trek has inspired countless inventors, astronauts, scientists, writers, activists, and more. Why has it had this effect on people? It’s not just the futuristic technologies Star Trek depicts that make it inspirational—it’s also the philosophy and sense of life it conveys.
That sense of life is perhaps best captured by an exchange in an early episode of The Next Generation between Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) and a powerful alien named Q (John DeLancie), who puts the Enterprise crew through a series of trials as a test of humanity itself:
Picard: “What Hamlet said with irony I say with conviction: ‘What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!’”
Q: “Surely you don’t see your species like that, do you?”
Picard: “I see us one day becoming that.”4
This optimistic depiction of heroic human beings using their minds to build a grand interstellar civilization is what makes Star Trek really stand out. . . .
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1. Devjyot Ghoshal, “The Rise and Fall of Amit Singhal, the Former Google Star Just Fired by Uber,” Quartz, February 28, 2017, https://qz.com/india/920713/the-rise-and-fall-of-amit-singhal-the-former-google-star-just-fired-by-uber.
2. Toni Reid, “Amazon’s Next-Level Voice Technology,” Wall Street Journal, June 15, 2017, https://deloitte.wsj.com/articles/amazons-next-level-voice-technology-1497499342.
3. Kristin Houser, “Science Fiction Doesn’t Predict the Future. It Inspires It,” Freethink, October 9, 2021, https://www.freethink.com/culture/jeff-bezos-star-trek.
4. “Hide and Q,” Star Trek: The Next Generation, November 23, 1987.
5. “Gene Roddenberry on the Meaning of Star Trek,” Big Think, October 16, 2014, https://bigthink.com/words-of-wisdom/gene-roddenberry-on-the-meaning-of-star-trek.
6. This was changed to “no one” for The Next Generation.
7. Julia Wetherell, “Kirk to Enterprise: The Piece of ‘Star Trek’ in Your Pocket,” The World, January 18, 2018, https://theworld.org/stories/2018-01-18/kirk-enterprise-piece-star-trek-your-pocket.
8. “10 Women in Command Who Paved the Way for Kathryn Janeway,” StarTrek.com, March 8, 2023, https://intl.startrek.com/news/10-women-who-paved-the-way-for-kathryn-janeway.
11. Lily Rothman, “Why Martin Luther King Jr. Loved Star Trek,” Time, September 7, 2016, https://time.com/4478354/martin-luther-king-star-trek; “Zoë Saldaña Climbed into LT. Uhura’s Chair, Reluctantly,” NPR, April 8, 2013, https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/04/08/176594781/zo-salda-a-climbed-into-lt-uhuras-chair-reluctantly.
12. Rothman, “Why Martin Luther King Jr. Loved Star Trek.”
13. “Return of the Archons,” Star Trek, February 9, 1967.
14. “I, Borg,” Star Trek: The Next Generation, May 10, 1992.
15. Joel Engel, Gene Roddenberry: The Myth and the Man behind Star Trek (New York: Hyperion, 1994), 58.
16. David Wingrove, Science Fiction Film Source Book (Harlow, UK: Longman, 1985), 217.
17. “The Neutral Zone,” Star Trek: The Next Generation, May 16, 1988.
18. Brad Wright, Twitter, February 17, 2023, https://twitter.com/bradtravelers/status/1626447604702908417?lang=en-GB.