The Star Trek Effect in the Age of Information

[date-stamp]We all know Star Trek and have heard the famous quote "Beam me up!". The Transporter is used to move members of the crew to whichever planet or other spaceship they're close to. It is basically a teleporter which transforms a person (or anything) into an energy pattern which is then "beamed" to a different location and transformed back to its original state. This can be seen as an analogy as to how information should be treated within a company: Take the way information is put together in the various applications, pick it apart and set the information back together again in a different place. In Star Trek, the Transporter works with lightning speed, enabling the crew to move from their starship and to a new planet within seconds, and then they start interacting with their new environment. Wouldn't it be great if we could do the same with information? Some information thaat is used in healthcare can be picked apart and used in nanotechnology, for instance. Is it possible to build an "Information Transporter" like this and how can it be done?


How the Star Trek Transporter works

The Transporter is one of the things in Star Trek that really fascinates me. Just by the push of a button, you can travel vast distances. No need to go to the airport and check in your luggage, you just place it next to you before pushing the button. Handy. And what a time-saver! Transforming a physical thing into an energy field is literally sci-fi technology, and there's nothing like it which exists today (outside of movies). But some say this will be invented with 100 years. The book "Physics of the impossible: A Scientific Exploration Into the  World of Phasers, Force Fields, Teleportation and Time Travel" by Michio Kaku (2008) predicts just this, so maybe in 2108 we can use a real teleporter?

There is one quote which is attributed to the Transporter, and that is "Beam me up, Scotty"! You may have noticed I used the quote "Beam me up" in the first section of this blog post, and that was very intentionally. Because the phrase "Beam me up, Scotty" was never uttered in the Star Trek series. Captain Kirk said once "Scotty, beam us up", but that was the closest he ever came. So how this "fake" quote came into being is unknown to me. But now we got sidetracked here, back to the topic.


How picking apart and assembling information works

When picking apart information we quickly dive into the world of Natural Language Processing (NLP). NLP is a set of technologies to extract meaningful information from a (large) text. Let's say we have a 20-page document, and by processing this using NLPp technique, we might be left with: a pile of sentences, a translation of the text into another language, extracted names of persons and places, a set of geographic coordinates and a sense of whether the sentences and the overall text is positive or negative towards a topic. Plus we might have answers to questions asked in the text, all generated automatically. Now that was quite the mouthful, but it shows what is possible with text processing technology today. So this is essentially how we can pick information apart.

Assembling information is not a standardized science as of today, but one way of taking a lot of pieces of information and putting them together in various ways is by using a search engine. Search engines are designed to locate information and find relations between different pieces of information. They are also fast and can process a wide variety of information, from raw text to geographical coordinates and numeric values. (There are both commercial and open-source search engines that can do this. But a search engine is just that, an engine. )


What can we learn?

What we can learn from how the Star Trek Transporter and Natural Language Processing works is that picking apart things is fully possible. The tricky thing is to put things together again. The Star Trek Transporter can fail, and connecting the "correct" pieces of extracted information using NLP can be challenging. Also, what is "correct" changes all the time, so a flexible put-information-together mechanism is required.


Does it exist already?

The Star Trek Transporter doesn't exist. But it's equivalent in the digital age is there, but not as a well-known and widely used product (yet). But once the benefits of connecting information gets as well-known as the Star Trek Transporter, the use of such technology will soar. Hopefully this will take less than 100 years to make a fully functional Star Trek-like Transporter. The Star Trek Effect on our lives should not be underestimated, many sci-fi shows have predicted technology that we today take for granted.