Star Trek’s utopian influence clashes with Big Tech’s reality check: Parmy Olson

Parmy Olson delves into the allure of Star Trek’s utopian vision among tech innovators, contrasting it with today’s challenges. While inspired by a future of abundance and self-improvement, tech’s path has veered towards profit-driven pursuits, social media’s impacts, and AI’s ethical dilemmas. Olson highlights the need for integrity and ethical reflection, urging tech leaders to align with Star Trek’s ideals for a better future.

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By Parmy Olson

few people on X noticed something about the photo of a grinning Elon Musk with Argentina’s President Javier Milei recently. The emblem on Musk’s bomber jacket showed a picture of the Starship Enterprise, from the original TV series Star Trek. Underneath it was the motto: “Where no man has gone before.”

Musk loves the show. Last year when another X user posted a question asking what the best TV series of all time was, Musk jumped in to say, “Star Trek.” But its appeal extends not only to billionaires trying to make humans a multi-planetary species.  A whole generation of innovators and entrepreneurs entered the tech field because they fell in love with Star Trek’s utopian vision. Today, it’s one increasingly at odds with the messy realities of their inventions, and their dramas and rivalries.

On Star Trek, space exploration was a reward humans earned after solving their problems at home, not a means of potential escape, as Musk envisions for Mars. And the crew of the starship Enterprise often buried their noses in smartphone-like tricorders to get readings about a new planet, not to doom scroll on X.  

For the uninitiated, Star Trek is a universe encompassing several TV series with various flavors of captains and crew. I grew up with The Next Generation — arguably the best of the lot — and it inspired my own ventures into tech reporting. Plenty of other tech writers have cited it too, including heavyweight Kara Swisher who describes herself as a “Star Trek person.”

Among tech’s visionaries, Sam Altman, the chief executive officer of OpenAI, often brings up the show in interviews, comparing ChatGPT to the holodeck on Star Trek: The Next Generationor to the Enterprise’s talking computer. A secret project at OpenAI even shared the same name as an omnipotent, godlike alien on the show called Q

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But for technologists, Star Trek did more than promise a cool career in the same way the West Wing inspired former President Barack Obama’s squad of 20-something staff. Sure, the gadgets were neat, and warp drive could shoot you across the Milky Way at light speed, but so especially was the vision of a future where humans had matured so much that they’d abolished money. Now they were peacekeepers of the galaxy, upholders of the so-called Prime Directive and explorers that made first contact with alien species. With all other problems seemingly figured out on Earth, the ultimate goal was simply to explore the “final frontier.”

That post-scarcity world might well have inspired Altman’s goal of creating artificial general intelligence (AGI), which he often says will bring “abundance” such that humankind can “maximally flourish in the universe.”  That world was best explained by the show’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard when he addressed a cryogenically frozen man from our present time in one Next Generation episode: “Material needs no longer exist,” he tells him. 

“Then what’s the challenge?” the man asks.

“To improve yourself. To enrich yourself,” Picard answers. “Enjoy it.”

However disingenuous it may seem coming from people building laundry-delivery apps or no-code web-development platforms, that inspiration has fueled much of the world-saving ambition underpinning Silicon Valley.

“[Star Trek creator] Gene Roddenberry was able to show how we build a society that is better,” Garry Tan, the CEO of the Valley’s most important startup accelerator, Y Combinator, said on a tech podcast. “And he did it in a way that is almost a true north… I do think that we in tech need to spend more time thinking about that.” 

Tan is right. Technologists who are paying attention will note that many of today’s apps, online services and AI tools haven’t propelled us toward the ideals sketched out by Roddenberry, nor have their creators always followed guidelines like his show’s Prime Directive. Industry giants have instead cut corners to make their tech more popular and profitable, or broken rules to ensure their dominance. In Star Trek, humans have abolished money. Today, tech is all about making money. 

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“Social media was not a vision of what we saw in Star Trek,” says Matthew Putman, the CEO of New York-based industrial AI firm Nanotronics Imaging Inc., for whom the show “shaped the type of world I wanted to see.” He’s since watched TikTok lure his teen daughter and 12-year-old son away from interacting with other humans, and he’s balked at AI weapons. That’s not how he envisioned technology bringing “the abundance we’re talking about.”

Gary Marcus, a computer science professor who testified before US congressional members last year about artificial intelligence and is the author of the forthcoming book Taming Silicon Valley, tells me the Star Trek computer was, and still is, his “benchmark for reliable, trustworthy form AI.” But today’s generative AI, “with its unreliability and hallucinations is, depressingly, almost the opposite.”

The incongruity of tech’s messy and sometimes toxic side effects shouldn’t stop Silicon Valley from trying to save the world, however fanciful that might seem to the rest of us. But it should inspire greater introspection among its leaders about how their creations really will usher in a future where “material needs no longer exist.”

It means resisting the systemic forces that have made tech companies more willing to break rules, and avoiding the intense rivalries for money and power that have blinded tech executives to their impact on humans today. Innovation alone won’t build the future that inspired so many of tech’s Star Trek fans. Integrity will. Captain Picard had it in spades. So can technology’s builders.

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