How Star Trek Inspired More Useful Computers

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In the original 1960s TV show Star Trek, the voyagers on the starship Enterprise could chat with the computer from any room on the ship. The computer, voiced by the late actress Majel Barrett, sadly had no name, but responded to voice commands seeking information or to control the vessel.

It was a vision of the future that would go on to influence some of today’s biggest tech luminaries. Google’s voice-controlled digital assistant was codenamed Majel. And the Star Trek computer was also the inspiration for Alexa, as Jeff Bezos has explained to many.

Today marks the fifth anniversary of the introduction of Alexa to the public. Amazon unveiled its Echo smart speaker on Nov. 6, 2014. Alexa knows all about it. I just asked Alexa for its birthday and it replied: “Spoiler alert, my birthday is today. Woo-hoo.”

Earlier this week, I spoke with some of Amazon’s Alexa team, including Dave Limp, who oversees all of the company’s hardware device efforts. It was a great conversation. I learned that there are many lessons about business and innovation in Alexa’s success story.

One cool thing Limp noted about Alexa: As Amazon improves its programming behind the scenes, all of the devices that can access Alexa, even Echo speakers from 2014, improve as well. The Alexa of today is a far smoother–and more knowledgable–conversationalist than the original.

There’s another famous 1960s sci-fi model for voice-controlled computers, but it’s not one the tech industry cites much. HAL, the crazed starship computer from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Sometimes, when my phone is taking terrible dictation, or when Alexa can’t find what I’m asking for, it’s Hal that comes to mind.

Someone at Amazon was on the ball, though. Ask Alexa to “open the pod bay doors,” quoting the classic request made to Hal in 2001, and it will respond with the proper dialogue. “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.” Then Alexa adds, “I’m not Hal and we’re not in space.”

Aaron Pressman

On Twitter: @ampressman

Email: [email protected]

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Rachel Meadows

Rachel Meadows

Trending topics news writer who enjoys cooking, walking her dog and travel.

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