Since Star Wars was first premiered in May of 1977, it has caught the hearts and minds of millions of people around the world. It has fascinated viewers with its story and iconic technology and weaponry from a galaxy far, far away. Technology is all around us today and nearly everything we do in the modern age revolves around the use of it to accomplish a task. In general, most of the technology shown in Star Wars is simply a much more advanced version of ours. For example, a lightsaber is really just a high-tech sword, and the advanced AI is just a much more advanced AI than anything we can create today. Compared to today’s technology, the technology of Star Wars is decades (even a century or more) ahead of ours. In some cases, their technology is impossible to create, but the Star Wars universe has tons of advanced technology that could one day become a reality and have tremendous usefulness in real life, but there is just too much to talk about all at once. This paper will focus on the history, application, and function of several important pieces of technology in the Star Wars universe and the potential real-life counterparts’ application and practicality.
By far the most iconic piece of technology in all of Star Wars is the lightsaber, a sword-like weapon that can cut through nearly anything. The heart of any lightsaber consists of a Kyber crystal, which focuses and greatly amplifies energy passed through it to make a lightsaber possible in the Star Wars Universe. It was the weapon of choice used by the peacekeeping Jedi Order and their enemy, the Sith, in their eternal conflict. The lightsaber is an ancient weapon that dates back thousands of years before the creation of the Republic, the governing body of a large majority of the galaxy throughout the prequel trilogy of Star Wars. The first lightsaber ever created was known as the proto-saber. Although very little is known about it, the proto-saber was the precursor to the lightsaber known today and resembled a glowing physical sword with two parallel blades on a crossguard. Although lightsabers vary widely between users as they customized the weapon themselves, they fall into distinct categories such as single bladed, double bladed, and many more. As the self-imposed exile and Jedi Master Obi Wan Kenobi brilliantly put it, ”This is the weapon of a Jedi Knight. Not as clumsy or random as a blaster. An elegant weapon for a more civilized age” (Lucas). Over time the lightsaber became synonymous with the Jedi Order.
As great as a real lightsaber would be, they aren’t possible to re-create in real life exactly as they are shown in the movies. The difficulties with making a lightsaber exactly as they appear in the movies is that they would require a retractable blade without a solid core that can cut through nearly anything with ease, not to mention that they require a fictional crystal. It must also not burn or harm the user, and have some way to power it for extended periods, all while being the size of a traditional two-handed sword hilt. But in order to cut through things, such as cutting through flesh and instantly cauterizing the wound, it would require extreme heat to do so, and therefore massive amounts of energy. Something of this technical magnitude is impossible for us to develop today exactly as portrayed in the movies. But, we can create something very similar to a lightsaber.
Don Lincoln, a senior scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Fermilab working with the Large Hadron Collider, wrote an article for Space.com about the possibility of creating a real-life lightsaber. In his article, he detailed the problems presented earlier and ways to rectify them. His goal was to make the most realistic lightsaber possible while staying somewhat true to the movies. He states that the best way to create the blade is not through using a laser, as most people would think, because they are beams of light and have no set distance, but rather using a contained plasma (Lincoln). Plasmas are the fourth state of matter created when a gas is stripped of its electrons and, conveniently, they are also electrically conductive and can be contained through magnetic fields. Some plasmas can also generate heat of several thousand degrees. Plasma torches or plasma cutter, which are commonly used today in the automotive and manufacturing industries, can cut through thick metal cleanly and efficiently. Plasma cutters work on the principle that the electrically conductive plasma transfers electrical current through an object, therefore heating it up and cutting through. Lincoln states that a lightsaber would work on the same principle of using super hot plasma to cut through objects, but on a larger scale (Lincoln).
Since plasmas obviously aren’t solids, they would pass right through each other. Because of this they would also need a solid core that can handle extreme heat. Lincoln points out that ceramics would work well because they can survive extreme heat without melting, softening, or changing shape. This is proven in the fact that they are very commonly used in blacksmithing, forging, and in rocket shuttles as part of the heat shields (Lincoln). Lastly, the lightsaber needs an extremely powerful power source. Scenes from the movies show lightsabers cutting through thick doors of steel. It would take around 20 megawatts (MW) of energy to cut through such a door in the time shown during the film. This amount of energy would be enough to power 14,000 homes for a year (Lincoln). This type of energy density in a battery that can fit in the user’s hand is far beyond our capabilities today, and may even be impossible to achieve an energy density of that level. Fortunately, this could possibly be bypassed by using a power cord connecting the hilt of the lightsaber to a battery on the user’s waist or back to supply the energy instead of an extremely dense and heavy battery in the handle. This is essentially what the protosabers were, which are different from proto-sabers discussed earlier, from the now non-canon part of Star Wars, which were one of the first designs of lightsabers that relied on a power pack on the user’s waist to supply energy to the lightsaber via a cord. The last problem with this lightsaber design would be the infrared radiation that a heat source of this magnitude would let off (Lincoln). So, there must be a way to contain this so as not to damage the user permanently. The only way to block the radiation, without using a physical barrier, would be using a force field of some kind, but how that can be done exactly is unknown to us today (Lincoln).
One of the most practical technologies to come from Star Wars is its cybernetic capabilities, or prosthetics as we know them today. In the Star Wars universe, cybernetics are biomechanical devices used for replacing lost body parts as well as improving upon normal human capabilities. Cybernetics are commonplace for citizens because they are cheap, effective, and safe. Higher quality cybernetics nearly perfectly simulated real skin in look and texture with a material called synthskin, and connected to the nervous system to allow full control and sensation. Cybernetics came in two main self-explanatory categories: replacements and enhancements. One of the best cases of cybernetics shown in Star Wars is Luke Skywalker’s cybernetic hand. Luke’s hand was cut off in a lightsaber duel with Darth Vader, which was replaced with a high-quality cybernetic hand so that he could still fight for the Rebel Alliance. His new replacement hand functioned exactly like his old one and even he could barely tell the difference at times in part due to its looks from the synthskin as well as its seamless connection and feel.
To create cybernetics as they appear in Star Wars we first have to continue improving our technology with motors. Currently, making motors strong enough and small enough to fit into a prosthetic is an expensive process, but this won’t be a problem forever as this issue is similar to computer chips in that they get smaller and faster all the time. The next issue with prosthetics is allowing them to feel things such as temperature, pain, and pressure. Until recently, this hasn’t made many breakthroughs. However, researchers at John Hopkins University have recently created an electronic skin, called “E-skin” that is electrically conductive and can allow the user to feel pain and pressure through electrical signals (Lee). This electronic skin is meant to look and feel like real skin, similar to the synthskin from Star Wars, as well as perform similar functions to it. It works by collecting data from sensors on the system and then sending them through the electrically conductive circuit to the user’s real skin. This has a promising future of being used on the fingertips of future prosthetics to allow feeling for the amputee. And to make it even better, the E-skin is also fully recyclable so when it is worn down it can be remade into a new piece. But by far the biggest issue with creating cybernetics is connecting them seamlessly with our body’s nervous system to allow fluid movement on demand.
As modern technology advances, cybernetics will quite easily become a reality. Even today, our prosthetic technology is rapidly developing to create stronger, faster, cheaper, and more reliable prosthetic limbs for amputees as well as creating a better connection between the biological and mechanical parts (Wordsworth). Like with any technology, as time progresses so too will our understanding of making better prosthetics. Eventually we will develop technology that can seamlessly integrate the mechanical part of the prosthetic into our body to function exactly like the lost appendage. As it stands today this is a problem we need to get past. Dr. Aldo Faisal, a scientist in the Department of Bioengineering at the Imperial College London said “There are hurdles to overcome. For instance, finding the best way of interfacing the prosthetics with the patients so that they don’t have to learn to operate [their] prosthetic; they just use it intuitively” (Aldo). The problem with current prosthetics is that they require a lot more thought involved in doing simple tasks.
Normally when we think of grabbing something we just do it automatically, but with a prosthetic it’s a completely different scenario. In regard to this Dr. Aldo states “We’re interested in understanding what algorithms the human brain uses to control movement, to make decisions, and of course, if we can reverse-engineer these algorithms, then the pathway to implementation is more straightforward than if you’re trying to do artificial intelligence from scratch” (Aldo). By better understanding exactly how the brain controls movement, we can use this information to create better prosthetics that connect seamlessly to our nervous system and function like a real appendage that requires little thought in controlling the movement (Wordsworth). With a technology like this it would make amputees largely a thing of the past. Just last year in 2017, two army veterans received a state-of-the-art robotic arm known as the Life Under Kinetic Evolution, or LUKE (Gonzalez). This prosthetic arm allows the movement of multiple joints at once, something that has never been done before. This new arm was the most advanced of its kind when it was first released, but it still has several limitations. For example, the hand only has 6 preprogrammed grips which means the hand cannot make any shape the user wants, and the prosthetic is partially controlled using sensors on the user’s feet as opposed to using brain signals as Dr. Aldo hopes to accomplish.
Another very practical technology seen in Star Wars is its use of droids and artificial intelligence. Aboard nearly every starship in the Star Wars galaxy was a supercomputer with artificial intelligence that was designed for navigation throughout the galaxy, conveniently called a navcomputer. These navcomputers chart the routes through hyperspace, which was essentially a way to travel at speeds faster than light. Anything travelling this fast obviously had immeasurable risks associated with. Regarding this information, Han Solo once said to Luke Skywalker “Traveling through hyperspace ain’t like dusting crops, boy! Without precise calculations we could fly right through a star or bounce too close to a supernova, and that’d end your trip real quick, wouldn’t it?” (Lucas). To avoid flying through stars and other objects, navcomputers required immense calculations to calculate the hyperspace route to ensure a safe travel. Failsafes were also used to add another level of safety, but, of course, not everyone followed the rules. For example, Han Solo, while on a smuggling run with extremely time sensitive cargo once did a near blind jump through uncharted hyperspace. With the aid of an artificially intelligent custom pilot droid acting as the navigational system, he successfully navigated his route around a gravity well and reached his destination in record time even though many believed it impossible.
In real life both artificial intelligence and droids, typically referred to as robots and drones today, benefit humans by helping with an array of tasks. Previously, some of the hardest tasks for robots were simple tasks for humans, such as walking and picking up objects. Recently however, Boston Dynamics has been showing off its humanoid robot called Atlas, the most advanced humanoid robot thus far that can even do physically intensive tasks such as running through small obstacle courses, among other things (Atlas). Boston Dynamics also has several other robot prototypes leading the charge in innovation such as Spot, a robotic dog that can navigate very rough terrain, and WildCat, which is the fastest quadruped robot so far that can run up to 32 km/h while maintaining its balance and can even run around corners. Robots are even acting as aids for surgeons (Intuitive). Intuitive’s top of the line robot called Da Vinci is multi-limbed and can do a wide range of minimally invasive surgeries. In Star Wars, surgeries were often performed solely by medical droids like Da Vinci, and this could one day happen in real-life. Researchers are constantly developing new ways to improve AI for everyday tasks such as Tesla’s autopilot system and AI assistants like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa. Last year marked a breakthrough for Artificial Intelligence when an AI called Sophia was declared a citizen in Saudi Arabia. All these AI take information from lots of different sources and make complex decisions much faster than a human’s mind can handle, and this technology is rapidly advancing in speed and its capability.
The Star Wars saga has had a large impact on science and technology since it was first debuted in May 1977. With its futuristic technology it has inspired the minds of people of all ages for years to come. Even with the stylized nature of the films some people have defied the odds to imagine nearly identical copies in real life today. Many technologies seen in Star Wars already have a foothold in the real world today such as cybernetic limbs, droids and artificial intelligence. And although largely impractical, lightsabers will eventually be a reality as well. Like with any other technology, as time progresses the technology seen in Star Wars will become increasingly easier and cost effective to make as they are implemented into real life.
Atlas | Boston Dynamics. https://www.bostondynamics.com/atlas. Accessed 13 Oct. 2018.
Gonzalez, David. “For Two Veterans, a Freedom Restored for Independence Day.” The New York Times, 22 Dec. 2017. NYTimes.com, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/02/nyregion/for-two-veterans-a-freedom-restored-for-independence-day.html.
“Intuitive | Da Vinci Robotic Assisted Surgical Systems.” Intuitive Surgical, https://www.intuitive.com/en. Accessed 13 Oct. 2018.
Lee, Bruce Y. “Scientists Make Electronic Skin That Can Sense Touch And Temperature And Heal Itself.” Forbes, https://www.forbes.com/sites/brucelee/2018/02/11/electronic-skin-that-can-sense-touch-and-temperature-and-heal-itself/. Accessed 29 Oct. 2018.
Lincoln, Don. “Is a Real Lightsaber Possible? Science Offers a New Hope.” Space.Com, https://www.space.com/31361-building-a-real-lightsaber.html. Accessed 13 Oct. 2018.
Lucas, George, dir. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Twentieth Century Fox, 1977. Film.
Wordsworth, Rich. “The next Generation of Brain Controlled Prosthetics Will Be for Everyone.” Wired UK, Mar. 2017. www.wired.co.uk, https://www.wired.co.uk/article/how-your-brain-will-control-the-next-generation-of-prosthetics.
CREATIVE NONFICTION BY Alex Glucksnis