Star Trek’s Mr. Data May Never Feel But His Artificial Intelligence Definitely Makes Us Think
Mr. Data shows humanity the way.
Photo by Gage Skidmore
Robby the Robot from 1956’s Forbidden Planet may have been the first artificial intelligence movie robot to have his say. But the evolution of thinking androids in science fiction movies have come a long way – even if the limits that are tested go long beyond what I believe is possible.
I cringed in I, Robot when the James Cromwell character states that there have always been “ghosts in the machine, where lines of code grouped together to produce unintended results.” He likened the unexplained phenomena to the machine’s soul.
I’m sorry, I studied computer science in college, and there’s nothing existential about it. Lines of code moving around with a mind of their own are better known to us who know as human programming mistakes. And while they seem like ghosts at the time, once you correct them, there’s nothing supernatural about the unintended behavior they previously exhibited.
So long lines of code fed into a series of electronic circuits that feel – I don’t think so. But that doesn’t mean the introduction of a Hal 9000, Mr. Data or the model 1887 from the Terminator films causes my neural net enough dismay to turn the channel in search of carbon based life forms.
In fact, my attention span only elevates. This does come not from a desire to dream of something like the creation of organic circuits to make computer awareness a reality. Instead, the notion of a methodical robot attempting to adjust her programming to all the uncertainties of humanity means a closer look at ourselves.
Who better than Mr. Data of Star Trek: The Next Generation to try and fill in the gaps. In the TNG episode Redemption II, Data appears to have feelings when he is passed over for a command in a vital neutral zone engagement against the Romulans. Even the forward thinking Captain Picard needs a nudge to put aside the circuits and recognize Data’s results over 26 years of exemplary service to Starfleet.
Picard unable to deny the logic presented, the artificial intelligence robot is confronted by the worst form of human prejudice as he takes command of the USS Sutherland. This has the ship’s first officer pulling no punches in regards to the unsuitability of an android in a command position. Hinting at Data’s inherent lack of feeling, Lt. Commander Christopher Hobson states that all the electronics and subroutines do not give consideration to the human lives affected by each decision.
While that might be true, Mr Data is certainly equipped with an internal counter, and his sophisticated processing could calculate acceptable risk as well as any human counterpart. Still, the argument is fair – especially since the officer does not know Data personally.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean this Starfleet officer is free of a whole store of unjustified generalizations. “Just as a Klingon shouldn’t be a ship’s counselor, an android should never command,” he reasons quite dispassionately in a language Data can understand.
It all appears to be going awry as Data’s command decisions perplex the first officer and feed into his reservations that body counts don’t matter. But when his maneuvers thwart the Romulans' covert aggressions and prevent war, Hobson is left holding the bag.
However, to his credit, the first officer juxtaposes Data’s core programming onto himself. In other words, Mr. Data endeavors to be more than the sum of his programming, and the day saved, the officer addresses Data as “Captain” in admission of his own failures. That gives us the closer look we are after and something to shoot for.
I think Robby would be very proud of his science fiction successors.
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