“Trek Class” is a course at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies titled “Star Trek and the Information Age.” The course examines episodes of Star Trek series as a method of introducing concepts related to technology, society and leadership in our world. This blog series seeks to share some of the concepts discussed in Trek Class with the StarTrek.com community. This post was written by Ben Jones, a teaching assistant for the course. Ben is currently a junior studying Political Science and Information Management and Technology.
“Starfleet was founded to seek out new life – well there it sits!” –Jean-Luc Picard
One of the most provocative themes that science fiction can touch upon is the question of what constitutes life. The notion of artificial intelligence – that is, artificial life – has fascinated us for decades, but equally as fascinating are the ethical questions that such life raises. Where, exactly, is the line between human-like construct and person? Star Trek has pondered this question most prominently in the Next Generation episode “The Measure Of A Man,” where Data stands on trial to determine if he has the legal right to refuse the orders of (in one author's opinion) one of the most unlikable individuals in Trek history, Commander Bruce Maddox.
The question is, of course, a highly controversial one. The notion that we, as creators of machines, may someday have to yield to them as equals raises fears of losing control to them entirely. In fact, it may be among the most common science fiction tropes: humanity being crushed under the cold, unfeeling metal heels of robot overlords. But what if the machine isn't so cold and unfeeling? What if the machine's greatest desire is not subjugation, but just to be one of us? It is very hard to feel intimidated or threatened by Lt. Cmdr. Data. In fact, he has a certain naïve, almost boyish charm about him as he explores the world and endeavors to become more human. Were it not for the strange skin, gold eyes, and occasional glimpse at his steel skeleton, he would hardly seem inhuman at all. But, by definition, Data is a machine, albeit a very smart one. He is a fascinating individual – so fascinating that Bruce Maddox of the Daystrom Institute wants to disassemble him and examine him thoroughly.
Data has no desire to leave the Enterprise. In fact, rather than join Maddox, he resigns his commission entirely. Maddox finds this incredulous. Data can no more leave Starfleet than a starship's onboard computer can, he contends – Data is not a member of Starfleet, he is the property of Starfleet. Maddox even refuses to use human pronouns for Data, referring to him as “it.” Acting as Data's advocate in the hearing, Picard contends that Data has hopes, motivations, memories and attachments to objects and people that no mere machine could have. Data's sentience and intelligence – artificial though it may be – entitle him to the same rights as any other Starfleet officer, argues Picard.
In the end, the presiding officer rules that she is not qualified to answer the question of whether or not Data is a person, but she does rule that Data is not property – and that he has “the freedom to choose.” His personhood is ambiguous, but his sentience is not, and Data – machine or person – has the right to make his own decisions. He cannot be disassembled if he does not want to be – and in given the right to self-preservation, Data is brought one step closer to humanity.
A robot is built to carry out a function, and works only to carry out the function assigned to it. Data, on the other hand, was built to be human and act accordingly. He reads books, he proudly displays his Starfleet medals, and he keeps a hologram of the late Tasha Yar, with whom he was close. The Enterprise computer would have no use for medals even if it was given one, but his awards hold a special meaning for Data, and in that special meaning is a spark of life.
Our own technology is nowhere near advanced enough to begin wondering about its rights. There will be no court cases about Siri's rights any time soon. We could make valid arguments either way, because our context is different than that of Star Trek's. When the time comes for us to consider this question, it will undoubtedly be vastly different. But in the 24th Century, artificial intelligence is a ubiquitous reality. The rights of computer-based intelligence had never before been considered, but Data is a special case. He was not built by Starfleet, he was found by Starfleet officers and joined them of his own volition. Like any other person in Starfleet, he was inspired by their mission to seek out new life and new civilizations – and it is difficult to hold a more human ideal than that. Who knows what the machines of the future will be like, but if they are anything like Data, I would hope our traditional fear of machine domination will be trumped by what is perhaps humanity's greatest quality: our compassion.
Trek Class is taught by Professor Anthony Rotolo at the Syracuse University School of Information Studies (iSchool). You can follow along with Trek Class each Tuesday and Thursday at 3:30pm EST on Twitter by using the hashtag #TrekClass.