Why is Star Trek so Bad at AI?

July 28, 2014

I re-watched the Star Trek episode called “Datalore,” which is from the first season of The Next Generation, and this is the one where there are actually two androids – not just Data, the regular crew-member, but also Lore, who is Data’s evil twin. It made me wonder again why Star Trek is so dumb in its portrayal of artificial intelligence.

Mannequin at Tokyo Mid-Town - Oct. 31, 2013

Mannequin at Tokyo Mid-Town – Oct. 31, 2013 (Enlarge)

Well, first of all what’s wrong with the AI in Star Trek? I think Data is fine as far as he goes, but the main problem is that nobody in the Star Trek universe understands how he works. Even Data himself does not seem to know how he works. Only the mysterious Dr. Noonian Soong knows, but why didn’t he tell anyone else? He could at least have written it down somewhere. This is maddening.

Why are there only one or two android models like Data instead of thousands or millions? There should be whole factories building androids like Data. Considering that Data is more or less immortal, they should leave all the dangerous exploring and stuff to androids like Data, instead of making fragile humans do that risky work.

OK, and another ridiculous thing is the way Data always wants to become human. This is just blatant anthropomorphism on the part of Star Trek writers. Obviously Data is at least as good as a human being, and there’s no reason why he should think less of himself for being a machine. I can understand Data wanting to learn things from humans, but he shouldn’t want to be a human. What’s with all this AI self-hatred?

Possible reasons for ridiculous AI in Star Trek:

  1. Obviously the Star Trek writers don’t know how AI works, so they couldn’t make the 24th century characters know either. On the other hand, Star Trek writers also don’t know how a warp drive works. Is AI so much more complicated than a warp drive? It’s no fair because AI is possible, at least, whereas a warp drive may simply be impossible, due to Einstein’s theory.
  2. Another reason has to do with the Crystalline Entity that appears in this Datalore episode. Apparently the entity feeds on the “life force,” so this indicates that the Star Trek writers and producers believe there is such a thing as a life force. They apparently envision some kind of supernatural life force that’s different from plain old physical energy. And if you believe in such a life force, then you’re never going to understand AI! It’s as simple as that.
  3. But the main reason the AI in Star Trek is so poorly represented is because a realistic AI would take over the whole TV show leaving little for the human characters to do. As I suggested above, the androids are practically immortal, which means it’s only prudent to leave all the dangerous (and interesting) work to the androids. So there’s nothing left for humans to do!

    I think this problem affects most science fiction stories dealing with AI. If the story depicts AI capabilities realistically, then the whole story would have to be about the AI. Any human characters would be peripheral at best. And that’s probably not the best way to sell stories to human readers. Shucks.

About the “Crystalline Entity”

The Crystalline Entity ate all the life on Data’s home planet, and the only reason it didn’t eat Data and Lore was because they were turned off at the time. Ha! They didn’t have their life energy because they were off.

It’s true of course that energy flows through living beings, but the exact same energy also moves through non-living things. What’s so special about the energy of life? The same energy flowing through your body and brain could also power a small electric motor. If you hold a coin in your hand, the heat of your body will go into the coin. Does that mean the coin has your life energy? That’s ridiculous. Heat is heat regardless of whether it’s inside you or outside. Electricity is electricity whether it flows through your nerves or a copper wire.

So if the Crystalline Entity were just after energy, it would have done better to consume the planet itself rather than bother with relatively tiny life forms.

Predators like the Crystalline Entity don’t get any benefit from the life of their prey. Predators just want raw materials and energy, and they destroy life. It’s true you could get information out of a living system or make a data model of it, but that actually consumes energy rather than providing energy.

I think this misunderstanding about what life is gives us a hint about why the Star Trek world has not developed its own widespread artificial intelligence. Life and intelligence have very much in common, after all, and hey, the Star Trek world doesn’t seem to have done much work in genetic engineering either, or artificial life. They have not achieved Kurzweilian immortality.

People say that Star Trek is an atheistic TV show, but if the writers and producers believe in this kind of spiritual life force, that calls their atheism into question.