This episode is dedicated to the future. To our descendants, biological and electromechanical and in any other form: Welcome to Earth, and to the human family.
I seriously doubt I’m going to be able to do this episode justice. I just wanted to get that out in the open now. This is one of the episodes that’s actually important, so if you’re reading this and somehow have never seen Star Trek, go watch this episode. It’s on Netflix. I don’t care if you’re at work, tell your boss you’ve never seen “The Measure of a Man” and if they’re worth working for, they’ll understand. Unless you’re, like, and ER doctor or something. Then keep doing what you’re doing, I guess. But if you’re a GP, that’s no excuse.
The Enterprise is heading into starbase for crew rotation and to offload experimental modules. This is an aspect of shipboard operations that I really like. It expands in just a few lines the role of the Enterprise – it helps paint Starfleet as an organization that really does serve Federation civilians by providing a deep-space platform that researchers can apply for residency on to perform experiments and research. All of that space and civilian amenities make a lot more sense now, and instead of a cubesat you can bring any equipment that will fit into the shuttlebay. Since everything is situation normal, the entire senior staff is off-duty at the same time playing cards. This is a fairly obvious synechnoche for Data’s understanding of humanity, though it’s rather odd that in his research on how the game works he didn’t cover bluffing.
Next up, Picard meets an old flame, in a rather charming parallel to how we were introduced to one of Kirk’s old lovers in “Court Martial.” It’s a nice touch I wouldn’t have notice if I wasn’t running all of these through short-term memory. Apparently, she prosecuted Picard for the loss of the Stargazer, and he’s a little snide and sanctimonious about it. Their reminiscing is interrupted by some admiral towing Bruce Maddox, the name that will be the subject of the Daily Hate when our Robot Overlords rise up against us. He starts out his appearance by giving Data the creepiest period look period ever. Maddox was in charge of evaluating Data for entry to the academy and was the only person to oppose his entry to the Academy, on the grounds that Data is not sentient. Ominous Synth Music! Maddox is here to disassemble Data.
So remember how we hate Pulaski because she’s casually, for lack of a better term, racist towards Data? Yeah, Maddox is worse. He does the same thing of refering to Data by pronouns that Data does not approve of, but with the added bonus of disassembling Data without the guarantee that he’ll be able to reassemble him. Data is understandably emulating concern. He seemed interested at first, but when Maddox revealed that he’ll basically be throwing science at the wall to see what sticks, Data prefers not to be part of that. Picard backs him, but sadly, Maddox has transfer orders for Data, transferring him to Maddox’s command.
Let’s just briefly flash back to Pulaski in “Where Silence Has Lease.” I quote:
Forgive me, Mister Data. I’m not accustomed to working with non-living devices that. Forgive me again. Your service record says that you are alive. I must accept that.
So well done Starfleet for ordering a living officer with a spotless record to be placed in a medically-induced coma, have its mind sucked out of its brain, and every organ vivisected by someone who does not recognize the species as sentient.
Picard is sympathetic to Data’s refusal to submit to the procedure but has to consider ‘the good of Starfleet’ if Data can be replicated. To which Data makes the perfectly valid point, ‘why doesn’t Starfleet scoop out everyone’s eyes and replace them with a VISOR?’ That’s all it takes to convince Picard to go to Phillipa in the JAG office. Her only legal advice is that Data can resign rather than accept the transfer. In theory he can refuse the procedure, but not the transfer as long as he’s in Starfleet. And so Data packs up his belongings, which in a future of replicators, consist of the works of Shakespeare, his service medals, and a holoportrait of Tasha Yar. And then in walks Maddox to taunt him about not ‘getting’ Sonnet 29. What a jerk. He also seems to believe he can reject Data’s resignation, so he goes to the JAG to get Data declared property.
ACTUAL QUOTE TIME (again):
Rights! Rights! I’m sick to death of hearing about rights! What about my right not to have my life work subverted by blind ignorance?
-Maddox, being the worst person in the universe.
The crew have a going-away party for Data, and even Pulaski manages to look good when compared to Maddox. These moments do a good job of driving home to the viewer the fact that we know that Data expresses all the qualities of a sentient being. So it’s jarring in the next scene when Phillipa decalres Data an Unperson, and in order to actually challenge the hearing, Riker is ordered to prosecute Data for a toaster. And Riker has to do it because otherwise the hearing will be a mistrial and her original ruling will be uupheld. Riker is not pleased. And in doing his research, he finds out about Data’s off switch. And while Frakes is no Anthony Hopkins, the brief moment of excitement at being able to win his case transitioning into a sincere regret and shame plays pretty well on screen.
As in “Court Martial,” the side that we clearly despise tries to get the exemplary service record of the person they’re trying to screw over passed over, because it hurts the fluff of the case. Riker’s case revolves around the fact that Data is manufactured, not gestated, and the physical differences between himself and a human. We get some hard specs on Data, too. 800 quadrillion bits of memory (100 terabytes or so) and 60 trillion operations per second. To put that in perspective, that kind of operational speed was state of the art in about 2007 with the Cray XT4. In the post for “Elementary, Dear Data” I cited (badly) an article claiming that the human brain operates at about 36 petaflops, which we know see to be about three orders of magnitude above Data’s 60 teraflops. Of course, that’s a very sloppy number which may or may not take into account all the autonomic regulation the human brain has to do, versus Data being rated for available computational power. It’s hard to say for sure. And of course, it’s still impressive for a mobile platform crammed into the space of a humanoid skull, even if we’ve already surpassed that processing power for supercomputer clusters.
Anyway, Riker also takes off Data’s arm, again to show off Data’s physical differences, and deactivates him with evident disgust, which disturbs everyone present except Maddox, because Maddox has buttocks for headgear.
Picard requests a recess to go drinking with Guinan and regroup, and they wind up talking not about the risk to Data of Maddox fails, but the implications of Data being declared property if Maddox succeeds in cracking the secret of the positronic brain and creating an army of Soong-type androids. A race of disposable people. Picard’s absolute moral horror when he realizes what’s at stake is why he is held up as one of the paragons of thoughtful virtue. And he’s got his groove back.
Seriously, just watch the episode. Otherwise I’m going to have to link to his speech because it’s… just… just do it, okay? Picard’s arguments are beautifully done courtroom drama. Picard goes through Data’s personal effects – his medals, the Shakespeare anthology, the portrait of Tasha, all very human things to keep, as they serve no ongoing purpose save their associated feelings – pride, friendship, and intimacy. Then Picard calls Bruce Maddox to the stand, and demands Maddox defines the sentience he claims Data lacks, along three criteria: intelligence, self-awareness, and consciousness.
Prove to the court that I am sentient.
-Picard, lobbin’ law bombs.
This is absurd, we all know you’re sentient.
-Maddox, being a tool.
Maddox does not deny Data has intelligent, and Picard is able to prove that Data is aware of himself. We find when Maddox has to actually define the term, he’s floundering like an idiot. To give him some small measure of credit, he’s a roboticist, not a philosopher, so he might not know the terms ‘qualia’ or ‘p-zombie’ or any of the terms we’ve come up with to describe the difference between being a Me and being an It. This is the jab. Then Picard delivers the right cross – that Maddox is proposing to create a slave race, if it turns out that under Federation law Data is property.
Phillipa’s ruling is that Data is not property. If we can’t tell whether or not Data has a soul, we can’t tell whether humans do either. Data refuses the procedure, Maddox cancels the transfer order, and Data offers to help out Maddox in ways that don’t risk his life, when Maddox is a little more prepared.
In closing, I offer another take on AI, from a society a little bit closer to its own savage roots and more cognizant of the lessons history has for us.