TOS: S2E24: “The Ultimate Computer”

In which a new computer is tested, things go predictably wrong, and exactly the counter you think will be incremented is incremented.

The Enterprise is receiving some sort of barely-expected visitor from a space station, and Kirk does not look happy about it. At least until he meets his old friend Commodore Wesley who informs him that his ship will be hunted in a series of war games, aided only by some new fancy computer called M5, which is multitronic instead of just duotronic, and will be used to patch all of the ship’s systems together under a single AI. I know of at least one enclave on the internet that would be dismayed it’s taken this long, and dismayed again when it turns out that they forgot to give it a utility function compatible with keeping all the humanoids on board breathing.

Since I’ve actually done a bare minimum of reading on this episode for a related project, I’m going to spend this blog post talking about AI in Star Trek instead of summarizing it. The teaser paragraph will have to be enough for you, unless something really amusing happens that needs context.

It’s important to note that the M5 is not actually described as an AI, at least not yet. But then again, the Enterprise computer systems aren’t even integrated yet. In my mind, there are a couple of plausible reasons why not.

First, the meta explanation, which is boring. In the late ’60s, it was thinkable to have a computer that was an enormous database of information, but not one that had any sort of agency. The idea of an Expert System had not percolated far enough into the public consciousness to be put on a show. Computers were still fairly new and not consumer items, and the first expert systems won’t even be created for a few years. But that explanation is boring. Let’s ask Watson, not Doyle.

McCoy is being crotchety and racist toward computers and other silicon-based intelligence. Because his experience with the Horta was a whole year ago.

McCoy is being crotchety and racist toward computers and other silicon-based intelligence. Because his experience with the Horta was a whole year ago.

We know that there was a world war in the 90’s in Star Trek. The Eugenics Wars. This basically disrupted global civilization and culminated in the world war depicted in “Star Trek: First Contact.” So when civilization was rebuilt from scraps, they built up, but not wide. Networking may well have been unnecessary, or even downright scary. After all, anyone today would say that the best way to mess with another power’s ability to wage war against you would be to take advantage of network weaknesses and disrupt any weapons of mass destruction. So electronic countermeasures by isolation are built into the technology of the civilization from the ground up.

Next consider the turbolifts. How they require a human to twist the handle. Why? The phasers have to be operated from Phaser Control. Why? Again, because isolation of computer control systems is important somehow. If a ship is totally networked and you’re able to take control of the computer, you can kill everyone on board pretty easily. If you can get to the warp engines

McCoy continues the grand tradition of Enterprise doctors treating a case of the sulks with alcohol.

McCoy continues the grand tradition of Enterprise doctors treating a case of the sulks with alcohol.

from the communications array, you could phone phreak the Enterprise right into a warp core breach. (A note for people my age or younger who are not computer history buffs: telephones used to work off of analog signals that the line listened for and performed operations based on. Whistle the right note consistently enough and you could trick the system into giving you free calls, basically.)

Thus we arrive at the state of computing in TOS. Electronic Countermeasures (ECM) were in the mind of the designers of all the hardware and software aboard the Enterprise but the crisis for which it was all designed is over and Starfleet is considering that the benefits might now outweigh the risks.

The undertones of this episode are more about human self-determination, intuition, and accepting progress even when it brings uncomfortable change. Actually, scratch that. They’re overtones.

25 minutes in, M5 goes rogue, destroys a robot ore freighter, and defends itself from deactivation. Hooray! Since it can turn off ship’s systems at will we can expect it to turn off the life support when it decides it’s under attack.

And predictably the war games then go wrong and it turns out that the M5 uses human brainwaves modeled after its inventor, Daystrom, in order to simulateintuition. Sadly, Daystrom is a genius who burned out on his own brilliance.

Kirk Talks A Computer To Death Count: 4

Did we miss something awesome?