Star Trek cannon just drastically changed a huge spaceship AI rule
Are spaceship computers dreaming? In Star Trek: Discovery the answer seems to be yes, which means an old rule of The original series suddenly reversed. In the big Discovery Mid-season finale “… But To Connect”, David Cronenberg’s Dr. Kovich returns to pass judgment on the sensitive onboard AI known as Zora (Annabelle Wallis). Here’s how this episode references The next generation and also dates back to a famous Original series story of an AI gone mad.
Although a large part of Discovery The midseason finale focuses on what actions the Federation will or will not take to retaliate against the unknown species that created the dark matter anomaly, the biggest change is the fact that the status quo of The sensitive spaceship’s computer, Zora, has taken an uplifting turn. Because Zora has achieved full sensitivity, Kovich is brought in to assess her. Not only does she refuse a direct order to reveal certain contact details, but Zora is very existence violates an old Starfleet rule.
As Kovich puts it, “There is a ban against fully sensitive AI being fully integrated into Starfleet’s systems.” But where does this rule come from?
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The specter of the M-5 in “The Ultimate Computer”
Although it is not named in Discovery, Kovich clearly refers to the events of the classic episode “The Ultimate Computer”, in which a sensitive AI has been incorporated into the systems of the USS Enterprise. The episode’s telecast was written by one of Trek’s most important writers, Dorothy Fontana, and was based on a story idea submitted by mathematician Laurence N. Wolfe. If you have never seen it, you will discover an extreme duality.
“The Ultimate Computer” is a clichéd AI story gone wrong, whose likes have dominated pulp sci-fi magazines for decades. In fact, part of Isaac Asimov’s goal with his famous robot stories was to fend off the Frankenstein monster tropes that most robot stories embodied. I robot ends with the idea that a benevolent AI can take care of mankind better than mankind itself.
But what does this have to do with Star trek In the 60s ? Well, Asimov had a big impact on Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. When Roddenberry created the cool Android Data for The next generation, he integrated Asimov’s famous “laws of robotics” into Data’s ethical programming. No one talks about Asimov in this episode of Discovery, but ethical issues raised by AI occupy a large part of Trek’s canon. In fact, some fans might find Zora AI’s plot in “… But to connect” very similar to Data’s essay in The next generation episode “The measure of a man”.
If you go back to “The Ultimate Computer,” you’ll find two types of vanished AI stories mashed up in one episode. M-5 goes mad and takes over Business, resulting in the destruction of another Starfleet ship and the loss of countless innocent people. The point seems clear: the computer is evil. It is too cold and rational to care about humanity, so it destroys people without thinking.
But the real eye-opener is that M-5’s recklessness stems from the way it was programmed; more specifically, the human brain waves that were introduced into his system by Dr. Daystrom. The blame is on the technology, but its malfunction is attributed to the M-5 being too Human.
How Zora flips the script
So in the Trek canon status quo, the whole reason Kovich is considering “extracting” Zora in this episode is almost certainly because of the M-5 in The original series. But what makes this episode so interesting is that Zora looks nothing like M-5 because she wasn’t built by anyone. As Zora says, she is the sum total of Discovery journals and experiments. This means that she is a of natural origin artificial life form.
Trek has dipped his android toes in these waters before, but almost all of his different AIs have been built by someone organic. Zora exists in the human form of the Discovery of a vessel, but its sensitivity did not emerge because the ship was designed to produce it. When it is suggested that Zora might choose another form, she pushes back, saying that the ship itself is her body.
Living spaceships aren’t exactly a new idea in science fiction, but what’s different about Zora is that her emerging personality is treated like a real character. At the end of the episode, Zora officially becomes a member of Starfleet, which means that while she houses the crew in her “body,” she is now their colleague as well.
What’s great about all of this is that Zora isn’t a one-off plot point like in “The Ultimate Computer”. Like Data, she joins the team as one of the heroes of the series. But unlike some of the other resident Trek Androids, the definition of what Zora actually does is feels cool. Star Trek always claims to be trying to find new life forms, and for once they have.
Star Trek: Discovery will return for the remainder of Season 4 on February 10, 2022.