Tuesday, August 28, 2007


Technology in Star Trek, computers, part 1

Yes! It's time for another in the series on technology in Star Trek. This time: computers, and the programming thereof. There’s enough to say on this that I think I’ll split it into two posts, leaving most of the discussion of software for the second one.

It stands to reason that computer technology will have improved unimaginably by the 24th century. After all, they were only first created in the mid-20th century, and look how far we’ve already come. When the Eniac took up a huge room, some 60 years ago, no one would have though that, less than a lifetime later, something far more powerful would fit in your pocket, that people would be wirelessly connected to the world while sitting in the park with a laptop, that some sort of computer would be in most things we own, from a car to a toaster.

And so we have the computer on Star Trek, which perfectly understands human language in context, which can translate among any languages in real time, which has super-advanced artificial intelligence. “Computer, analyze the juvenile life form in the next room, figure out what it will look like in its adult form, and project a hologram of it on the table here.” No problem.

And, yet, interestingly, the computer has to be told to make obvious adjustments in order to obtain valid sensor readings, to work around equipment failures, and the like (all “dialogue” here is made up on the spot, so don’t try to find it in any episodes):

Janeway: Computer, why are the sensors not reading the alien ship ahead?

Computer: There is ionic interference in this sector.

Janeway: Compensate for it.

Computer: Compensating...

Tuvok: Captain, sensors are now reading seven life forms in the alien ship, and they are powering weapons.

Damn! Compensated just in time, too, eh? I think that, in general, the crew “remodulated” things to resolve problems, and the computer “compensated”.

This perfect linguist of a computer appeared not to be able to say “yes” and “no”. I guess they don’t sound like “computer” words, do they?:

Janeway: Computer, transfer the doctor’s matrix to the mobile emitter.

Computer: Unable to comply.

Janeway: Is the mobile emitter working?

Computer: Affirmative.

Janeway: Is the doctor’s matrix destablizing?

Computer: Negative.

Janeway: Then why can’t you do the transfer?

Computer: Transfer protocols are offline.

After all, if a computer doesn’t sound like a computer, where’s the realism?

But the most amazing thing about the computers in Star Trek is how they’re programmed: the people just talk to the computer and tell it what modifications they want, and the computer understands and makes the changes. Oh, man, I want that kind of an integrated development environment. And we think Eclipse is cool, ha!

But with all that, there are some things that never seem to change. We’ll look at those next time.


Maggie said...

The computer is a sort of frustrating form of magic. Either the spell works, or for reasons we can't understand, the spell doesn't work (obviously for the sake of the plot). We can have dialog about using the magic sometimes, when the magic isn't working by itself. At least nobody ever suddenly remembers that the computer can do something that will solve the current crisis.

Barry Leiba said...

Hm, are you sure? I have vague thoughts that there were cases where someone figured out fairly late that the computer — or some computerized aspect of things — could be the solution. I can't think of anything specific just now, though.

There were a couple of episodes in the original series, of course, that were solved by confusing the computer, or somehow overloading it (in "Wolf in the Fold", they exorcised the Jack-the-Ripper spirit from the computer by telling it to compute pi exactly; in "The Changeling" and "The Ultimate Computer" they defeated the out-of-control machines by convincing them that they were wrong, and, thus, flawed).

Maggie said...

Don't forget, "I, Mudd," where they confused all the androids with their hilarious antics.

To answer your question, no, I'm not sure. They certainly have suddenly saved the day with "one of Seven's Borg algorithms," or as I'm fond of complaining about, "a recursive algorithm." Perhaps that counts.