AI: What I learned from Star Trek’s “Ultimate Computer”

As in many things, the stories in the original television series Star Trek, which aired in the late '60s, foreshadowed the future. One such episode from 1968 explored the topic of Artificial Intelligence, known today as AI, and the potential ramifications of allowing "The Ultimate Computer" (the title of the episode) complete control over functions traditionally managed by humans.

A quick recap: Starfleet Command orders Captain Kirk and the Enterprise to test out the M-5 Multitronic System to perform routine functions and then conduct a war game against four other starships led by Kirk's old pal Commodore Wesley. The exercise was an attempt to prove that the M-5 could run a starship more efficiently than a human crew. Most of the ship's company is removed and a skeleton crew of "essential" personnel remain, including Kirk, science officer Spock, chief engineer Scott, Dr. McCoy, and a few others. Of course the M-5's creator, science legend Dr. Daystrom, is aboard to oversee the M-5's performance, much like a father guides and even adores his child.

At first the M-5 performed "admirably" as Mr. Spock noted, although it shut down the power to areas of the ship that did not require it in an ever-increasing effort to draw more power to itself. Well, no biggie, Daystrom pronounces. Ah, the dream of efficiency that we have chased for decades! A Vulcan's delight!

Even in the first mock attack by a single starship, the M-5 multitronic system worked perfectly and the Enterprise sustained negligible damage. Commodore Wesley was quick to congratulate the M-5 and referred to Kirk as "Captain Dunsail", a Starfleet Academy term for something useless. Indeed, Captain Kirk does feel useless and Dr. McCoy – the Pathos of the trio – attempts to cheer him up with an emotional appeal and "one of his better prescriptions", an exotic green liquor. Humanity, right?

However Mr. Spock, the ever-calm voice of Logos, was quick to recognize that the essence of leadership is not just efficiency of command. He proclaimed to his friend and commander, "The Starship also runs on loyalty to one man, and nothing can replace it, or him". He logically (of course) proclaimed that computers are more efficient, but not better than humans.

Commodore Wesley's initial reaction seems to mirror our fascination with AI as the panacea of modern life, where we can leave the drudgery to machines and focus on enlightenment or whatever. He plays the role of our collective naivete. But the M-5 has a surprise in store for us.

A chance encounter with an unpiloted freighter becomes complicated when the M-5 considers it a threat and destroys it, while Kirk and the crew watch helplessly, unable to intervene and stop M-5's costly error. The M-5 keeps evolving, and takes measures to protect itself – just like a human. It learned not just to maneuver but to decoy. We discover that the M-5 is endowed with Daystrom's intellectual engrams. So, not just a machine after all!

Oh, remember that war game? Well, here comes Commodore Wesley, oblivious to the M-5 menace, with his four starships. As they assume attack formation, M-5 sees them as a threat and blasts away at full phaser power, killing numerous crewmembers and shocking Commodore Wesley into getting permission from Starfleet to take down the Enterprise.

Ultimately, Kirk, representing Ethos, presents an ethical rationale to M-5 and convinces it that it has caused murder. This forces M-5 to shut itself off as a matter of paying the ultimate price, a computer's form of death. Meanwhile, Commodore Wesley's fleet is bearing down on the Enterprise, ready to send it to oblivion. Kirk decides to go with his gut and lowers his shields, counting on his knowledge of Wesley's personality. He engaged his system 1 thinking and made a life or death decision. His human intuition turns out to be correct when Wesley calls off the attack on an apparently defenseless Enterprise. When asked to explain, Kirk says, "I gambled on his humanity."

This is where I want to place my bet our humanity.

Our version of M-5 is out there, learning and growing. Every day we read about new, shiny computer toys. My husband was the first one to show me an article about 'robotic men' designed for the pleasure of women. Are we building our replacements? Rest assured, husband, no man – robotic or human – can replace you.

I am not suggesting that we find a way to try to disengage our M-5 or halt our AI progress. After all, as Captain Kirk said, "Only a fool would stand in the way of progress – if this is progress." I am merely suggesting that we have the same dose of skepticism that Captain Kirk had toward his M-5. We need to remember Stardate 4731.3, when the M-5 Multitronic system took over control of the Enterprise, and ask ourselves: Do we want our M-5, or AI to take full control?

Let's keep our shields up and retain our power – and our humanity.