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.

If it ain’t broken, fix it

I know that some of you probably read this title and thought it is a typo. Some of you might have added the negation, “Do not fix it”. I assure you, there is no mistake. I am proposing to eliminate the negation.

Imagine you felt a little dizzy. You start to run out of breath. You identify these early symptoms as potentially dangerous and you visit a doctor. The doctor can’t examine you and then say, “Well, you are breathing. Let’s not fix it.”

Bert Lance is credited with popularizing the Southern saying “If it ain’t broken, do not fix it” in 1977. His goal was to save government money. However, I believe that the popularity of this thinking is costing us money. I first heard this expression 20 years ago when I immigrated to the United States. I lived by that rule and drove ‘Aziza’, My first Honda CR-V (yes, I name my cars), to an early junkyard grave. I did not change the oil. I did not even change the battery. I learned to live with the ‘check engine’ light. As an organizational development expert, I now believe that this saying is reactionary thinking. It is costing us money, and it is time we change it.

Five years ago, I conducted a program evaluation as an independent consultant for an institution. The institution met its expectations, but I saw early warning signs. Consequently, I wrote recommendations at the end of the evaluation. This week, I was asked to conduct another program evaluation for the same institution. This time, the program did not meet its goal. It is broken, but they are willing to fix it. Apparently the recommendations from five years ago were dismissed. The lesson learned here is institutions can’t afford to ignore early warning signs.

For example, we know that repeated absence is corrolated with students achieving lower grades, and in some cases dropping out. We know from research that students need to be engaged. We all care about graduation and we have to encourage timely counseling when we see the early warning signs. Repeated absence is the ‘check engine’ light that we can’t afford to ignore.

There are several ways to rethink that Southern saying. We have to begin thinking, ‘if it ain’t broken, analyze it or optimize it’. As a consultant, I find the mid-program reviews to be crucial. It is not enough for us to meet our goals. The success of the program should not be defined as ‘met expectations’. We have to ask how can we exceed our goals by improving what ain’t broken.

Leadership: The science, the art and the amateurs

Recently, I got to hang out with some friends who were drinking and I became the designated driver. One friend (after too much vodka) said to me, "So your doctorate is in leadership. Isn't that the stuff in the self-help aisle?" My sadly sober self just smiled. Nothing is really wrong with the self-help aisle and one of these days I hope to have my own book there. But as it turns out, there's a lot of books about leadership and they espouse various strategies, discuss motivations, and so forth. I realized that "leadership" is a somewhat ambiguous term to many people. On further reflection, that short exchange inspired me to discuss the topic of leadership today.

My scientific training kicked in and I asked myself, could I be wrong? Is leadership simply learning "soft skills", and is it wasteful to get a terminal degree in it? An engineering professor teaches engineering courses but anyone with a pulse could be chosen as a leadership instructor.

Granted, it is hard for me to have an unbiased viewpoint after all the years I spent learning and savoring every possible premise, idea and theory in leadership. I realize that when you assess popular books you can get the impression that leadership is merely acquiring specific habits, finding out who moved your cheese, or just getting an attitude adjustment. However, these books have a purpose and we have to consider a level of analysis, and who is the intended audience.

The science of leadership and the empirical research to back its theories are taught in universities and colleges all over the world. As a doctoral student, you learn about behavioral leadership theories, like Mintzberg's 10 Management Roles. You probably had to write an essay on the difference between a manager and a leader. You would be quizzed about Herzberg's Two–factor Theory of Motivation. You feel empowered and you tell yourself the day I become a leader I know that I can give more responsibilities and motivate my employees. The problem with leadership books and courses is that they do not reinforce skill development and application in general.

The art of leadership is typically distilled from the autobiographies of successful public figures (military leaders, former presidents, football coaches, historical figures and Olympic athletes). These inspirational books resemble a cookbook. Through the lesson learned, the leader gives us his or her recipe for successful leadership. Sometimes, it is even written by someone else analyzing the life of a successful leader. It would be very useful if there were books that tie leadership theories to the autobiographies; meaning, look for the real stories that lend credence to the theories. Note to self: maybe that is what I should do – a case study leadership book.

Now for the amateurs. It is always a similar story. Picture a hard-working person who gets tired of riding the metro and reporting to his or her 9-5 job. That struggling individual goes to a public library looking for inspirational books. He or she has an epiphany and decides to become a leadership trainer. Prior to this momentous event, they might have heard some fuzzy descriptions of leadership styles during a job training session, but did not quite understand them. They might have taken personality traits and leadership tests, then thought that it was similar in value to a Facebook quiz that reveals your true animal spirit. These amateur leadership trainers, while they may lack proper knowledge of the science or art of leadership, still have the potential of becoming really influential and successful – largely due to personality and dogged determination. They could even get lucky and land one or two corporate training jobs.

That kind of leadership trainer is living proof of the Acquired Needs theory, since they are motivated by their need for achievement. The more they want it, the more they do it. Eventually they may become even more successful than doctoral graduates, which are struggling to pay back their student loans. So I understand that you might wonder why people pursue a terminal degree in leadership at all.

The real question is, which way is best? The Science? The Art? The Amateur? The solution is to embrace all three. There is a place for the science, the art and all the amateurs. Teach the science and get inspired by the art. Let the amateurs spread the word. Leaders understand there is no single path that works for everyone.