Monday, November 23, 2015

Star Trek Computing

In the wake of Leonard Nimoy's death last February, I decided to rewatch the entire original Star Trek series, all 79 episodes. I had watched them each many times over in high school in the 70's, though the local station removed a scene or two from each episode to add commercial time and I often missed the opening segment because I didn't get home from school in time. Back in those stone ages we had no DVR or other method to record shows. I hadn't seen many episodes of the original series since high school.

Now I can watch the entire episodes whenever I want in full and in order through the magic of Netflix. I finished this quest a few days ago. Some spoilers below.

I could talk about the heavy sexism, the ability to predict future technologies (the flat screen TV in episode 74), the social issues in the 23rd century as viewed from the 60's, or just the lessons in leadership you can get from Kirk. Given the topic of this blog, let's talk about computing in Star Trek which they often just get so wrong, such as when Spock asks the computer to compute the last digit of π to force Jack-the-Ripper to remove his consciousness from the ship's computers.

Too many episodes end with Kirk convincing a computer or robot to destroy itself. I'd like to see him try that with Siri. In one such episode "The Ultimate Computer", a new computer is installed in the Enterprise that replaces most of the crew. A conversation between Kirk and McCoy sounds familiar to many we have today (source).

MCCOY: Did you see the love light in Spock's eyes? The right computer finally came along. What's the matter, Jim?
KIRK: I think that thing is wrong, and I don't know why.
MCCOY: I think it's wrong, too, replacing men with mindless machines.
KIRK: I don't mean that. I'm getting a Red Alert right here. (the back of his head) That thing is dangerous. I feel. (hesitates) Only a fool would stand in the way of progress, if this is progress. You have my psychological profiles. Am I afraid of losing my job to that computer?
MCCOY: Jim, we've all seen the advances of mechanisation. After all, Daystrom did design the computers that run this ship.
KIRK: Under human control.
MCCOY: We're all sorry for the other guy when he loses his job to a machine. When it comes to your job, that's different. And it always will be different.
KIRK: Am I afraid of losing command to a computer? Daystrom's right. I can do a lot of other things. Am I afraid of losing the prestige and the power that goes with being a starship captain? Is that why I'm fighting it? Am I that petty?
MCCOY: Jim, if you have the awareness to ask yourself that question, you don't need me to answer it for you. Why don't you ask James T. Kirk? He's a pretty honest guy.

Later in the episode the computer starts behaving badly and Kirk has to convince it to shut itself down. But what if the computer just did its job? Is that our real future: Ships that travel to stars controlled only by machine. Or are we already there?


  1. Computers always get things wrong. We always have to debug and figure out where things went wrong. A higher level system with artificial intelligence, will simply get things wrong on a higher level, or screw up in a more intelligent way. We will have to debug at that high level and think abstractly to figure out why the computer made stupid mistakes.

  2. There's an episode (Booby Trap, Season 3) of The Next Generation where they need to fly through a dense asteroid field or something like that, which would require split-second timing and the ability to track a large number of data points, and Geordi comes up with a brilliant solution: let the computer fly the ship! And then Riker actually expresses reservations about the plan, because he's not comfortable giving the computer that much control? "Computers have always impressed me with their ability to take orders. I'm not nearly as convinced of their ability to creatively give them." It's a jarring moment, in a world with GPSes and self-driving cars, etc.

    1. Just wait until the first time a car hits a baby instead of three grown-ups.

  3. In regard to centaur mathematics — as chess-players call human-computer partnerships — Michael Harris' (wonderful!) weblog Mathematics Without Apologies offers the essay "My last word (for now) on HoTT" (May 2, 2015). Harris' essay articulates a point-of-view in regard to mathematical practice that (to the best of my knowledge) has not yet been heard here on Computational Complexity
    "The goal of mathematics is to convert rigorous proofs to heuristics. The latter are in turn used to produce new rigorous proofs, a necessary input (but not the only one) for new heuristics."
    Also commended (by me anyway) is Harris' essay "Pantheism and homotopy theory, Part 2" (April 30, 2015), which begins
    "Every mathematician should probably read [Fields Medalist] Vladimir Voevodsky's article ["The origins and motivations of univalent foundations"] in the Summer 2014 IAS Letter."
    These Harris essays build on earlier Harris essays … the entire chain of them is worth reading, as is Harris' recent book Mathematics Without Apologies (2015), which makes a holiday gift for the STEAM-workers among your family and friends, that is thoughtful in both the literal and the figurative sense.

    One question  Given that the accelerating capability of computational centaurs is agitating and thrilling mathematicians (and chess-players too), is there reason for scientists and engineers (and even physicians) to at least begin to be agitated and thrilled too?

    One answer  Supposing that computational centaurs already are helping us to "talk about mathematics without losing our minds" (to borrow Jacob Lurie's subtle and beautiful idiom), there is equally good reason to appreciate, that by the same cognitive interaction, centaurs already are helping us to talk about science, engineering, and medicine "without losing our minds" … although it can happen that we lose our tempers!:)

  4. I'm immensely proud of your Trekkism! Star Trek remains my favorite show, despite it's hilarious limitations. You should join us next year at one of the fiftieth anniversary conventions. :)