It’s not a Feature it’s a Bug, TOS: S2E3 “The Changeling”

In response to a distress signal, the Enterprise finds no sign of life, and no indication as to where the signal could have originated.  Instead, they find a strange machine, which seems to be confused about its identity.  ‘Nomad’, a space probe launched from Earth in a quest to explore the galaxy, is beamed aboard the Enterprise.  It mistakes Kirk for its creator, a ruse that Spock is happy to play along with.  Nomad had an accident that damaged its original software, and after drifting through space, it inadvertently merged programs with an alien probe designed to sterilize soil samples.  Its confused coding sent it on a destructive mission to eradicate any biological ‘imperfection’ as it sees fit.  All life is imperfect, and therefore it must be destroyed.  Nomad only spared the Enterprise because it had mistaken Captain Kirk for its original creator Dr. Roykirk.

A robot trying to achieve perfection seems plausible on the surface.  However, a machine or computer program is not necessarily ‘perfect’, it is just consistent.  It executes the same program every time regardless.  What is perfection?  How do we define its parameters?  Is it different for every person?  It would be interesting to study Nomad’s muddled programming.  The soil sterilization bot seems straightforward enough: ‘identify substance – if soil then initiate sterilization program – heat at specified temperature for designated time… etc.’  The exploratory program, Nomad, was probably looking for life, and then merged at the point where the other bot was instructed to destroy such life.  However, Nomad spoke about destroying imperfection, but how did the program define perfection?  For humans, it is the state in which nothing more can be improved.  We have a theoretical state of absolute faultlessness toward which we strive and therefore, we continuously (and perhaps endlessly) develop the endeavor we have undertaken.  The fact that this is a deeply human property would make it impossible to define within the parameters of a computer program.

The concept of perfection cannot be defined in concrete terms.  Whether it is an abstract product of the human mind, or a model that can only exist on another plane, Nomad would not have had access to it.  If it is a logical paradox, any machine based on it would be doomed.  By turning its own directive against it, Kirk reveals the probe’s mistakes and convinces Nomad that it too is imperfect, and therefore must be destroyed.  The probe’s only feature became its bug.


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