Artificial intelligence has progressed to a frightening extent since Captain Kirk and crew graced the world’s living rooms in the 1960s. The modern trend of replacing human workers with machines was felt even in a time before cell phones and search algorithms. Technology is already quickly replacing low skilled jobs, with touch screens in restaurants taking our order, or robotic arms assembling cars. It would seem we are on a trajectory toward a faceless, machine-dominated future in which we may go about our entire day without a single human interaction. Hopefully we will still have a need for each other. Machines were only supposed to take the low skill and labor-intensive jobs no one wanted, right? We are perfectly fine with a robot that assembles parts in a factory all day, or one that flips our burgers, but a starship captain? That is the trajectory of our ever-increasing technological sophistication predicted by this episode.
Genius inventor Dr. Richard Daystrom boards the Enterprise to test his new invention, the M-5 computer, which is programmed to pilot an entire starship without human intervention, removing our engagement with our own expeditions. Daystrom’s passion for his work underscores a more nuanced issue. Robotics has its place in alleviating the struggle of human labor, and both Daystrom and Captain Kirk are concerned with preserving life and dignity. Throughout human history, dangerous or back-breaking tasks were forced either on animals or humans who were considered lower in value. No enlightened society would allow that kind of barbarity, but the work itself had to be delegated to something. Machines operated by humans struck a good balance. The brunt force of the task was absorbed by the machine, while still providing a human with a job. When machines became sophisticated enough to replace the human is where the situation becomes complicated.
Dr. Daystrom invented his machine to be able to perform the dangerous tasks required of Starfleet officers without risking actual lives being lost in battles or on hostile planets. However, if one programs a computer to do everything, it may detract from how we interact and engage with our tasks. Humanity has always been interested in exploration; what is the point of being able to travel to distant worlds if we cannot see the results of the efforts for ourselves? Interestingly, proposing artificial intelligence as a key component of space exploration is the subject of ongoing debate. There are situations where human travel to distant planets is not cost effective, or even feasible. Landing on a planet with no atmosphere proves to be challenging enough, and then there is the small issue of how to get the poor humans back off the planet and on their way home! Shuttle crashes and space accidents are devastating for human life, but not so tragic for a rover. Robots could make excellent human replacements for a Mars mission if they could be programmed to be more curious, like us.
Over the years, advances in computers and technology have helped make many industries more efficient and safer, but Dr. Daystrom’s M-5 model took things a little too far. The machine was designed to understand and implement some of the most complex higher functions of a starship. It went rogue and mistook a battle simulation for the real thing. In a fitting critique of artificial intelligence, the program was flawed because the programmer was flawed. It is possible that because the M-5 was programmed to mimic the complex cognitive behavior required to operate a starship, it was forced to subconsciously become human, which resulted in it making mistakes. Ironically, a computer that was designed to preserve life endangered it instead.
The episode took an anti-computer stance by proving that human operators will always have an advantage over artificial intelligence. At least on Star Trek, the human operators had the ability to discern the context of a situation, trust in the loyalty of their fellow officers, value life, and as Captain Kirk proved in the end, use prior experience with other colleagues to influence intuition. Robots and computers are nice as an aid, but they work best alongside humans instead of as a replacement.