Welcome to the 24 th Century
The Star Trek
television shows and films are well-known for their expansive vision of
humanity's future and their sharp insight into human nature. Star Trek is also notorious as a breeding ground for real-world scientific developments, and many look to the imaginings of the Star Trek universe as an indicator of how science and humanity might intersect in the centuries to come.
Nowhere in Star Trek
is that intersection more clear than in the handful of
artificially-intelligent characters that roam the decks of Star Fleet
ships, and it's no surprise that an author might turn to Star Trek
for a deeper understanding of artificial intelligence and artificial
life. That's what Penny Baillie-De Byl does in her new book, Artificial Life Possibilities: A Star Trek Perspective– and she pulls it off with twenty-fourth century style.
book is essentially an examination of how, using today's technologies
in computing and robotics, we might be able to create artificial beings
such as those seen in the Star Trek future. Read on for a fascinating journey through the bodies, minds, and hearts of some of Star Trek's most beloved artificial characters.
Data and the EMH
Understanding this book requires a basic familiarity with two of Star Trek's most well-known artificial life forms: Lieutenant Commander Data, the android from Star Trek: The Next Generation, and the Emergency Medical Hologram (or EMH for short), from the Star Trek: Voyager series.
and the EMH are very different characters in their way. Data is an
android, a physical being with a positronic brain, lacking humor and
emotion but dedicated to widening his understanding of “the human
equation.” The EMH, on the other hand, is a witty character who has
many of Data's problems solved, but as a mere holographic projection,
faces fundamental questions about the very nature of his existence.
these two characters have an important commonality: they're both
artificially created beings, living among humans and attempting to
adapt in the real world. As such, they both exhibit a wide range of
physiological, psychological, and metaphysical character traits, and
taken together, provide solid ground from which the author can launch
her probe into the nature of artificial life.
book is divided into three sections, each exploring one of three
aspects of these artificial crew members: Body, Mind, and Soul.
Body: Positronic Matrices and Holographic Emitters
a positronic android, as it turns out, is a remarkably more plausible
undertaking than creating a mobile hologram – at least from a hardware
to the author, Data requires about 100 Petrabytes of storage space – or
a hundred million gigabytes – to function, which Moore's famous law
indicates will be manageable by the time of the Star Trek
future. Programming a positronic brain would be a significant
challenge, but Byl guesses that this might ultimately be possible using
the developing technology of neural networks.
Data's physical body is a natural extrapolation of today's research
into robotics. In this area, the Byl provides interesting information
about current trends in robotics, including the ideas of inverse
kinematics for robots, and the wide world of sensors, which are an
artificial life's interface with the outside world. Given the progress
of research into robotic vision, computer speech and sound recognition,
haptics, and artificial taste and smell, the author asserts that it
should in fact be possible to make a Data-like robot in the
Emergency Medical Hologram, on the other hand, is pure science fiction.
It takes only a short discussion on holograms and light projection for
the author to demonstrate the fundamental implausibility of creating a
mobile 3D hologram – which also makes it unlikely that we'll be
visiting real-life holodecks anytime soon. But not to worry –the author
herself reminds us that today's impossibilities have a way of becoming
Mind: First-Order Logic and Genetic Algorithms
the physical components of an artificial life form is, of course, only
the beginning of the story. Programming the AI is where the real
challenge begins, and the second part of the book is dedicated to
exploring concepts in artificial intelligence, with a trust toward
creating intelligent minds such as those of Data and the EMH.
an advanced AI such as Data requires a core operating system, and thus
this section begins with an overview of a basic computer OS. Based on
references from Star Trek episodes, the author then attempts to
reverse engineer the central operating systems of a mind such as Data's
or the EMH's – which, as it turns out, might not be any more complex
than Mac OSX.
the OS is in place, it's necessary to find ways to store and represent
knowledge within the artificial mind. Ever wonder why Data and the EMH
act so darn logical? It's because their brains are most likely based on
the same systems of formal logic used in computer science today, from
simple propositional logic to more advanced systems such as “branching
temporal logic,” which is capable of accounting for multiple possible
futures. (And if you've watched much Star Trek, you know that multiple pasts and futures are well within the realm of possibility!)
learning to represent knowledge, our machine must next be able to
manipulate that knowledge – that is, to think and reason. In this area,
Byl covers a variety of simple reasoning schemes, including deductive
and inductive reasoning, and some more complex schemes that can handle
uncertainty, such as fuzzy logic and probability-based “Bayesian
of course, an artificial mind must be able to evolve beyond its
original programming – something we see Data and the EMH do all the
time. The author posits that this could be achieved with evolutionary
computing, and presents a fascinating discussion of genetic programming
and genetic algorithms, both of which translate concepts from
evolutionary biology into the world of computer science.
Soul: Laughter, Tears, and Inspiration
we have an artificial life form that that can walk, talk, reason, and
learn, we can begin to face some of AI's less quantifiable challenges.
As Data himself often discovers, there's more to being human than meets
the eye, and it's for this reason that the author rounds out her
discussion with a look at computer creativity, logic-driven humor, and
artificially engineered emotion.
and imagination may not be entirely mechanistic processes, yet AI
programmers must find ways to logically represent even the most
ethereal of human traits. Creativity, for instance, can be simulated
using a technique called bisociation – the mental conjunction of
unrelated and sometimes opposing ideas – while emotions, which are at
the heart of Data's struggle to understand the human equation, can be
represented via five discreet components: emotional behavior, fast
primary (or reactive) emotions, cognitively generated (or responsive)
emotions, emotional experience, and body-mind interactions.
humor can be translated into logical processes… sort of. It's possible
to teach artificial beings to understand wordplay, handle humorous
ambiguity, and create jokes of a specific structure, e.g. the
knock-knock joke. However, it's also clear from observing the trials
and tribulations of our Star Trek characters that humor is
fairly subjective, and it turns out that present-day AI have as much
trouble generating a good joke as does our android friend Data.
the author addresses what is perhaps the critical measure of success in
creating an artificial life – how it relates to other people.
Interacting successfully with their crewmates is what allows Data and
the EMH to integrate with their communities, and this basic test of
reliable interactivity – known in AI as the Turing Test – will
ultimately determine the success or failure of real-world artificial
Holodecks, Exocomps, and Data's Evil Twin
It's well worth noting the degree to which actual Star Trek
episodes are used to explore and illustrate the many topics presented
in this book. The book is chock full of entertaining anecdotes from
individual episodes – some quite lengthy, and many quite humorous – and
Byl even goes so far as to name every one of the book's sub-sections
after an episode from one of the five Star Trek shows.
even though Data and the EMH are the stars of the book, other
artificial life forms do make noteworthy appearances. Among them are
the exocomps that manifest species-preserving behavior in “The Quality
of Life”; a number of key Holodeck characters, such as the infamous
Professor Moriarty; the original androids from the 1960s episode “I,
Mudd;” and various members of Data's “extended family,” including his
evil twin Lore. The references are many, and help to round out the
wider discussion on AI.
this is a great book for people with a casual interest in the field of
artificial intelligence. (For a deep scientific understanding of AI,
try one of the many academic works on the topic, including those by the
author herself.) This book provides a light-hearted exploration of
artificial life within the context of the beloved world of Star Trek, and in that regard the author has successfully gone… where no one has gone before.
Artificial Life Possibilities: A Star Trek Perspective
Author: Penny Baille-De Byl
Publisher: Charles River Media (Thomson Delmar Learning)
Published: December 2005
- Entertaining exploration of artificial intelligence in the context of the Star Trek universe
- Enjoyable anecdotes from well-loved Star Trek episodes keep the reader interested and engaged.
- Material is organized in a way that makes it accessible and easy to understand.
- Let's face it: if you've never seen Star Trek before, you might feel a little lost.
- Subject matter is broad and chapters are short, so it's not a very in-depth treatment of the topic.
- Use of Star Trek episode names as subject headings makes it a bit tricky to relate section headings with their content.