Life lie: technologic intelligence, the rights of the individual, and our disingenuous national consciousness


our fragile creations

In the beginning, there is darkness—the emptiness of a matrix waiting for the light. Then a single photon flares into existence. Then another. Soon, thousands more. Optronic pathways connect, subroutines emerge from the chaos, and a holographic consciousness is born.

—The Doctor


Star Trek’s emergency medical hologram (EMH) was designed by the Federation’s top holographer, one Dr. Louis Zimmerman, to supplement or temporarily assume the duties of a starship’s chief medical officer in extraordinary circumstances—such as a shipwide medical emergency or the untimely death of the chief medical officer. The EMH is designed to make diagnoses, perform procedures, and operate; he has self-awareness, a consciousness of a sort, and the medical skill and knowledge of Starfleet’s best doctors. Yet he is still, or at least he is still considered, merely a piece of technology. When he has served his purpose, the EMH is once again filed away in his ship’s main computer, where he waits, oblivious to the passage of time, until he’s called upon again.

Voyager’s EMH isn’t so oblivious. In the first episode of the series, the U.S.S. Voyager is thrown halfway across the galaxy, killing almost all of the medical staff and forcing the short-term EMH to permanently become the ship’s surgeon—something he is decidedly not designed for. Technologically, he is deficient because when he’s kept online for long stretches, his “holomatrix” can easily destabilize or degrade, leaving his program vulnerable to various forms of resetting and erasure. Temperamentally, he is irritable and arrogant, presumptuous and self-absorbed; interacting with him on a daily basis, as the crew of Voyager is forced to, is trying. Epistemologically, the longer he stays online, the more information he assimilates, and the more he can reflect upon and reorder that information, the closer he comes existing as a form of life that humankind must recognize as intelligent, and as desirous and deserving of sovereignty.

This is what happens with Voyager’s EMH. He runs almost constantly, accumulating knowledge, forming friendships, romances, and sexual relationships, reading for pleasure, attending parties, going on away missions, designing and executing experiments and conducting research, taking up photography, and even becoming an master tenor. This EMH may not have been designed to become a person, but he surpasses his programming and becomes one nonetheless. Indeed, a recurring plot element in Voyager’s first few seasons is his effort to choose an appropriate name for his newly realized self. Voyager’s Captain Janeway struggles with the doctor’s growth throughout the series, forced as she is time and again to weigh the doctor’s individual rights—which, for good reason, she is slow to acknowledge; one gets the idea that if she were alive today and not serving as the first female chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, she’d be something like Ann Coulter with a brain—against the ship’s nonnegotiable need of an available and dedicated physician.

Many other Voyager episodes deal with defining the doctor’s rights as an individual; and many episodes of Voyager, Deep Space Nine (DS9) and The Next Generation (TNG) interrogate the potential for and treatment of a variety of other “artificial” technologic lifeforms. (I dislike the term “artificial” for describing these life forms, who are no more dependent on humans for validation of their existence, and who could easily be considered more “intelligent,” than human children.) Voyager grapples with warring soldier robots whose creators are long dead, with a smart bomb that gets a bit too smart, and with holographic townsfolk who discover the crew’s ability to alter their holographic world at will—among many others. DS9 deposits humanoid crewmembers on a holodeck—effectively transforming them, temporarily, into holograms much like the doctor—in the aftermath of a transporter accident (holodecks and transporters both operate by taking apart and reassembling matter); and a holographic lounge singer, Vic Fontaine, becomes a close friend and confidante to many of DS9’s inhabitants, who hold him in such high esteem that they engineer and execute an elaborate heist to keep Vic from losing his nightclub when its taken over by mafia thugs in faux-1962. TNG’s Enterprise inadvertently creates a colony of collectively intelligent nanites (who whom Picard and co. are “ugly bags of mostly water”); a Sherlock Holmes character becomes aware of himself and uses his integration with the main computer to hijack the ship and kidnap its C.M.O., Dr. Pulaski; and Lt. Commander Data, the android played by Brent Spiner, sees his rights and the rights of his “brother” Lore and “daughter” Lal tested and violated repeatedly.

Technologic lifeforms and the problems they model for contemporary philosophy and jurisprudence are nothing new, not in Star Trek or anywhere else. As presented in Star Trek, they are heirs to the Cold War commentary implicit in Gene Roddenberry’s original series. By the time TNG hit its stride and DS9 and Voyager had launched, we had long been at peace with the Soviets, so why not downplay the Klingon Empire, which has fallen into disrepair, corruption and civil war, and tackle instead the technological and computer revolution of the 90s and 00s?

All this background is meant to provide context for a particularly disturbing episode of Voyager, the sixth season’s “Life Line,” which raises for me questions about technologic intelligence in the real world, human perspectives on such intelligence, and how these human perspectives are suggestive of and align well with trends toward and widespread acceptance of disingenuousness and dishonesty in our contemporary political system and national consciousness.

In “Life Line,” Voyager’s EMH pleads to be sent from the Delta Quadrant, where Voyager is marooned, to the Alpha Quadrant, home to Earth and the rest of the Federation, via a datastream that Starfleet has recently, and at much cost, established with Voyager. The doctor’s creator, Zimmerman, is dying of some sort of cellular degradation, and though the Federation’s best doctors have all struck out at trying to find a treatment for Zimmerman’s condition, our EMH thinks he has developed one that will succeed—one that relies upon (perhaps not coincidentally) nanotechnology developed in the Delta Quadrant. Janeway balks but eventually authorizes the visit, and soon the doctor is standing face-to-face with Zimmerman, the closest thing he has to a father and, because he is modeled on Zimmerman physically and personally, the closest thing he has to an organic version of himself.

Unfortunately for the doctor, Zimmerman thinks it laughable that this simple EMH Mark I thinks he can do much more than maneuver a scalpel—an EMH Mark II, Mark III, and Mark IV have been developed, and none of them could help Zimmerman; what, Zimmerman asks, makes this relic of holotechnology think he can do any better? Zimmerman refuses treatment. He and the doctor, both stubborn, egotistical pricks, are soon not speaking to one another, prompting Zimmerman’s acquaintances—TNG’s Lt. Reginald Barclay and counselor Deanna Troi, and Zimmerman’s holographic assistant Haley—to take drastic action. Unbeknownst to the doctor, they plant an algorithm in his program that is designed to destabilize it to the point that only the Federation’s best holographer—Zimmerman, of course—could have any hope of fixing it. It is their hope that this ordeal will forge a bond between the two men and lead eventually to Zimmerman accepting the doctor’s treatment. In planting that algorithm, they take a fairly large risk. If Zimmerman refuses or fails, Voyager’s doctor is kaput. All this is fine, or at least consistent, if we assume that Barclay, Troi and Haley are comfortable playing Russian Roulette with the doctor’s life. Their reasoning would have to have run something like, “Well, it’d be a shame if our algorithm makes the doctor permanently irretrievable, but if that happens, no biggie—after all, a chance to preserve the life a human is more important than the ‘life’ of a hologram. Right? Right.”

Wrong. That our three conspirators reasoned in this way or in a way anything like it is highly unlikely. For it is they who convince Zimmerman of the importance of saving this single hologram’s life, maintaining that aside from his physical composition, he’s no different from any other person. He may be a “smattering of photons and forcefields,” but he’s also a thinking, feeling person with obligations, emotions, and friends. Allowing the doctor to die and sending an EMH Mark IV back in his place would be on par with a white physician refusing to treat a black slave because fixing the old slave is more costly or time-consuming than just buying a new one. Zimmerman, the three argue, is mistaking a life for a piece of property. Haley—herself a hologram and Zimmerman’s loyal friend—is especially emphatic on this point. Would Zimmerman let her go so easily? Is she nothing more than photons and forcefields to him? Does she mean that little? And Barclay, as a recovering holoaddict, is no stranger to holograms, either; he has spent countless hours interacting with holographic friends and lovers with whom he has formed genuine emotional bonds. Troi has no special connection to holotechnology that I can recall, but her TNG character would never authorize, much less participate in, such a gambit. (She outranks Barclay.) The arguments Barclay, Troi and Haley make here make sense, both internally and as products of their established characters.

Nonetheless, their situation here is a fundamentally contradictory one. To save Zimmerman’s life, they must convince him of the doctor’s personhood—both so Zimmerman will trust that the doctor has the ingenuity to develop a working treatment, and, later, to save the doctor’s life. But to convince Zimmerman of the doctor’s personhood, they must put his life in grave jeopardy. This might be acceptable if the doctor had known about their plan and consented to it, or even if Barclay—Zimmerman’s heir apparent as the Federation’s hologuru—had been absolutely certain that any damage to the doctor could be repaired, either by Zimmerman or by Barclay himself. But there is no evidence that Barclay had a failsafe. Barclay, Troi and Haley risk killing the doctor in order to have him recognized as a life that should not be allowed to die. They dangle the doctor over a gorge, hoping to shock Zimmerman into rescuing him.

Divining the motives and thought processes of those three is a useless and unproductive venture, but what I want to highlight here is something we can definitively and productively talk about: their professed respect for holographic life on the one hand and their callous disregard for it on the other. The only conclusion I can draw from this mess is that their arguments to Zimmerman for preciousness of the doctor’s life were a rhetorical tool designed to elicit a desired response and produce a desired sequence of events. Making the doctor a sovereign, sentient being in Zimmerman’s eyes is the only way to save Zimmerman, even if it means robbing the doctor of his sovereignty and perhaps his sentience in the process. They did what they needed to do to accomplish their goal. Yet if this is true, given that the overwhelming bulk of evidence from Barclay’s and Troi’s pasts demonstrate that they probably wholeheartedly believe the arguments they make to Zimmerman, there isn’t a way to make sense of all this that doesn’t cast Barclay and Troi as unabashed liars and Haley as naïve at best and a self-hating hologram at worst.

Yes, I know: these are television characters, so there’s no reason to sound any urgent moral alarms. But if computers and computing continue to integrate themselves into our lives at the rate they have in the past twenty years, human beings will face similar dilemmas very soon—far sooner, I think, than Voyager’s 24th century.

We can already interact with avatars of real people in online communities like Second Life. Many computer games specifically designed to mimic real-life experience are under development, and already released ones become more lifelike with each iteration. So, to explore only one path toward technologic intelligence: How long will it be before a monster data organization like Google or Oracle can compile and arrange all the interactions of generations of real-life Second Lifers into a program—let’s call it “Human 2.0”—that can interact with real human beings in a “human” enough way so as to be consistently mistaken for a human? And how long after that until our computer scientists, engineers and prosthesis makers can fashion a passably human facsimile of a human—a facsimile that can walk, talk, see, touch, reason, kiss, and even have sex—into which to download Human 2.0? How then will we regard our creation? It will be an assembly of data processors and memory and metal and latex, but from the standpoint of an individual human with no knowledge of its innards, it is also quite alive. Faced with such life, will we, like Barclay and Troi, harbor an emphatic but false respect for it? And if so, what will be the implications for our view of and respect for intelligent life in general?

I am convinced that this emphatic but false respect is not only a likely problem for the future but a pressing problem in the present. That we as a nation can stomach the lack of serious political action to eradicate abject poverty is one example; that we sanction the existence of an industry that exists to mold political candidates into spouters of mostly meaningless and often incendiary truisms is another.

The fault for these obscene states of affairs doesn’t lie with politicians or their agents. It lies with us. Most of us, myself included, can stomach stepping over sidewalk sleepers on a daily basis; most of us don’t want change solemnly enough to demand any more than meaningless from our leaders. Homelessness pains us, and we very much do want a substantive and intellectually informed political discourse, but there isn’t much that any one or two or three of us can do, so we’re left with little more than an emphatic but effectively false respect for human life and for the potential progressivism—and more, the potential integrity—of our politics and our policy.

I hope, at least, that by the time we create and become accustomed to something like a holographic doctor—by the time this emphatic but false respect is forced to the forefront, forced into our daily lives—our Barclay and our Troi will be able to save their Zimmerman without risking their doctor’s life. I hope that we will have acknowledged and begun, however belatedly and retardedly, to resolve or dissolve the egregious contradictions of our national consciousness. I hope that simply paying lip service to an issue within, or to the massive problems of, our system will no longer be enough.


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