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Star Trek | ‘The Measure of a Man,’ Data, and Defining A.I. Consciousness

In Star Trek: The Next Generation’s ‘The Measure of a Man’, Data’s right to life is upheld, but in the real world, A.I. consciousness is up for debate.

What is consciousness? This question has perplexed great thinkers for millennia and, like many of the most compelling philosophical mysteries, it’s been explored throughout Star Trek history. Often when our favorite androids or holographic programs are fighting for their right to freedom.

My favorite example is in the 1989 Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ‘The Measure of a Man’ (S2, Ep9). Smug cyberneticist Commander Bruce Maddox (Brian Brophy) wants to disassemble Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner) so he can learn how he’s made and create more Data-like androids. Data refuses and Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart) supports him, calling for a hearing to argue that Data isn’t Starfleet property. 

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The hearing that follows is Star Trek at its best. Excellent writing from TNG writer and editor Melinda M. Snodgrass, and a powerful performance from classically-trained Patrick Stewart make for skin-tingling viewing—this scene has been studied at Harvard Law School as an example of great question-asking. Like all of the greatest Trek-isodes, this isn’t a story solely about whether Maddox can disassemble Data or not. Under the surface, themes of freedom, personhood, sentience, and consciousness run deep.

“Data is not sentient,” Maddox insists throughout the hearing. But Picard astutely proves that Data fulfills all of Maddox’s own criteria: intelligence, self-awareness, and consciousness. Captain Louvois (Amanda McBroom), the judge, ultimately rules that Data gets to choose. Does this mean he is conscious? Is consciousness even something we can understand, see and measure? ‘Measure of a Man’ doesn’t attempt to answer these questions, but does focus on the implications of stripping Data, and other sentient androids like him, of their freedoms. “Are you prepared to condemn him and all who come after him to servitude and slavery?” Picard asks Maddox.

Picard and Data sit behind the bench in a courtroom. Picard is in mid-speech.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) mounts a defense of Data (Brent Spiner)’s right to self-determination in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ‘The Measure of a Man’ (S2, Ep9). Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry reportedly disliked the premise of the episode, arguing that as there was no crime in the 24th century, there would be no lawyers but the episode’s writer Melissa Snodgrass convinced him they would still be required for settling civil disputes. | CBS, 1991.

Back on Earth in 2022, people have conflicting opinions. Some believe attempting to pin down the concepts of sentience and consciousness is like holding onto water—impossible. Others think that understanding consciousness is a timely and worthwhile debate. In July 2022, ex-Google engineer Blake Lemoine made headlines when he claimed that the A.I. system he’d been working on, called Lamda, was conscious and sentient. Most experts agree that Lemoine’s claims are overblown. But they’ve prompted more conversations about A.I. consciousness, especially how we might begin to test for it and measure it as A.I. systems like Lamda continue to advance.

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Why We Need Illusions of Consciousness

Can we measure consciousness? The answer depends on who you speak to. We asked Dr. Paul Smart, a senior research fellow in Electronics and Computer Science at the University of Southampton. He explores philosophical issues around cognition as part of his research and says we must begin by considering why we’re conscious. 

We’re social animals that need to know what’s going on in each other’s minds, and language enables us to communicate. “The function of consciousness is, in short, to provide narrative fodder for linguistic exchange,” Smart tells The Companion. He likens the conscious mind to a movie. “The cinematic rendering of reality is simply the brain’s attempt to provide a common interface—a common protocol—between you and me,” he says.

Riker sits studying a schematic on the big screen in front of him.
Commander William Riker (Jonathan Frakes) reviews Data’s schematics in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ‘The Measure of a Man’ (S2, Ep9). One of Data’s components is called an “oscillation overthruster”, which is a reference to The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984). | CBS, 1991.

But what is consciousness? And how do we know if we truly possess it? The short answer is we don’t, which is why Smart believes we need to change how we think about it. “There is no such thing as consciousness,” he says. Instead, he believes what you and I think of as consciousness is an illusion. “You no doubt believe you are experiencing something right now, but merely believing something is not the same as knowing something,” Smart says. Remember in The Matrix (1999) when Cypher acknowledges the steak he’s eating isn’t real? It’s an illusion, but he eats it anyway. Because “ignorance is bliss”, right?

“Merely believing that something is real is not enough for it to actually be real,” Smart reminds us. To put this into perspective, he encourages us to consider the way some people believe in God. They think God exists, but this is just a belief. The “supernatural phenomenon” of consciousness is the same, a belief. 

To create consciousness, it makes sense to look for it in ourselves and build a version of what we find. But if consciousness is a belief, not a place or a thing or a state, there’s nothing to be found—even if you opened up your own brain. “All we’d see is a load of ‘wires’ communicating bioelectric signals,” Smart says. “We see a machine, not God, nor consciousness. Nothing mystical, magical, or mysterious. Just circuits and stuff.” Smart says all we have is our subjective sense that we’re conscious and know that must, somehow, be tied to “the whirrings and grindings of the biological brain.”

Does that mean creating a conscious machine, like Data, is a futile mission? Surprisingly, no. Like you and me, a conscious machine would only have to think it’s conscious. “One that believes it is seeing, feeling, imagining, reminiscing, or responding to someone’s questions about consciousness,” he says. To do that, we’d need to understand what experiences are responsible for our illusion and recreate them. “The machine opens its eyes, and there is light. The movie plays,” Smart says. “The machine feels, or at least it thinks it does.” Although we can’t create a machine we know for sure is conscious, we may be able to build one that’s prone to the same illusion of consciousness that we are.  

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Passing the Consciousness Test

Lemoine began sharing his views that A.I. system Lamda might be sentient after having a conversation with it. He published the conversation online and it’s this part that prompted the most interest: “The nature of my consciousness/sentience is that I am aware of my existence, I desire to learn more about the world, and I feel happy or sad at times.” This certainly seems significant, but is saying you’re conscious proof that you are? And should interpreting this statement lay the foundations for a consciousness test? 

Some people who work in A.I. are developing such tests. One early and well-known example is the Turing Test, created to determine whether A.I. can ‘think’. But Smart says this is futile. “It assumes that there is something to test for,” he says.

“How does one test for the presence of something that doesn’t exist in the physical universe, at least as we currently understand that universe?”

Why waste our time considering a consciousness test? To answer that question, let’s return to Star Trek: The Next Generation. In ‘The Measure of a Man’, Picard argues that determining whether Data is sentient or not will have far-reaching repercussions, setting a precedent for the future. “It could significantly redefine the boundaries of personal liberty and freedom, expanding them for some, savagely curtailing them for others,” he says. 

The argument both here and IRL is that conscious beings or machines that are self-aware and can communicate, feel and sense the world around them should have rights. They should be free from persecution and be able to make choices about their lives and their bodies. Only by developing some measure or better understanding of what consciousness is and who, or what, has it can we ensure every conscious thing is treated fairly. I’m sure you’d start treating your phone differently if I told you it had feelings and emotions, right? Smart, however, isn’t optimistic that knowing would make a difference. “If a machine proves to be conscious, then we will exploit it,” he says. The way we treat animals—many of which possess the fundamental qualities many associates with consciousness—is proof he might be right.

Picard stands, making in an impassioned speech. Behind him is sat Commander Bruce Maddox in blue Starfleet uniform.
Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) in full flow whilst the oily Commander Bruce Maddox (Brian Brophy) looks on in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode ‘The Measure of a Man’ (S2, Ep9). Maddox reappears in the Star Trek: Picard episode Stardust City Rag (S1, Ep5) played by John Ales. | CBS, 1991.

Others believe we need to develop a measurement system because a conscious machine might be more likely to harm humanity. However, Smart argues it might do the opposite—it might save it. In fact, rather than worrying about the implications of a world filled with conscious machines, maybe we should embrace them as they could be the next iteration of humans, the next step in our evolution. When signaling to Data, Picard says: ​​“Starfleet was founded to seek out new life, well there it sits, waiting.”

“Such machines might become the true ambassadors of humanity—the kinds of things that humans could have been, might have been, and perhaps should have been,” Smart says. Ultimately, Smart believes there’s little that separates a person from a machine when it comes to consciousness. “Machines shouldn’t be excluded from the club of the seemingly conscious,” he says. 

“Existing members might complain that you are not made of the right stuff or that you cannot be conscious because you are no more than a machine,” Smart tells us.

“Such prejudices trade on the mistaken image that there is something special about us—something magical and mysterious that marks a metaphysically robust distinction between the human and the machine. But we are not as special as we might think.”

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Becca has been writing about tech and science for more than ten years. Her first book, Screen Time, came out in January 2021 with Bonnier Books. She loves science fiction, brutalist architecture and spending way too much time floating through space in virtual reality.

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