What is life? Artificial Intelligence and Philosophy in Star Trek
by Justine Norton-Kertson
June 19, 2021
originally published in Headcanon Magazine
To Seek Out New Life. It’s the primary mission of the Enterprise ships and others within the Federation’s Starfleet. Both within the Star Trek universe as well as in our own, questions of what constitutes life—what makes something alive versus not alive—has been a perennial topic of scientific and philosophical debate. As expected, Star Trek boldly addresses this debate, like it does so many other issues, by taking it into the future through episodes across its various television shows.
While exact wording may differ slightly from source to source, the currently accepted scientific definition says that life is “a distinctive characteristic of a living organism from dead organism or non-living thing, as specifically distinguished by the capacity to grow, metabolize, respond (to stimuli), adapt, and reproduce.” What that basically means is that something is considered alive if it eats and grows, responds and adapts to its surroundings, and makes more of itself.
Since it’s their primary mission, the crew of the Enterprise D in The Next Generation (TNG) are the ones who most often grapple with the question of whether or not something is alive. Throughout their space travels they encounter energy beings (TNG: Power Play, Emergence and others), large crystalline entities (TNG: Datalore & Silicon Avatar), small crystalline entities (TNG: Home Soil), and others that don’t fit neatly into our traditional conception of plant and animal life here on Earth. These beings challenge and expand the crew’s (as well as our own) notions about what it means for something to be alive.
Most relevant—if not most interesting to our real world and practical lives here on this planet—Star Trek examines the question of what constitutes life through the eyes of various types of future artificial intelligence. Whether it’s Data—the Pinocchio-esque android who longs to be a real human—and other robotic-like artificial life forms such as the exocomps, or holographic AI like the Professor Moriarty character on TNG or The Doctor (Emergency Medical Hologram) in Star Trek: Voyager (VOY), Trek shows often use AI as a way to explore and participate in this fascinating scientific and philosophical debate.
We’re used to the concept of artificial intelligence being the stuff of science fiction but, the fact is that today in the 2020s, AI is already an integral part of our lives and it is only going to become more so. AI was used for data mining in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Also, in the late 1990s, a computer system beat the reigning world chess champion for the first time. Seeing the potential, by the early 2010s companies were fully integrating AI into video game systems such as the Xbox, as well as into the smartphones that have become such a vital tool in our modern world.
Since around 2015 the use of AI in computer software has increased immensely, literally by tens of thousands of percentage points. In our modern world AI is used for image and facial recognition, text-to-speech, language translation, and even scientific endeavours such as determining the 3D structure of proteins at unbelievable speeds.
Questions of whether or not particular examples of artificial intelligence are alive and sentient beings have yet to arise. It doesn’t seem we’re far enough along in our development of AI technology yet for that to be a practical, real life problem any time soon. Indeed, there are still a wide variety of challenges that exist in the continued development of AI such as limited cognitive capacity and the current limitations of modern robotics technology, among others.
If the history of modern technology development has taught us anything, however, it’s that these limits certainly won’t exist forever, and maybe not even for all that long. Artificial intelligence is here, and it will only become more integral to our lives as time marches steadily toward some distant future. Perhaps it is a positive sign then that issues of ethics, morality, consciousness, transhumanism, and even robot rights are already becoming hotly debated topics in philosophical circles.
Just as the development and debate around AI is constantly moving forward, so too will our investigation of this topic as it relates to Star Trek. That’s why "What Is Life?" will be an ongoing series. In this series, we’ll look at individual Star Trek episodes that delve into these philosophical questions surrounding artificial life and what constitutes a living, sentient being. We’ll also look in more depth at developments in AI technology, and delve more deeply into specific ethical and philosophical questions surrounding the development of artificial technology.
We hope you’ll join us on this adventure, and we look forward to continuing the discussion with you.