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art by Justine Norton-Kertson

What Is Life? Pt 2: Holograms, AI, and Human Rights

by Justine Norton-Kertson

August 14, 2021

This is the second part of our series on the question of “what is life?” The essay series looks at the question of what it means to be alive, to be living, to be a “person” with sentience and agency. Questions like this are addressed in Star Trek canon using stories about the relationships between humans and various kinds of artificial intelligence. This series looks at Trek’s treatment of this issue within the context of current advances in real life artificial intelligence technologies. In this second essay in the series, I look at recent advances in holographic technology in conjunction with stories from Star Trek: Voyager that address the questions of agency and human rights for holograms.




The Holodeck is what first attracted me to Star Trek. I still remember being an eight year old kid in 1987, watching The Next Generation for the first time. 


Seeing Data sitting in a tree in the middle of a serene forest while whistling a tune. Watching young Wesley Crusher come rushing into the forest from the ship’s corridor, so excited to see and experience this fascinating new technology that he hops onto an unsteady rock and falls into the creek. Data jumps down from the tree and rushes to a soaking wet Wesley’s aid. 

When I saw “Escape from Farpoint,” I was not only watching Star Trek for the first time, but also experiencing science fiction on television for the first time. I was mesmerized by the holodeck, and that never really changed. Throughout the seven seasons of TNG, and as the franchise progressed through Deep Space Nine and then Voyager, holodeck episodes were always and still are among my favorites. Whether it’s Barclay’s strange grecian and musketeer fantasies in TNG, the crew of DS9 playing baseball with Vulcans, or Tom and Harry in the world of Captain Proton—and yes even the Vic Fontaine episodes—I love them all.


The series that really takes us to exciting places when it comes to hologram characters and storylines is Star Trek: Voyager. The Emergency Medical Hologram character, The Doctor, is much like TNG’s Data in that the show’s writers used the character (as well as other holograms that he encounters) to explore issues of human rights and artificial intelligence. Two Voyager episodes worth exploring that touch on these issues in particular are “Author, Author” (S7:E20), which is one of the last episodes of the Delta Quadrant-based series, and “Revulsion” (S4:E5).


 A hologram named Dejaren is found alone—except for his six dead human crewmates—on a ship in the Voyager episode “Revulsion.” Throughout the episode Dejaren becomes increasingly unstable and emotionally unpredictable. He has a derisive attitude towards flesh and blood beings, which he calls “organics,” and he engages in angry tirades about how disgusting they are and they make him feel. He confides in The Doctor that organics have made him feel like a slave and that he hates them.


While Dejaren is clearly the villain of the episode, we can’t help but have sympathy for him. We know that despite his emotional disturbance and the murders he has committed, he is telling the truth about the way he has been treated by organic beings. The problem is one of emotion and environment, rather than one of programming, which is like the hologram’s version of DNA or “nature.” 


Our sense of justice peeks through the curtain and reminds us that people (or holograms) are infinitely complicated. There are times when we have reason to find sympathy even with those we find reprehensible. Sometimes even those who have done bad things have rights and deserve their own sense of justice for the wrong done to them.


In “Author, Author” we dive more directly into the philosophical question of whether or not a hologram like The Doctor is, or can be, a person who is alive and thus entitled to “human” rights. In the episode, The Doctor writes a holonovel called Photon Be Free, about the way that humans treat holograms. Communicating from the Alpha Quadrant, Admiral Paris informs Captain Janeway that the holonovel is already being distributed on Earth by a publisher, without The Doctor’s knowledge or approval. A legal hearing ensues to determine whether or not The Doctor is a person who has rights, such as the right to control his own artistic creations. 


The episode is strikingly similar to “Measure of a Man” (TNG S2E9). In that episode, a legal hearing is conducted to determine whether or not Data is a person with the right to make his own legal decisions and control his own android body. In fact, “Author, Author” is, in many ways, a Voyager remake of “Measure of a Man.” One great example among many is the ending. 


In the TNG episode, Captain Philippa Louvois—who is serving as the sector’s Judge Advocate General—rules that Data has the right to choose, but declines to rule on whether or not the android legally qualifies as a person under Federation Law. Thirteen years later via a new method of inter-quadrant communication, an arbiter makes a similar ruling, but is a bit more conservative when it comes to holograms. 


In this case, the arbiter actually does rule that The Doctor is not yet a person under federation law. The “yet” implies, of course, that the arbiter is sympathetic to The Doctor’s plight, but believes the law is what it is, and that even if it should be changed, doing so isn’t within the arbiter’s power. However, like Captain Louvois, the arbiter in the Voyager case also rules that The Doctor has the right to choose. In totality then, the ruling is that even though The Doctor is not legally a person, he is legally an “artist” and therefore does, in fact, have the right to control the production and distribution of his holonovel regardless of the status of his personhood.


The episode ends with a brief scene in which we see a team EMH Mark I’s (the same emergency hologram model as The Doctor), performing hard labor in an asteroid mine. They are passing The Doctor’s novel amongst themselves. We already know that as a Hologram, The Doctor had the ability to surpass his programming and become more than the sum of his parts, so to speak. We can’t help but wonder too if these other holograms—who very much seem to be performing greuling slave labor—will, like The Doctor, evolve and become more… human. The implication at the end of the episode is that Photons Be Free could end up being a driving cultural force behind a future movement for hologram rights. 


The question of whether or not a hologram can be legally considered a person with rights seems a distant one. At most an interesting debate to be had among philosophers in the halls of universities and on the pages of academic journals. It is certainly still the stuff of science fiction even today, twenty years after the original airing of “Author, Author” on what was then called United Paramount Network, or UPN. But just because something is far off doesn’t mean it isn’t relevant.


We seem to perennially be only a decade away from the breakthrough that will make holographic tech everything we’ve ever dreamed it could be. Recent developments in holographic technology, however, have the potential to finally make that timeline a reality. At the very least, we are nowhere near as far off as we were only a month ago.


Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a new method of generating holograms they are calling tensor holography. The method uses deep learning artificial intelligence tech to allow for the near-instantaneous creation of computer generated holograms that don’t require a massive supercomputer to produce. Not only is the new tensor method an important breakthrough in holographic technology, but it very well could lead to widespread use of holography in fields such as virtual reality and 3D printing.


Yes, I said virtual reality and holography in the same sentence. And yes, now I’m going to say it: Holodecks!


Of course we’re still quite a ways away from holodecks being a reality. But the ability to generate high quality holograms in real time means that the use of holograms in virtual reality video game technology is a solid, near-future possibility. No, that’s not the same thing as a holodeck. It doesn’t mean, for example, that we’ll be able to touch and feel holograms in a VR gaming environment the way Star Trek characters can on a holodeck. At least not yet. 


What it does mean though is that for the first time in decades, we have a breakthrough in holographic tech, using the power of artificial intelligence, that will lead to concrete steps forward. Holographic virtual reality isn’t a holodeck, but it is a long sprint down the road toward that long dreamed of goal.


Maybe then, just maybe, the question of whether AI-powered holograms qualify as people with agency and rights isn’t quite so distant and irrelevant as it seems on the surface.

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