Evil doctor, ethical android: Star Trek's instantiation of conscience in subroutines

Victor Grech, Mariella Scerri, David Zammit


Machine intelligence, whether it constitutes Strong Artificial Intelligence (AI) or Weak AI, may have varying degrees of independence. Both Strong and Weak AI are often depicted as being programmed with safeguards that prevent harm to humanity, precepts which are informed by Isaac Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. This paper will review these programs through a reading of instances of machine intelligence in Star Trek, and will attempt to show that these “ethical subroutines” may well be vital to our continued existence, irrespective of whether machine intelligences constitute Strong or Weak AI. In effect, this paper will analyse the machine analogues of conscience in several Star Trek series, and will do so through an analysis of the android Data and the Emergency Medical Hologram. We will argue that AI should be treated with caution, lest we create powerful intelligences that may not only ignore us but also find us threatening, with unknown and inconceivable consequences.

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