AI Week, Day 5: The Measure Of A Man

For our last day of AI week I thought I’d cover a little game my parents and I played when walking out of the theater after seeing A.I., Steven Spielberg’s exploration of a whether a robot boy can love. While the film attempts to cover some of the questions raised by artificial life, we felt that it fell short. Many of the themes and philosophical questions raised have been explored in episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, through the character of Commander Data. Given the film’s length, 146 minutes, we decided to pick 3 episodes of TNG that contained the same themes but explored in a deeper and more emotional way (and that were also more fun to watch). Below is our list:

Season 2: Episode 9 – “The Measure Of A Man

Is Data a sentient being or the property of starfleet? How do we define sentience? These questions and more are explored in this early TNG episode. A starfleet robotics expert, Commander Maddox, is seeking permission to disassemble Data to learn how to make more. Data determines that Maddox’s research and methodology are not far enough along to warrant such a procedure and refuses, resigning from starfleet to prevent himself from being transferred to Maddox’s lab. Maddox challenges Data’s right to resign, claiming that he is a machine, property of starfleet and subject to the orders of his superiors against his will. Because of limited judicial staff, Captain Picard is called to defend Data’s sentience, and Commander Riker is forced to prosecute. Some moments of this episode are hard to watch, particularly when Riker shuts off Data, and Picard’s final empassioned defense.

Season 3: Episode 16 – “The Offspring

Can an android love or be a good parent? After returning from a cybernetics conference, Data has been working on building an android child in secret, to pro-create and to continue his existence. Being the only android known to exist, if he were lost, then sentinent androids would be lost. Starfleet quickly learns of this new android and wants to raise the child at their facility instead of with her father, Data. This conflict over her destiny causes a cascade failure in her positronic brain which eventually results in her death. This episode is an exploration of what it would be like to raise a child AI, slowly growing in intelligence, and using the previous generation of machines to design the next. This episode was the first to be directed by a cast member, Jonathan Frakes (Riker), and features some of the funnier and sadest moments in the show. The final moment when the officer who has been trying to take Data’s daughter away walks out, describing how Data tried to save her, brings a tear to my eye just thinking about it.

Season 4: Episode 25 – “In Theory

Like so many men, Data tried to procreate before ever trying to fall in love (and I don’t just mean Tasha). Just kidding. As you might expect this episode explores the question of whether Data can fall in love, and be in a romantic relationship. The main subplot is enjoyable as well, Enterprise caught in a Dark Matter nebula that Picard has to help pilot them out of, but I digress. Data consults the crew on romatic relationships in general, and his situation in specific, and chooses to try a relationship with Lt. D’Sora, who has made her intentions quite clear when she kisses him in the torpedo bay. Data constructs a romantic sub-routine and attempts to be a good boyfriend. At times I can’t decide if he’s dense because he’s a man or an android (we all could probably learn a few tips from this episode). I love the little moment with Spot at the end of this episode.

That’s all for AI week! Hope you had fun. And be sure to read all the posts over at the Buckley Blog. He covers his own troubles with creating an AI, the Singularity, a wonderful short story about robots finding religion, and a critical analysis of the 3 laws of robotics.

Are you liking these theme weeks? Let us know in the comments section. I’m thinking about doing one on creativity in a month or two. I’ve been reading Jonah Lehrer’s book Imagine, and it has a number of provocative ideas about writing, creativity, and the like. In the spirit of AI week I pose one final thought:

Some brain studies have suggested that there is a correlation between clinical depression and creativity. Specifically, the rigor required in revising a sentence until it is perfect. For moments of intuition a more manic state is required, to form the distant connections between ideas. Lehrer goes on to suggest that the bi-polar or manic depressive personality is one that is well suited to the creative arts. If we wanted to make an AI that could write a poem, paint a picture, or compose music, would we need to make it bipolar? What would an AI with a mental disorder be like and how would we achieve it? Would a 1000 monkeys at 1000 typewriters stand a better chance a writing Shakespeare?

Enjoy that little puzzle and everything else your weekend has to offer. See you Monday!


Filed under Round-Ups, Trube On Tech

4 responses to “AI Week, Day 5: The Measure Of A Man

  1. I actually didn’t care much for “In Theory,” but I loved “The Measure of a Man,” and “The Offspring” is in the running for the very best TNG episode ever. I know exactly the moment you mean at the end, and it made me cry too.

    RE: your question at the end, a few different thoughts come to mind. First, bipolar disorder is only a rather small subset of clinical depression, and I hope Lehrer isn’t confusing the two. Ordinary clinical depression just gets you down, there’s no “manic” phase to it. As to whether a manic phase is required for creativity, I’d say that the vast majority of creative people in the world are not bipolar, so the answer is no.

    I do think, though, that human mental disorders can tell us a lot about how the human brain works, which in turn is very helpful for building an AI. If you ever get a chance, you might like the book “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat.” It’s about a wide range of very unusual disorders.

    • From what I know Lehrer isn’t confusing the two. From what I understand of the studies, people with creative personalities were shown to be 8 times more likely than the general population to have a depressive disorder, but this is by no means a large number.

      I’ve heard of, and in fact own that book. It is currently occupying shelf slot number 34276-2 and will be read whenever I remember how my slot system works. I do think mental disorders teach us about how the brain works, and in turn how an AI might work, but I think it would be interesting to explore the question of would it ever be beneficial to have an AI have a mental disorder or two.

      Had fun doing the theme week, looking forward to seeing you guys in a couple of weeks!

  2. Inky Wellsworth

    I always loved how TNG explored the ongoing issue of Data’s quest to be more human. Definitely some poignant moments on that show. Regarding AI and creativity, I may have missed the distinction between a simple(?) robot / android and an AI, which I assume is capable of independent (non-programmed) thinking. An android could be programmed with all of our artistic knowledge regarding beauty, symmetry, color, rhyme, metaphor, etc. and then – perhaps using some sort of artistic algorithm – begin combining those various elements in an infinite number of ways, some of them not yet discovered by humans. But that’s not really AI to my thinking, just some input being manipulated mathematically to achieve new forms of output. When does a complex computer process actually become “AI”?

    PS – an interesting series of posts!

    • Tricky question to answer. To a certain degree, even an emergent AI is based on a set of algorithms, past experience it has learned from, and inherently programmed data. Data (our android friend) would be considered an AI inhabiting a robotic form, whereas other AIs exist in computers or on the net. Data has a lot of pre-programming but also has the ability to form new pathways. He understood the mechanics of art pretty quickly, but actually painting took years of effort to be creative.

      Thanks for commenting and glad you liked this week’s posts!

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