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In Star Trek TNG, the crew would often ask the computer to perform certain searches. Usually the computer would respond, "Working..." and after a few moments give the answer.

I vaguely remember an episode where the ship's computer took hours to search records. I think the senior staff were informed when the search was complete and then reconvened.

But it's only a vague memory. Did that really happen? I'm interested because it would be one example where modern technology (e.g. Google) is way ahead of Star Trek technology.

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Not really true. A novel search across tons of data that isn't indexed or isn't well indexed or where the structure of the data needs to be divined on the fly or data in signals like audio or other complex data sets could easily take today's fastest computers hours/days/years to deal with. –  DampeS8N Feb 16 '12 at 16:26
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@Wikis Even if the Federation Database is indexed, consider the amount of data that must be contained within it. Not to mention that any data not store within the ship's computer (it can store a lot, but I doubt it holds the entire Fed-DB) will take longer to query, cross query, and compare. So searching for something extremely obscure, or that has to compare data across many worlds/cultures/databases/tables/people/races/etc could take a very long time. –  Xantec Feb 16 '12 at 17:40
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@Xantec It is essentially telnet over subspace relays across hundreds of light-years. –  DampeS8N Feb 16 '12 at 17:50
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@Xantec A database, regardless of size, that takes hours or days to search in is badly indexed. Indexing just doesn't work that way; indexed searches increase rhythmically. That means that a database that is a billion times larger than all of the data humanity has collected so far, everywhere, ever would only take about 100 times longer to search with CURRENT computer systems; the computers in Star Trek are far faster than current systems. –  Myrddin Emrys Feb 16 '12 at 18:02
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A more likely possibility is that the search request was not handled by a computer, but by a person; perhaps it was too complex or general for the computer to parse. A request that required sentient assistance would account for a search time of hours or days. –  Myrddin Emrys Feb 16 '12 at 18:03

4 Answers 4

up vote 19 down vote accepted

Update:

Based on Erik's answer about "The Chase" I looked through the transript

In the Laboratory:

CRUSHER: The computer might be able to find that pattern.
PICARD: Doctor, programme the computer to analyse the distribution of the pieces that we have, correcting for changes in star configurations over four billion years, then extrapolate for the missing piece.
CRUSHER: That's going to take several hours to set up and to process. If you'll excuse me.

In Ten Forward:

DATA: The computer is processing the data. I will be notified as soon as there is any information.

In the Laboratory:

DATA: The computer has completed its analysis.
CRUSHER: The computer was able to extrapolate this geometric pattern based on the distribution of the fragments.

Since the computer was trying to extrapolate a pattern, it wasn't searching for data so much as going through all combinations of results. Depending on the number of variables this could explain why it took so long. It wasn't simply querying a database and taking a really long time to return the dataset.

Original:

I went through all 92 episodes that IMBD claims have the Enterprise Computer speaking in TNG. I wasn't able to find an episode in which the computer took a long time to process the information and the crew reconvened when it finished. Admittedly I was just looking for the term 'computer' in the episode breakdowns on Memory-Alpha.

There are several episodes where the computer is either disabled or behaves erratically ("A Fistful of Datas").

In "The Naked Now" it takes Riker and Data quite a long time to run down a reference to a crewman being found fully clothed in the shower. From the episode "The Naked Now" breakdown:

Riker wants some information and enlists the help of Data. He has a vague memory of reading something about a person fully clothed in a shower, relating to La Forge's find on the Tsiolkovsky. Data agrees to help Riker and commences an extensive library computer inquiry for Riker after he comments that it should be easy for Data to find the information as he is written in many bio-mechanical texts. Data is curious and inquires if he was boasting about his comment about being in many texts to Crusher. Riker comments that he possibly was in a dry way, and inquires about the time it would take for the search. It would take some time. Data, however, continues the conversation about him in texts by saying that Crusher may look him up in the texts he mentioned.

Back on the bridge, Data and Riker are continuing their search, but it is proving nearly impossible. The mention of a proverb by Riker prompts him to tell Data to search the historical records of all starships named Enterprise. As Data looks over the relevant medical records, Picard arrives on the bridge. Just as he reaches the station, Data finds the relevant information from the medical database from the old Constitution-class USS Enterprise.

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So the computer was trying to solve an NP complete problem on a large data set... –  Michael Jul 26 at 5:09

Maybe you're thinking of Deep Space Nine. There's this exchange between Jadzia Dax and the computer in the premiere, "Emissary":

DAX: Computer, create a data base for all historical references to the Orbs, including all reports of any unexplained phenomena in Bajoran space.

COMPUTER: Time parameters?

DAX: Ten millennia.

COMPUTER: Initialising data base. Requested function will require two hours to complete.

It seems somewhat within the bounds of reason that it might take two hours to gather data from ten thousand years of records. Especially considering it's Federation software trying to interpret Bajoran records while running on Cardassian hardware.

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Nevermind the fact that all the data may not be stored in on-board computers, adding in the overhead of networked communications back to Earth or another archive. –  Iszi Feb 16 '12 at 20:39

In Star Trek: The Next Generation, season 6 episode 20 entitled "The Chase," the computer took a long time to plot the location of genetic samples that were collected in an attempt to extrapolate the most likely place to search for the missing sample that was theorized to have been seeded throughout the Alpha Quadrant.

The various parties involved in hunting for the samples were going to reconvene when the computer had come up with a solution.

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It is doubtful that the Enterprise, or any ship really, has the entire Federation Database onboard. They probably has a cache that contains basic info and like modern DNS the results of the most recent N queries. For anything beyond that they would probably have to pass the query to Memory Alpha via subspace and await the results. The dependent on transmission distance and workload it could cause a delay.

Then it could be effected by thing like quality of queries, the Naked Now example of searching for "a person fully clothed in a shower" would return so many results as to be virtually useless. In that case it was a matter of filtering the results not the search that took time.

Or it could be the computer wasn't asked to look up something but calculate something as mentioned in the STNG episode "The Chase" where processing a given calculation or program was time intensive.

As mentioned by @Plutor, in the case of the DS9 episode Emissary where they were using mostly Cardassian equipment to access Bajoran records using Federation software. I have enough problems getting Access to play nice with MySQL I can only imagine the headache. I can only imagine what it will take to get 24th century data structures to play nice together would take.

Any other hints on what was in the episode?

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They have a significant portion of it. Janeway was able to find childhood photos of Annika Hansen with what they just happened to have with them –  Izkata Feb 16 '12 at 23:53
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Ships belonging to federation citizens gone missing and their crew details are probably a standard database so if wreakage or survivors of a ship that has not been registered decommissioned their federation status could be verified without checking in. –  Tyson of the Northwest Feb 17 '12 at 1:07

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