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The Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home there is a moment when Scotty attempts to talk to a computer:

What compelled Scotty to believe that the computer in the past would have had a verbal interface? In his own time there were very few instances of when the Enterprise computer responded to voice commands:

  1. In The Wrath of Kahn when Kirk accesses the project Genesis files in his room.
  2. In The Search for Spock when the team enter their codes for the self destruct.

With so few verbal interfaces in his own time it would be odd for Scotty to expect any computer, past or present (from his point of view) to respond to his voice.

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Same reason Uhura needed Klingon dictionaries, despite being communications officer: for the laughs –  calccrypto Feb 26 at 17:12
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perhaps he remembered that computers from around this time (+/- a few decades) responded to voice commands (e.g. Siri) -- from a few centuries in the future it might be hard to keep track of when exactly speech control was common. Maybe in the future it is less common but he would have learned that it was in use sometime around the turn of the 21st century. –  zipquincy Feb 26 at 17:16
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Are the occurrences as sparse as suggested ? Some TOS episodes in which verbal interaction with a computer (or computerized equipment) is depicted include - Mirror, Mirror; The Ultimate Computer; Assignment Earth; Tomorrow is Yesterday; The Return of the Archons. And of course the episode in which self destruct is enabled, Let that be your last battlefield. –  Stan Feb 26 at 17:36
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Are you kidding? In both TOS and TNG, talking to the computer is a regular occurrence. They say, "Computer," you hear a beep, then they ask their question, and Majel Barrett answers your question. They do this because it works much better for television to have spoken dialog than to watch someone type and read, but it has turned out to be very Siri like. Scotty in this scene from ST4 is doing exactly what characters have done throughout the series: saying "Computer" and waiting for the response. –  Ben Miller Feb 26 at 22:56

7 Answers 7

up vote 26 down vote accepted

There are a number of TOS episodes that depict verbal interaction directly with the Enterprise computer. They include -

  • Let this be your last battlefield (initiation of the destruct sequence).
  • Wolf in the fold (Spock verbally instructs the computer to compute PI)
  • Tomorrow is yesterday (Kirk verbally interacts and complains about the feminine voice the computer has).
  • Conscience of the king (Kirk uses the computer to research Kodos).
  • Mirror, Mirror (Kirk uses the computer to obtain record of current command). Yes, alternate reality but still the 'Enterprise' computer and technology on a par with Federation.

Additionally, there are episodes that depict verbal interaction with computers other than the main Enterprise one. They include -

  • The Ultimate Computer
  • Assignment Earth (Early version of Dragon speech recognition used for typing in addition to verbal interaction with the computer :)
  • The Return of the Archons.

There may certainly be others [additions welcome] but these were ones I easily recognized by reviewing an episode list. I don't think such interaction was as rare as the question assumes. Additionally, Scotty was the Chief Engineer of the Enterprise and would certainly have been knowledgeable (at a minimum) of the verbal interaction capabilities of the Enterprise computer. Add all these occurrences together with the obvious comedic factor and I don't find the movie scene surprising at all.

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and let's not forget the original movie. If a mid 20th century space probe can communicate by voice (ok, it had been slightly reengineered but Scotty would not have known how much), stands to reason that a general purpose computer from the mid 21st century would have the same capability at least. –  jwenting Feb 28 at 7:57

Scotty is well versed in all things technical and, very likely, highly versed in the history of computing. See "The Trouble With Tribbles", in which his biggest desire with his given "shore leave" is to instead spend time in his quarters, catching up on his "technical publications". He's a man with a true passion for his field of expertise; which plays into his being a miracle worker.

I am taking at face value that voice commands are not as common in the time period in which Scotty works. It is shown in the show on several occasions, but diminishes in frequency in the feature length films. I am working under the assumption that the films took a more serious approach to the science in their science fiction (or some combination of that).

Being well versed in the history of computing and technology, he may have been expecting to encounter an old time-y construct used in technology, when every manufacturer became voice command happy. If his memory is like mine, and I assume there would be one or two similarities (I write web applications), he likely remembers that such a fad phase of tech existed "around the end of the 20th century", and not exact years or specifics of "rudimentary" devices. As we're still within the range of "the end of the 20th century" and people have long regarded talking to computers for command interpretation to be "futuristic", I believe this to be the most probable rationale (as @zipquincy suggested).

Also, comedy, as this is possibly the most cheesy of the TOS feature films (per @calccrypto).

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Well, his theory would be right. (Oh, and a few weeks ago I saw something ridiculous: Some guy was standing at a street corner dictating a text message on his phone. Took him a few tries before his phone understood him...) –  Izkata Feb 27 at 0:52

Because the crew has a computer which does research via voice commands

Kirk uses it in The Conscience Of The King to research Kodos The Executioner. This is similar in function to what Scotty is doing, and there is even an extremely remote physical resemblance between this computer and a CRT monitor.

enter image description here

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Recall that when faced with the keyboard, Scotty remarks "how quaint!"

The consoles one sees in the 23rd century display an interface that, in my opinion, appears somewhat customized to their particular purpose rather than being generic input devices.

It is plausible that in the 20th century, when faced with a computer that did not provide an interface for inputting chemical compounds, Scotty naturally presumed that he would interface with the computer by voice, possibly to verbally relay the chemical formula, or maybe to request the suitable customized interface.

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You mention two instances in which there is a verbal interface with the computer in the Star Trek movies, but there were numerous instances of verbal interface with the Enterprise computer in TOS. For example, an episode like "Mudd's Women," where they are using the computer to interrogate Mudd and giving the computer direct verbal commands. Pretty much any episode where they use the computer to research, they were giving it vocal commands.

For some reason they didn't use this feature much in the movies, my theory is that they had a better budget for high-tech looking displays and what-not, and that may have been deemed preferable to a verbal interface.

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They also spent a good deal of episodes three and four on a Klingon ship. –  robert Feb 27 at 21:06

Very simple; he was used to it.

If we were to go into the past, you really can't blame us to try and search for a mouse on a terminal machine.

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Although not officially canon, remember that in Star Trek III Search for Spock, Scotty had been working on the Excelsior - the latest ship of the time. With the voice-activated computer interfaces in the Constitution refit, it would be logical to expect that the Excelsior class would have more voice-activated computer interfaces than previously. Consequently, Scotty would have been used to it (building on what TrekAstar1 says).

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