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Star Trek, for being a show about the distant future and extraordinarily high-tech equipment, sure seems to be lacking a lot of computer programmers.

With technology as complex as it is, where are all the starship-based computer programmers responsible for preventing AI malfunctions aboard ships like the Enterprise?

More specifically, we hear plenty of references to having to 'program in' certain things - Picard is dismayed in "All Good Things" that the past Enterprise doesn't yet have an Earl Grey Tea program, and we see plenty of holodeck programming going on, but is all of this programming done explicitly by the crewmember who just wants a cup of tea or a nice stroll along a sandy beach?

In short: Are there any actual dedicated computer programmers in any Star Trek series or movie? Even one example of a person with such a job would satisfy.

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lcarscc -o Riker1 Riker1.lcars –  Stick Mar 26 at 15:15
One could argue that Doctor Zimmerman, creator of the EMH, is a programmer. –  Xantec Mar 26 at 15:35
There are a number of episodes featuring computer geniuses who have come up with new computers/programs that the plot revolves around, like Richard Daystrom in the original series (bio at en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/Richard_Daystrom ) or Noonien Soong and Ira Graves on TNG (bios at en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/Noonian_Soong and en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/Ira_Graves ). But I can't think of any more "ordinary" programmers, just responsible for maintenance and such, that have appeared on the show. –  Hypnosifl Mar 26 at 16:16
@Hypnosifl The "ordinary" programmers are walking around in gold uniforms. –  Xantec Mar 26 at 16:27
You don't find programmers working on naval ships today (much), though I'm sure plenty of sailors are able to program to the extent that it is a secondary aspect of their job. –  Chris B. Behrens Mar 26 at 16:32
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9 Answers 9

up vote 72 down vote accepted

Off the top of my head I can think of at least two examples;

Dr. Lewis Zimmerman

Dr Zimmerman is responsible for developing the software for the EMH (Emergency Medical Hologram). He works at Jupiter station. His Job title is explicitly stated as being "Director of Holographic Imaging and Programming" in the DS9 episode 'Doctor Bashir, I Presume'.

Dr Zimmerman

The Bynars

In the TNG episode "11001001" two pairs of Bynar programmers (named 11, 00, 10 and 01) come on board the Enterprise to perform an upgrade to the ship's operating system and holodeck systems.

The Bynars

Regarding "ordinary" programmers, there's a tangential reference to several crew-members being trapped in the Enterprise' "programmers’ rest room" in the TNG episode "Home Soil". This room seems to be connected (or at least near to) Main Engineering.

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Exact examples of programmers, complete with title and products to back up the claims. Perfect. –  Zibbobz Mar 26 at 16:53
I would include Dr. Soong in this list; while he made great leaps and bounds in engineering designing his androids, their AI programs are similarly unique in the known universe. (Soong's wife also assisted on at least the development of both Lore and Data.) –  Brian S Mar 26 at 18:20
The act of programming seems to have returned to it's roots. The word "programming" used to be nothing but a schedule. Now, people speak to computers to interpret the actions and associated schedules. People have returned to using exceedingly fuzzy language to specify imprecisely the true plans of the machines. The Binar being an interesting possible exception, though they are more of an extension of their central computer than separate beings. –  Lodewijk Mar 27 at 0:26
Are the Bynars programmers or more like network techs and sysadmins? –  mu is too short Mar 27 at 3:00
The Bynars seem to have suffered no long term sanction for their decision to kidnap picard and the enterprise. I'm assuming they gave a 10% discount on their next service. –  Richard Mar 27 at 13:24
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There's so much leisurely dialog about how someone somewhere has "written a program" that handle tasks from the banal to the impressive, that one almost has to assume that everyone has a little bit of LCARS 'scripting' knowledge.

Of course, what it actually means to 'write' a program in the 24th century is up for debate. There's not a ton of time spent on the actual writing of the programs, just… that they were written.

For all we know it's a simple matter of speaking, "Computer!… new Holodeck program; give me an approximation of the last known venue Mark Sandman from the ancient Earth band 'Morphine' played at." And the computer accounts for your bad English and compiles the program. Then you turn to your date and smile and say, "So, I've written this program…"

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“Then you turn to your date and smile and say, "So, I've written this program…"” — stop stealing my moves dude. –  Paul D. Waite Mar 26 at 15:24
Being able to write a script or a program is not the same as being a programmer. The question is asking if there is anyone whose job is as a dedicated programmer. –  phantom42 Mar 26 at 15:26
As a programmer, the idea that this would be considered 'writing a program' is horrifying...but as a designer, the idea that 'writing a program' could be this simple is enthralling. –  Zibbobz Mar 26 at 15:27
@Zibbobz In the future, every script kiddie is a "programmer". The word has been even more bastardized than the word "hacker". –  phantom42 Mar 26 at 15:28
From Voyager (Doctors program has gone to hell) KIM -> Ill insert a few recursive algorithms" (Doctor now totally fixed) –  Steven Wood Mar 26 at 15:42
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Engineers like Geordi and Torres tend to dual as programmers - which makes sense, as some level of software knowledge is necessary for their career paths.

For example, Geordi can be seen debugging an Exocomp in TNG 6x09, The Quality of Life. This was technically dealing with the hardware, as they were dealing with circuit pathways, but conceptually it's the same thing - and technology in Star Trek has a tendency to conflate the two.

For a more real-life type of programmer, Harry Kim is a good example. In VOY 5x08, Nothing Human, he created a holographic Crell Moset, with the appropriate skill set to assist the Doctor with the alien life-form. Giving the hologram the correct personality largely didn't need any specialized skills, as it happens often on the holodeck, but replicating the skill set required more work. In another episode (which I cannot recall at the moment), he demonstrated to Paris how difficult it was to create a useful replacement for the Doctor.

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I'd even go so far as to speculate that all computer information, and thus all programs, are hardware "circuit pathways". In TNG Evolutions it is revealed that the computer cores are made of a "linear memory crystal". In such an arrangement it is possible that all programming can be physically viewed as pathways in the crystals. –  Xantec Mar 26 at 16:49
I was thinking of the Engineering staff actually, and I know for a fact that O'Brian created a 'program' to capture an electronic lifeform from the Gamma Quadrant in an endless loop (can't remember the episode name). I was looking for someone specifically focused on programming and not a multi-hat-wearing individual, but this is still a good answer. –  Zibbobz Mar 26 at 16:54
@Zibbobz You're thinking of the episode The Forsaken. –  Xantec Mar 26 at 17:00
@Zibbobz See my previous comment, too - like I said in the answer, Star Trek seems to often combine hardware and software into one "programming" mashup. Harry Kim often seemed undirected as a character, and I think "programmer" is the hat he ended up wearing by the end of the series, even though he also had other duties. –  Izkata Mar 26 at 17:03
Note that there's an important out-of-universe reason for "programming" to involve swapping out chips rather than realistically staring at code: it's a hell of a lot more interesting to watch. –  Jon of All Trades Mar 27 at 3:52
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I'm surprised nobody has mentioned Dr. Daystrom, the inventor of the intelligent computer M5.

enter image description here

"You are great...I am great"

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I considered him but decided that Daystrom didn't count since he didn't program the M5, he "developed a method of impressing human engrams upon the computer circuits". His achievements weren't in computing (per se), they were in engineering. For the same reason I also excluded Ira Graves. –  Richard Mar 26 at 18:04
He also developed all the other computers in the old series that did not use engrams. –  Oldcat Mar 26 at 18:22
There's also Spock saying something to the effect of "being a level seven computer expert" so Spock might qualify as well. –  mu is too short Mar 27 at 3:03
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What about Scotty programming a Macintosh of all things, in Star Trek IV? (His initial attempt at talking into the mouse was not fruitful, but he quickly adapted.)

Scotty talking into a mouse

And Kirk hacked the Kobyashi Maru program.

Kirk destroying the Klingon ships with a finger gun

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OP was after people who're employed as programmers, not just people who do the odd bit of programming. –  Richard Mar 27 at 22:14
I'd like to argue that the new StarTrek movies aren't cannon. –  IQAndreas Mar 29 at 14:05
Yep, doesn't answer the dedicated part, new movies might not be canon (and they're certainly not cannons), and many other issues (couldn't Scotty have just written down the structure and process for transparent aluminum on a piece of paper?). Hence I upvoted the Zimmerman/Bynar answer. As for this answer, you don't have to be right to be entertaining. –  Mark Adler Mar 30 at 4:49
-1, Scotty entering a chemical formula (albeit complicated) into a macintosh is hardly programming. –  McKay Mar 31 at 12:54
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Yes, there are pure programmers. In the Star Trek TNG episode 11001001 we meet the Bynars, a race specialize in programming. Their task for the episode was to maximize space and efficiency of the main computer. For most characters the show tends to treat programming as a skill that all Starfleet staff (especially engineering and science staff) have to differing levels of ability.

For example, Spock programmed the Kobayashi Maru in the reboot.

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With the advancement of voice interaction systems, programming has mostly become natural language programming. You have a conversation with the computer about what you want it to accomplish. If there are parts it cannot construct from basic capabilities or existing programming, it will interrogate the programmer for additional information until they come to a final solution.

Only the most esoteric of programming (such as developing the first AI) would require a professional programmer. The vast majority of programming would be handled by the masses. I think this is keeping in line with the thinking of many futurists.

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It may be in line with the thinking of many futurists, but certainly isn't in line with the thinking of actual programmers. –  Wouter Lievens Mar 27 at 14:44
@WouterLievens: As a professional programmer I doubt we'll ever be completely obsolete. And there was a Star Trek novel where an agent infiltrates the Enterprise crew and hacks herself senior officer computer access by going in through Engineering and rewriting some very low level computer routines. With a keyboard. –  Zan Lynx Mar 28 at 16:57
I'd express it stronger than that: if you "replace" the programmer by means of an intelligent computer system that simply "does what it's told to do", you'll still have people telling the system what it needs to do. Those people are (by definition) called programmers. All you've done is given them a higher-level programming language, much like we've been doing for the past fifty years anyway. –  Wouter Lievens Mar 31 at 7:15
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In the second Star Trek movie Wrath of Khan, Kirk says;

Kirk: "I reprogrammed the simulation so it was possible to rescue the ship."
Saavik: "What?"
David Marcus: "He cheated."
Kirk: "I changed the conditions of the test. I got a commendation for original thinking. I don't like to lose."

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No one dedicated that I'm aware of, but in addition to the other things mentioned:

  1. Spock programmed the computer to play chess (mentioned for example on the episode where someone frames Kirk and erases the computer in the process, ergo the chess game suddenly was much dumber than previous)

  2. From the James Blish novelizations (not sure if the TV episodes made reference to this or not), there was at least one scene in which Kirk, Uhura, and Spock (if memory serves) were captured by people who spoke English and so Kirk, Uhura, and Spock communicated using a hodge podge of various other spoken languages plus Cobol or some other programming language. Not sure if this was attempt at being hip or part of the original script, but would suggest that in the future most people going through the Academy had to take a semester or two of Computer Science 101. (Presumably still using tapes at the primary mechanism for storing data)

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