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Just curious why androids are considered life forms, or is it just limited to Data? What makes Data different than the ship's computer, practically speaking? Data was counted as a member of the crew, but the computer wasn't.

No-bio signature, non-carbon-based, so was it just the advanced-ness of his kind? Evolutionarily speaking he’s not that much different than the computer I'm typing this question on: different peripherals, a faster clock, and more advanced programming, but the basics are the same.

Was it that Data had a 'consciousness'? If so, it seems that his consciousness would be little more than processing the input around him when idle, or working unsolved problems, but I guess that's similar to humans anyway. He didn't have a 'subconscious', because he didn't dream, but as far as we know plants don't dream either.

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“He didn't have a 'subconscious', because he didn't dream” — at the risk of spoiling TNG for you, incorrect: see Birthright (season 6 and Phantasms (season 7). –  Paul D. Waite Mar 30 at 22:39
    
Ask yourself, what is life? –  Raphael Mar 31 at 7:37
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@Raphael I did, now I am asking SE. –  BigHomie Mar 31 at 10:14
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@BrianS: Science fiction tends to underestimate the growth of computing power, and overestimate what you can do with a given capacity. ISTR that in William Gibson's Neuromancer, 3 MB is mentioned as being an impressively large amount of memory. –  Royal Canadian Bandit Mar 31 at 21:35
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@PaulD.Waite Granted, his life-form-ness was granted before he started being able to dream –  Izkata Mar 31 at 23:20

3 Answers 3

The question you've asked is the defining feature of the TNG episode "The Measure Of A Man" in which Starfleet holds a court case to determine if Data is a sentient life form when transfer orders demand his reassignment for study and disassembly.

The ultimate decision is made when the scientist trying to chop Data up (Bruce Maddox) concedes that he is at the very least semi-sentient based on the following characteristics; Intelligence, Self-Awareness and consciousness.

The judge; Phillipa Louvois is sufficiently swayed by Picard's impassioned plea that Data almost certainly meets all three criteria (or at least that the final criteria is so vague as to be pretty much meaningless) and she rules in Data's favour.

PHILLIPA: I've got to make a ruling, to try to speak to the future. Is Data a machine? Yes. Is he the property of Starfleet? No. We have all been dancing around the basic issue. Does Data have a soul? I don't know that he has. I don't know that I have. But I have got to give him the freedom to explore that question himself. It is the ruling of this court that Lieutenant Commander Data has the freedom to choose.

Later (in the Voyager episode "Prototypes") we find that this ruling is sufficiently binding that it's granted him the full rights and privileges of other Starfleet citizens

TORRES: In fact, we have only one sentient artificial life form in our society, and he is treated the same as any human.

3947: The same? He is equal to a Builder?

TORRES: That's right. He works on a ship just like you or I. He wears the same uniform I do.

3947: What is his designated number?

TORRES: He has a name like the rest of us. Data.


It's also worth mentioning that within the (non-canon) EU book "Articles of the Federation", we see Bruce Maddox vigorously arguing for the rights of the android B-4 to be considered a lifeform despite lacking self-awareness. He basically compares her to a disabled child. Incidentally, we also learn that the EMH doctor has been granted full Federation citizenship under the same precedent that gave Data his rights.

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It is no different than my inability to prove you are self-aware. Can you bring me your consciousness on a plate? Hold it up for me to touch, or smell -- even to directly observe, as opposed to indirectly infer? Has anyone in your life ever acted in a way that makes you wonder if they are even capable of the level of introspection that you feel you regularly exercise? Such is the problem with proving the wholly intangible.

While it is true that even today we can program AI within a certain level of interactivity to feign consciousness -- asking Cleverbot "are you sentient?" can go a different way any given day of the week -- but the ability to think about thinking, to observe one's own thought patterns; this cannot be proven of any given creature, but only assumed.

There is an entire episode dedicated to this discussion, of course; The Measure of a Man deals with the trial wherein Data must establish his own 'personhood' in favor of being treated as property of Starfleet.

(Picard and Riker are present to hear the outcome of the research into Data's status)

PHILLIPA: I have completed my research, based on the Acts of Cumberland passed in the early twenty first century. Data is the property of Starfleet. He cannot resign and he cannot refuse to cooperate with Commander Maddox. PICARD: What if I challenge this ruling? PHILLIPA: Then I shall be required to hold a hearing. PICARD: Then I so challenge. Convene your hearing.
PHILLIPA: Captain, that would be exceedingly difficult. This is a new base. I have no staff.
PICARD: But surely, Captain, you have regulations to take care of such an eventuality.
PHILLIPA: There are. I can use serving officers as legal counsel. You as the senior officer would defend. PICARD: Very good.
PHILLIPA: And the unenviable task of prosecuting this case would fall on you, Commander, as the next most senior officer of the defendant's ship.
RIKER: I can't. I won't. Data's my comrade. We have served together. I not only respect him, I consider him my friend.
PHILLIPA: When people of good conscience have an honest dispute, we must still sometimes resort to this kind of adversarial system.
RIKER: You just want me to prove that Data is a mere machine. I can't do that because I don't believe it. I happen to know better. So I'm neither qualified nor willing. You're going to have to find someone else.
PHILLIPA: Then I will rule summarily based upon my findings. Data is a toaster. Have him report to Commander Maddox immediately for experimental refit.
RIKER: I see. I have no choice but to agree.
PHILLIPA: Good. And I expect you to do your duty in that courtroom. If I find for one minute that you are not doing your best, I will end this then and there.
PICARD: You don't have to remind us of our duty. You just remember yours.
PHILLIPA: I have never forgotten it. Not then, and certainly not now.

Apart from this -- the computer has never asserted itself as being sentient when operating under nominal conditions (there are some oddball episodes where an outside force causes it to spring to sentience) nor was it expressly designed to be so. Soong set out to create a self-aware positronic consciousness; his claim matches that of Data's, and indeed Data quests to better himself and grow beyond that which he is already programmed to do. In so doing his acts describe consciousness in the same way that our human actions inform others of our own status as self-aware. The computer on Star Trek does not exercise this level of self-control.

And indeed -- later in the series, he does begin to dream, though it is regarded as a fluke due to an accident. Data receives a message from his creator implanted in a dream sequence, the idea being that "he finally made it" to a certain level of self-awareness, such that his subconscious mind would manifest and express itself.

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Dreaming is not so much a fluke, as something programmed for Data to do once he became emotionally aware. The fluke was just that he started accessing it early. –  trlkly Nov 12 at 9:09
    
Right, I wasn't super clear on that. The dreaming isn't the error, just the timing –  Stick Nov 12 at 13:53

Well I think we are not exactly answering the question here. Yes Data has been legally accepted as a person since he is most likely a sentient being. But being sentient does not equal being a life form. What is life? We are usually taught in school that life has certain properties, like the ability to grow, eat, move, reproduce, etc. But Data certainly lacks many of these properties. In fact, this was addressed in one episode when they found a new life form on a planet that was chosen for terraforming. Data asked if fire would be considered alive since it possesses many (if not all) the properties we associate with life, which of course is not the case. So what makes life different from non-life? I came across a definition that I liked one day: Life is any system that uses the energy in its environment to lower entropy. By that definition, fire is not alive because it increases entropy. A computer is not alive because it will eventually break down without maintenance by the users. But Data is alive because he is able to ensure his own survival. And any machine that is built with a survival instinct and the capacity to survive on its own would also be alive, even if not sentient.

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I don't think you quite grasp the concept of "life." You think the main reason my laptop is not alive is because "it will eventually break down without maintenance by the users?" Also, what is your source for the quote "Life is any system that uses the energy in its environment to lower entropy?" I think you are beginning from a false premise. –  Meat Trademark Mar 31 at 22:30
    
Lowering entropy is something only life can do, so it is a good way to define it. –  PsychicDave Mar 31 at 22:49
    
Viruses are not considered alive, but do pass that criteria –  Izkata Mar 31 at 23:22
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From Wikipedia "The second law of thermodynamics states that in general the total entropy of any system will not decrease other than by increasing the entropy of some other system." As I asked in my first comment, what is your source for your comment (and claim)? How are you lowering entropy? And how is it only "life" can do so? –  Meat Trademark Apr 1 at 0:24

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