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Is a particular sequence required for detailed replicator requests?

To elaborate, is there a reason Captain Picard orders his tea, "Tea. Earl Grey. Hot." aka "Noun. Descriptor. Descriptor." and not "Descriptor. Descriptor. Noun." or "Descriptor. Noun. Descriptor." (in the event he forgot a descriptor)? Would ordering it as "Hot. Earl Grey. Tea." or even the non-statement "Hot Earl Grey tea." produce a warm (hot), smoky (gray-ish) gas with the odor of tea? I assume his ordering sequence is an acquired background affectation, but I'd like confirmation.

Note: I'm using "descriptor" instead of "adjective" to avoid minutia/debate about classification.

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Or would it produce a reasonable facsimile of the Earl himself, steeped in tea? –  Richard Aug 1 '14 at 17:18
Not to mention what happens if you miss to say tea... –  Trollwut Aug 1 '14 at 17:25
It activates the transporter and beams you to Diregon Alley. –  Stick Aug 1 '14 at 17:33
He says it that way because the first time he asked for tea, forty years ago, the machine asked him what kind. Then the stupid machine asked him hot or cold, as if anyone civilized would actually drink cold tea. "Tea, Earl Grey, hot" forestalls the stupid questions, even if he's at a new post where the replicator doesn't know his preferences. –  Kyle Jones Aug 1 '14 at 17:35
For the same reason why Bond orders a "Vodka Martini, shaken, not stirred"? That's how catchphrases work. And "Tea, Earl Grey, hot" has a better ring to it than the alternative. –  scrwtp Aug 1 '14 at 20:38

4 Answers 4

up vote 51 down vote accepted

An answer might come from a broader realization that the computer rarely stumbles over anything but a lack of information.

For example, Scotty somewhat infamously asks the Holodeck to produce an image of the bridge of his old Enterprise. The exchange is as follows:

Computer: "Please enter program."

Scotty: "The android at the bar said ya' could show me ma' old ship. Lemme see it."

Computer: "Insufficient data. Please specify parameters."

Scotty: "The Enterprise! Show me the bridge of the Enterprise, ya' chatterin' piece of..."

Computer: "There have been five Federation ships with that name. Please specify by registry number."

Scotty: "NCC-1701. No bloody A, B, C, or D."

Computer: "Program complete. Enter when ready."

The computer is not able to tell Captain Scott which ship he wants to see; however, it is able to parse out the colorful language without mistaking it for a command it isn't aware of. It also permits him to draw out the lengthy "no bloody A... B... C... or D.", so we know the computer can also continue to incorporate the continued dialog of the user; it isn't bound by the parameters of pre-defined functions and it isn't just looking for keywords - it comprehends your English and derives a meaning from it.

There are other times when it does similar tasks; most notably, it allows a user to compound queries by saying "and" or "now" to extend the nature of the original request. It maintains context for the requests, and allows for indefinite articles to be used to reference points of data. From the episode Transfigurations:

DATA: Computer, run transformational matrix calculations. Match navigational referents to known stars in this sector.

COMPUTER: Information on this sector is incomplete. No correlation.

LAFORGE: I'm not giving up yet. Not after coming so close to cracking this thing. You know, that might be flight path information from John's ship, but without a frame of reference, I can't determine its origin points.

DATA: Computer, assume those paths are course corrections and derive gravitational values for stellar objects near those flight paths.

DATA: Most of these are ordinary G-type stars. This would appear to be a neutron star, possibly a pulsar.

LAFORGE: Which means that this might be a rotational time reference.

DATA: Computer, assume these symbols are pulsars. Translate associated values into standard temporal notations. Computer, is there a pulsar with a rotational period of one point five two four four seconds within sensor range?

COMPUTER: Affirmative.

LAFORGE: Bingo! Now, Computer, overlay navigational chart using referenced pulsars and project a flight path back to its origin.

COMPUTER: Flight path originated at bearing zero zero three, mark zero one five. Distance, two point three parsecs.

Finally, let's assume that in all cases when an entity with computer access addresses the computer, the universal translator is at work. This would mean that the computer accounts for word order, syntax, inflection, and so on. In English, one can structure a sentence in a variety of ways: "I'd like a taco." "A taco, please." "I could sure go for a taco right about now." The computer never really seems to trip over the structure of a person's sentence - the meaning is typically always inferred, and if the user needs to narrow down the selection through a series of continued decisions (such as Tom Paris attempting to order tomato soup), the computer guides them down that path.

TLDR -- the computer constantly demonstrates the ability to encapsulate an entire conversation within the context of queried results from the database, and also demonstrates its capacity to filter verbal garbage out while also comprehending the user's intent. As long as Captain Picard doesn't low-talk and horribly mangle his request by intentionally obfuscating the meaning, he can ask for tea in any number of ways.

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The computer has a language processor that is like, 75% of the way towards being an actual AI all on its own. Of course, it would have to, given that the universal translator exists... –  Jeff Aug 1 '14 at 19:10
Is it possible that while they currently have the features you describe, they didn't always? Maybe Picard 'grew up' on an older model that required a more rigid form of input and he just kept the habit. –  corsiKa Aug 1 '14 at 19:45
+1 "I could sure go for a taco right about now." –  Dave Johnson Aug 1 '14 at 20:39
I think the computer would have known who Scotty is, and should have figured out from that which ship he was referring to. I also wonder why he asked for the bridge rather than engineering, though I suppose the point was the the bridge is more familiar to the fans. –  Keith Thompson Aug 2 '14 at 22:27
+1 for pointing out that a voice-operated computer four centuries in the future will be at least as good at parsing human language as Wolfram Alpha already is. –  Shadur Aug 3 '14 at 11:18

There are also a number of examples of the computer asking someone to specify a temperature for a beverage or provide some other specific piece of information. It may be that some exchange of this kind happened which caused Picard to develop his odd way of addressing the computer:

PICARD: Computer, tea.

COMPUTER: Please specify variety. There are over 1500 types available.

PICARD: Earl Grey

COMPUTER: Please specify temperature.


Almost Verbatim of Tom Paris' experience on his first day on Voyager:

PARIS: Tomato soup.

COMPUTER: There are fourteen varieties of tomato soup available from this replicator. With rice, with vegetables, Bolian style, with pasta, with ...

PARIS: Plain.

COMPUTER: Specify hot or chilled.

PARIS: HOT! Hot, plain, tomato soup *Groan*.

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While "Earl Grey" may be sufficiently explicit as to the tea leaf mixture, it does not specify how it is brewed or what water is used. Likewise "hot" is not very specific. Presumably the replicators would have default settings/definitions. This mass-market approach seems contrary to the individualistic tone of ST:NG. Temperature in particular could easily be a personal preference (e.g., barely drinkable hot vs. just above "warm") and not require excessive memory for pattern storage. –  Paul A. Clayton Aug 1 '14 at 23:22
@PaulA.Clayton Presumably the replicators would have default settings/definitions This is backed up in DS9, Miles O'Brien always orders his coffee "Double sweet" instead of a specific amount of sugar which suggests "Sweet" is a default setting, same as "Hot". –  Crow T Robot Aug 1 '14 at 23:55
That would be 1547 varieties. –  Michael Kjörling Aug 2 '14 at 15:58
Most likely the computers recognize the person making the request, and have their specifics stored. –  DougM Aug 2 '14 at 16:06
If the computer recognizes the person making the request AND has specifics stored on them.. then Picard just saying "TEA!" would work. –  paqogomez Aug 4 '14 at 5:03

I always thought it was an affectation --- Picard ordering it in a precise, military manner --- rather than a limitation of the system.

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Perhaps this reflects how most adjectives in Picard's native language, French, follow rather than precede the nouns they modify. :) –  Eliah Kagan Aug 2 '14 at 2:38
Problem is, French is an extinct language (see TNG: Code of Honor). Though Picard is pretty passionate about it anyways (same episode). –  trlkly Aug 2 '14 at 11:30
This was my thought, although I wouldn't call it an affectation as much as it's just "how he is." –  ssdecontrol Aug 2 '14 at 12:12
This was also my thoughts. I'm reminded of standards for identification names of military inventory, e.g. the naming convention detailed in the document at dtic.mil/whs/directives/corres/pdf/410039m/410039m_vol04.pdf which contains names such as "Tank, refueling, aircraft" and "BRACKET, FRAME, VISIBLE INDEX FILE, used aboard ship". I'm not a military person myself, but I've been led to believe anyone who has worked in military logistics has a tendency to start thinking in this kind of order automatically... –  Jules Aug 2 '14 at 20:24

I was happy to see corsiKa's comment, as this reflects a theory I've had for a long time. If Picard asked for "hot, Earl Grey tea," he would get exactly the same thing, but this hasn't always been the case. When Picard was younger, the Federation's parsing technology was not so advanced, and replicators only understood basic commands, so you had to order in a menu-system way as Andrew Miner describes. Or perhaps it's not a question of technology development, but the availability of this technology: self-contained domestic replicators, such as Picard might have grown up with on his family's estate, worked this way, but replicators on starships (and maybe those in big cities) are connected to a centralised language processor to understand natural-language commands.

For this reason, Picard might have developed the habit of asking for tea in computerese, a habit that's stuck with him even though it's no longer necessary. He's like your older relative who always saves files by going through the File -> Save menu instead of the toolbar icon. I like to imagine that when he asks for "tea, Earl Grey, hot," his younger colleagues inwardly sigh and shake their heads at gramps.

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You mean like when Janeway orders "coffee, black"? –  Michael Kjörling Aug 2 '14 at 15:59
+1 for the elderly file saving analogy. –  Monty129 Aug 2 '14 at 16:56
@MichaelKjörling and she doesn't even specify what type of coffee! –  Monty129 Aug 2 '14 at 16:57
@Monty129: I guess one thing the authors failed to predict was that in the future, Starbucks menus would encourage/require people to even know what type of coffee they're served, let alone care. –  Steve Jessop Aug 2 '14 at 18:11
You mean, instead of Ctrl+S? –  Lie Ryan Aug 3 '14 at 9:37

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