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
    Commented Feb 16, 2012 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
    Commented Feb 16, 2012 at 17:40
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    @Xantec It is essentially telnet over subspace relays across hundreds of light-years.
    – DampeS8N
    Commented Feb 16, 2012 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. Commented Feb 16, 2012 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. Commented Feb 16, 2012 at 18:03

5 Answers 5


Update 2:

I was just looking over the transcript for Star Trek Generations and noticed this exchange between Picard and Data.

PICARD: Data, give me a list of anything that was affected by the star's destruction, no matter how insignificant.
DATA: Sorry sir. It will take the computer a few moments to compile the information.

So that is at least one example where a somewhat obscure and very recent event took only several minutes to build a result set when it had many things to consider.


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.


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...
    – user11521
    Commented Jul 26, 2014 at 5:09
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    +10000000 "I went through all 92 episodes that IMBD claims have the Enterprise Computer..." That is dedication! Thank you sir!
    – fool4jesus
    Commented Oct 29, 2015 at 12:34
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    To accurately calculate the positions of stars four billion years ago, the computer would have to account for the gravitation of any object of significant mass that may have passed near the stars in four billion years, which means computing the movements of potentially many, many objects over that time. Just figuring out which objects need to be considered would be a chore, since each object is dependent on all the other objects. That's a massive amount of computation. Commented Aug 23, 2016 at 14:22
  • I think you mean IMDb where you wrote "IMBD"?
    – Mr.Wizard
    Commented Jun 19, 2017 at 13:50
  • There was also "Future Imperfect" where the computer took longer than normal to answer queries, except that Riker was experiencing a fiction created by "Ethan" and the computer delays were an artifact of the simulation as it tried to keep up.
    – Anthony X
    Commented Jan 29, 2019 at 4:04

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
    Commented Feb 16, 2012 at 20:39
  • Subspace network connections, tcp/ip over faster than light networks . . . wipes drool from chin Commented Aug 15, 2018 at 12:03

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.


TNG: Future Imperfect

After being knocked unconscious by toxic gas during an away mission, Riker awakens to find that it is apparently 16 years later, he is captain of the Enterprise, and he has a son. Wanting to know more about the boy's deceased mother, he repeatedly asks the computer to search for files about her, but the computer is uncharacteristically slow. Eventually the computer shows an image of Minuet, the fictional holodeck character from an earlier episode, who Riker realizes could not actually be his wife.

The setting disappears to reveal that Riker is in a Romulan detention center, and his apparent future was a Romulan simulation to extract information from him. Riker meets the boy who played his son, who is also being detained by the Romulans. After escaping from the Romulans, this is also shown to be a simulation. In reality, Riker has always been on the away mission planet the whole time, with an orphaned alien boy who is accompanied by simulators that can read people's minds.

The apparent slowness of the computer is not real, but rather an important element of the plot. It is explained that the simulators take time to read a person's mind and construct a believable simulation. (Possibly, an uncooperative subject could also frustrate the simulators.) The computer problems are given as excuses to Riker to explain why certain information is not available at that time.

  • Looking at the script, this isn't quite what I had in mind. (The computer is regarded is being unusually slow, rather than acceptably slow.) But it is a great find, nevertheless. Commented Aug 15, 2018 at 12:38

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
    Commented Feb 16, 2012 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. Commented Feb 17, 2012 at 1:07

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