Onboard Starfleet computers, personnel can ask the computer questions vocally and get an audio response.

Presumably on a ship of that size, the computer is doing this in parallel all the time — e.g. telling Person A the current date in one location, while elsewhere Person B is asking for the output to some equation & Person C is looking for the location of a particular crewman.

Is there any in-world explanation for how the computer behaves if Person A, B & C are all within earshot of each other? Does it answer questions one at a time (by order asked / by rank of person asking)? Or is the audio localised somehow (e.g. via the Universal Translator) so people only hear the answer to their own question?

(Happy to get any answers with canonical references, but thinking specifically TNG/DS9-era if it makes a difference)

  • Regarding localizing the audio that would definitely be possible, even today with something like this. ultrasonic-audio.com/products/acouspade-directional-speaker It wouldn't strictly be necessary though. You'd just hear another computer voice off in the distance while hearing one close to you at the same time. Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 20:36
  • Because it has a powerful artificial intelligence running it
    – Valorum
    Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 20:44
  • @Valorum So how does it put its powerful intelligence to use to overcome this particular problem? :) Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 20:53
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    @anotherdave - In precisely the same way you would, except faster.
    – Valorum
    Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 21:02
  • @anotherdave Think about this for a second: how do you carry on a conversation with someone IRL while within earshot of other people carrying on their own conversations? (In a crowded restaurant, perhaps.) The human ear/brain is already capable of honing in on specific audio sources, so the computer doesn't actually need to do anything. At most it might dynamically alter volume, but as long as it uses a normal "indoor voice" in each case, even that probably isn't necessary. As long as there are enough speakers (and comm badges have speakers in them) then it's a non-issue.
    – Steve-O
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 0:47

2 Answers 2


Let's look at a real world example first; Google Home. It can determine who is asking the question based on voice, if you have multiple home devices in your vicinity, it answers from the unit closest to you ( I assume based on loudness of the query picked up by each unit). My wife and I can be in completely separate rooms and be talking to the units at the same time without issue. If we ask the same unit a question, it will answer whoever asked the question first. It wouldn't be much more of a logical leap to have it queue up questions and answer them in the order they were received, but right now Google only listens/answers one thing at a time.

On a starship we have access to a bunch of advanced sensors that can determine the location of an individual, you could narrow down someone's location much more easily. From episodes of TNG/DS9/VOY, any questions asked of the computer seem to come from the console the individual is working at, or somewhere in the room if they are not working by a console. The computer could discern where the user is and from what context they are asking a query and answer appropriately, much like a Google Home unit group.

Further, the computer seems to react in the same way, answering questions in the order they were received. It does seem to respect the chain of command, a superior officer will order the computer to belay an order that was given to it and the computer will not carry out the request or query given to it previously.


Voyager: String Theory (Novel)

Voyager: The Nanotech War (Novel)

TNG: Hollow Pursuits (TV)

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    and probably even determine if one question is more important or timely and answer that one first. Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 20:29
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    Do we know that the computer won't just "belay that order" for anyone? :) Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 20:38
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    @zabeus Potentially, as in the last linked example it's Troi belaying Riker's order (presuming that 'counsellor' doesn't count as a strict medical rank that would allow you to side-step the regular chain of command) Commented Nov 15, 2017 at 20:42
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    @anotherdave: It doesn't matter whether Troi is (functionally) above or below him because he belays her just a few seconds later. So belaying is, at the very least, nontransitive.
    – Kevin
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 1:44
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    Maybe all that belaying is only allowed because it's the holodeck...I can't imaging a crewman belaying a red-alert, or a self-destruct order...or even an information request, but when you ask the computer to play some Justin Bieber, it might just let your neighbor belay that order, 'cause, you know, Justin Bieber... Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 2:11

I don't think we ever see this on TV. If we did, the TV-viewing audience would hear separate parties making separate queries more or less simultaneously, and it would be distracting for us, nevermind the computer.

Which brings me to my answer: it's possible that practicality and etiquette come into play. If someone is playing the radio at the beach, you don't set up next to them and play your radio. You either find another spot or learn to appreciate reggaeton. If you find a spot still within ear shot of the other people, but far away enough that your radio can drown out most of the other music, then you're good to go.

Although there are a variety of ways the computer can distinguish between different simultaneous speakers in the same area (frequency/pitch filtering, location sensors, relative volume, spoken language, syntax, artificial intelligence, etc.) it's also possible that it may just ask users to "Please restate the question."

One good example of the computer using context to figure out when to respond and when not to is from TNG: Schisms. But in that case they were working together and not talking all at once.

WORF: Computer, make the handle a single grip ten centimetres long, solid metal. Now make one blade longer, curved inward. And give the other blade a jagged edge. [Computer complies.]

TROI: All right, you were lying on the table. You had a bright light shining in your eyes. Were there any smells in the room? Were there any sounds? [Computer is silent.]

RIKER: Yes. Yes, there was a sound. Computer, there were noises coming from the darkness. Strange, like whispering. [Computer complies.]

KAMINER: More like clicks. Clicking sounds. [Computer complies.]

RIKER: Louder. Faster. More of them. [Computer complies.]

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