I started watching Star Trek: Picard last night and even though it's set after Voyager, Data and his AI are treated as unique. I've never actually watched The Next Generation, but was a huge fan of Voyager. Several episodes were dedicated to The Doctor's humanity and growth -- it certainly seemed like the Emergency Medical Hologram's AI was at least on par with Data's.

So why is Data treated like a unique being? He is not the only example of an AI who grew and developed. It would be crazy to believe The Doctor wouldn't become a well-known case study upon Voyager's return, especially to characters in Picard whose academic focus is on AI development.

The obvious out-of-universe answer is that Picard the character has a much stronger connection to Data, and mixing the EMH into the plot would muddy the waters. That said, is there an in-universe explanation for why no one who studies AI seems even remotely aware of Voyager's EMH?

  • 10
    Hmm, it's almost like the writers of Picard were not actually very well acquainted with Star Trek...
    – Harabeck
    Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 21:50
  • 6
    @Harabeck I really think that criticism is unfounded. All the recent Star Treks are full of references to all the previous shows. When something’s been produced for over 50 years, there will always be continuity holes to pick. TNG contradicted both the Original Series and itself several times. Lieutenant Dax doesn’t sit particularly well with the portrayal of the Trill in that one TNG episode, but Deep Space Nine is still worth a watch. There’s plenty to criticise in every Star Trek series, but “ignoring previous Star Trek” is way, way down the list. Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 23:30
  • 3
    @Harabeck: Data was depicted as unique and impossible to reproduce in TNG, and the medical hologram dates back to Voyager. Therefore it doesn't really make sense to blame this on the writers of Picard.
    – user2490
    Commented Jul 10, 2020 at 0:14
  • 3
    @Harabeck: so you're annoyed because Seven changed. Fair enough. I would point out that in Voyager, it wasn't like Seven was a regular human adult. She was recovering from being a Borg drone, having been assimilated during childhood. Most of what I remember of her during Voyager was her fairly slowly discovering her humanity, much like Data in TNG. I'm not sure that would make sense decades later. I can understand if you really like that Seven, and really don't like future Seven, but I don't think every aspect of every character has to have background, or a specific role in the narrative. Commented Jul 11, 2020 at 15:25
  • 2
    As far as the drunk emotional vigilante bit goes, you did notice Icheb being brutally murdered for his Borg implants, right. And Seven, understandably, taking that pretty hard? If that's not background for the vigilantism and the drinking, I really don't know what is. Commented Jul 11, 2020 at 15:26

5 Answers 5


So, even ignoring the Emergency Medical Hologram*, accidental artificial intelligence (in the sense of artificial consciousness) is apparently a semi-regular occurrence in the Next Generation time frame. (It probably would have happened more during the Original Series if it weren't for Kirk running around shouting the Liar's Paradox at anything that looked a bit like an android.)

Intentional artificial intelligence, however, is apparently more difficult. Data, and his kin, were the only known example of sentient androids being intentionally and successfully designed and created. No-one else — including Data — could figure out how reproduce that achievement.

As per Star Trek: Picard, the Daystrom Institute eventually successfully created synths. This work may have been informed by studies of Voyager's EHM and similar emergent AIs, although the synths didn't quite seem to have the same degree of sentience as Data or the Doctor. Perhaps the emergent AIs were studied, but it wasn't possible to understand or reproduce what led to their emergence**.


Bruce Maddox later created Dahj and Soji, from a single positronic neuron of Data's; this is presumably unrelated to emergent AIs like the EMH. They did seem to have the level of sentience one would expect from Soong-type androids. However, they were kept secret, as all development of artificial intelligence was outlawed following the apparent Synth attack on Mars.

* A difficult, but necessary task at the best of times.

** Or those pesky Federation ethics limited the amount of study that could be done. I hold out hope that the Doctor wasn't terminated under the AI laws, and serves as a kind of benevolent tenor King on a planet of sentient holograms somewhere. If you know anyone on the Picard season 2 staff, I have a great spec script for them.

  • 2
    Marked as the correct answer for mentioning that data was the only intentional AI -- all the others were accidental.
    – Sidney
    Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 14:46
  • 1
    Agnes Jurati clearly states in Picard S1E1 that, "B-4 wasn't much like Data. No other synth has been." clearly implying that the synths shown on Mars in the show weren't truly sentient. Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 15:31
  • 2
    It may not be intention--the EMH and Moriarty are not self-contained entities, but need substantial (external) computing power and specialized holographic emitters to exist. Both characters have to deal with that limitation when they want to exit an environment with holodeck capability. The exocomps were self-contained, but their intellectual capabilities are highly specialized, and they compare to Data maybe like a lizard compares to a human. Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 20:46
  • 2
    @GeoffAtkins Data seems able to remain as sentient as usual even when the rest of him is unavailable. youtube.com/watch?v=JT52AzJ1wec
    – N. Virgo
    Commented Jul 10, 2020 at 10:09
  • 2
    I have heard (though only rumours) that Robert Picardo is involved in Picard S2, though no details on how he's involved or to what degree. Commented Jul 10, 2020 at 13:59


Most of the AIs seen in Star Trek are housed in starship Main Computers.

The ship's computer AI is (obviously) housed in the Main Computer.
The Holodeck characters that gained spontaneous emergent intelligence (Moriarity, Fairhaven etc) are all constructed by the ship's Main Computer.
Though Moriarity is eventually transferred to a portable device to keep the simulation running indefinitely. The possibility that the simulation is running a lot slower to allow for lesser hardware is unstated, but explains why the holodeck is usually run via the main computer rather than its own onboard equipment.

The EMH is unusual in that he has his own separate computer hardware, but it's still very much non-portable, integrated into the ship.
The Mobile Emitter is the product of hundreds of years of refinement and doesn't count for our purposes.

Data however is a human-level intelligence AI housed in a human-sized brain (as evidenced by how he can continue to think and talk when his head is severed in at least one or two episodes).
Practically unique in the series for that alone!


Apart from the hardware, the EMH and similar AIs are explicitly modelled on existing people, both physically and personality-wise.
The Soong Androids are not. They're an effort to produce AI that grows into its personality from a low baseline (if anything), rather than being a highly sophisticated simulation of a person that has enough intellect to grow from there.

Different approaches, with different limitations and requirements.

  • 1
    What I like very much about this answer is the aspect of origin. The EMH's program has been condensed from the expertise of the brightest human / biological medical experts of the Federation, supposedly including a lot of their personality in this process. Commented Jul 10, 2020 at 11:31
  • The trouble with the second part is that Data contained the stored diaries of ~300 colonists. Granted, it wasn't as large as the EMH's collection of human-produced records; but it also was not restricted to one particular domain of endeavor (that is, medical engineering).
    – jpaugh
    Commented Jul 10, 2020 at 19:55
  • I'd like to remind you that the sum total written word of humanity at the moment in plain-text format is a matter of terabytes of space. The diaries of a few hundred colonists is trivially small data and I'd be shocked if Data (made with 24th century hardware) couldn't store and retrieve that amount of information with ease. Even factoring in high resolution photos and video footage. Commented Jul 13, 2020 at 11:02
  • Another difference is how they learn and develop. Data basically started out with pretty minimal programming (rather like an operating system with no programs installed yet) and learned all of his knowledge by experience in a natural way, similar to how you or I would learn. For example, he completed Starfleet Academy just like anyone else would. The EMH Doctor of Voyager was always programmed as a physician with lots of knowledge built-in. The Doctor did learn from experience on Voyager, but for many, things he needed specific programming help, like getting the ECH upgrades.
    – Brandin
    Commented Jul 25, 2022 at 14:33

An additional thought stemming from lucasbachmann's answer is that while they are of comparable sentience the EMH requires (at least prior to the mobile emitter attained via time travel, and the federation probably has rules about trying to research items attained from the future) an entire ship's computer, while data is mobile in his own right.

  • While a fair point, the EMH didn't use up all of the ship's computer power. I don't recall any canon mention of how much it did use, but the rest of the ships functions needed some of it.. Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 15:19
  • 1
    @GeoffAtkins - And when he was in his 'mobile emitter', the EMH (in his entirety) was dramatically smaller than Data's brain.
    – Valorum
    Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 23:30
  • 1
    @Valorum - But the mobile emitter was from the future. Even if we ignore the fact that it was a handwave to allow his character more freedom to develop, that's an unfair advantage. However, the mobile emitter did nothing for his cognitive abilities or development, so one has to assume it has similar processing power to what the Doctor was able to utilise from Voyager's computer. Commented Jul 10, 2020 at 7:00
  • 1
    @GeoffAtkins: I recall episodes where the Doctor had to choose which sub-programs to leave behind when, say, going on an away mission. So, he seemed to be larger than what a shuttlecraft or the Delta Flyer computer could handle.
    – Ellesedil
    Commented Jul 11, 2020 at 14:36

Data is an engineering marvel in terms of his body and his brain being beyond state of the art nanotechnology that federation science can't duplicate.

The EMH or Moriarty the original sentient hologram are just brute force consequences of computer power and programming with a mundane holographic interface.

So basically the self awareness that should have made Data special was diminished by in universe technology even in TNG. I'd say the legal and philosophical implications of this were completely ignored. And the answer to your question is that folks who work on AI are really working on nanotechnology that produces AI.

  • 1
    Do you have a canon reference for how nanotechnology was involved in Data's creation or operation?
    – T.J.L.
    Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 14:01
  • Exploring the legal and philosophical implications of Data's sentience is the entire plot of S2E9 of TNG, The Measure of a Man. Admittedly, after that it is largely dropped again.
    – Ty Hayes
    Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 14:16
  • 3
    @Ty Hayes "Measure of a Man" does not deal with the fact that holograms can be self aware and that this process appears to be trivial. The ONLY thing special about Data in a world with Moriarty and the EMH is that the machinery that produces his self-awareness can fit in a human sized head. There is every reason to believe that in the TNG universe if there was a computer the size of a building hooked up to an android body by wifi or with a hologram interface it could have the same self awareness as Data. Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 15:36
  • @lucasbachmann That's completely fair. I didn't initially get that that was the point you were making in your answer. Thanks for clearing it up
    – Ty Hayes
    Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 16:02
  • 1
    I initially DV'd this because it appeared to be arguing elegance is a requirement for sentience, but I thought better. But the question isn't about sentience, it's about why Data is unique, and the answer points out Starfleet's contradictory treatment of their own holograms vs Data. This is explored in The Doctor's own arc.
    – Schwern
    Commented Jul 9, 2020 at 21:11

The major difference is potential capability.

Holographic AIs are hardware limited. You don't want them to interact with something, you don't put any emitters around and isolate them from networks. You could make a power-mad AI and leave them in a box with a speaker, and they could rant away all they wanted and perhaps try and annoy you to death, but that's about it as long as you aren't an idiot and allow them voice access to another computer. As demonstrated in various episodes, you can alter their psychology, delete specific memories, fool around with skill sets by allowing them access or not to subroutines and information, basically treat them like computer programs. One starts getting big for its britches, turn off the computer and reboot them and they're back to their pleasant personality before they went insane.

The Soong-type androids however, are something different. By design, they've got at least the same physical capabilities as humans or others, usually more in terms of physical and mental abilities. They're not as easy contain, and, as shown in various episodes, it's not that easy to simply mentally alter them; despite Lore being a threat, Soong wasn't able to make him moral or erase the memory of what he'd done. One of the major issues in the episode Clues was that Data couldn't simply have the memory of the last 24 hours erased like everyone else, and that powering down and rebooting him didn't reset him.

So given an AI that is physically limited in its capabilities and can be easily controlled and prevented from becoming dangerous (despite the fact they keep making that stupid mistake, see M-5, Control, Moriarty, etc), versus one that by design is not limited in the same way, there's an obvious reason why people would be blasé about holographic AIs versus the androids. If the AI butler in the holodeck plans to kill you, it's trivial to deal with. If your android butler wants to kill you, you're screwed.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.