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Over the course of several stories, and more specifically with the Doctor on Voyager, it's fair to say that Federation holograms, backed by appropriate computer cycles, can achieve self-awareness in a way that allows them to question their nature, expand their horizons, and even refuse to act in their "programmed" role.

Outside of the episodes and films, have any Star Trek authors tackled the monumental implications of a technology that can birth sentient life, but is used by its citizens for entertainment and utility?

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    The whole Moriarty arc in TNG springs to mind - the holodeck produces a character "worthy of being Data's opponent" and ends up grasping the concept of being a hologram on a space ship, and the fact that an outside world exists.
    – Moo
    Nov 3, 2014 at 12:47
  • In Star Trek, not really. Sentient machines are really just treated as one of the perils of having advanced computers around. For a better discussion of the subject, you might want to look at the works of Iain. M. Banks where they discuss the problems of being able to create and destroy artificial lifeforms with little or no legal consequences.
    – Valorum
    Nov 3, 2014 at 14:22
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    Fridge logic: Starship computers have sufficient NLP that they should be strong AIs, leading to the same sentience that the Voyager EMH enjoys. And yet, the ship's computer is never considered a person, even considering that ultimately it's the ship's computer generating things like the EMH and Moriarty.
    – Brian S
    Nov 3, 2014 at 15:33
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    Finally, while this isn't outside the episodes and films as you asked for, I should mention exactly how far the episodes themselves went in answering this question - The Doctor was brought to court for legal rights to his own holonovel "Photons Be Free", and while he didn't gain recognition as a living entity, he gained recognition as an Artist, with legal rights to his own published works. en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/Author,_Author_(episode)
    – Zibbobz
    Nov 3, 2014 at 17:43
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    @JamesSheridan - A few years ago I got access to an ebook library and helped myself to all 1309 Star Trek books.
    – Valorum
    Nov 4, 2014 at 10:11

2 Answers 2

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Based on the evidence of the stories we have in hand, I would have to say that the status of all forms of artificial sentience - holographic and electromechanical - in the Federation is, "We really don't want to have to think about it more than we have to." And by "we" I mean not merely the characters, but the writers! As evidence for which, I present:

  • About half of Classic Trek (and every sentient computer Kirk talks into jumping off a ledge), but specifically, "The Ultimate Computer", wherein neither the writers nor the characters ever question whether it's OK to simply kill M5 (in fact, the writers structure the story to make the question pretty much impossible by making it an M5-or-everyone-else choice).
  • "A Measure of a Man", the most in-depth treatment on the subject, I think, and the only one until VGR: "Author, Author" that really comes to any conclusion on the subject of strong AI.
  • The Moriarty episodes, which I would point out end with an overt sense of "feel good" that gets creepy the minute you realize that Moriarty is now living a lie (and worse when you realize that he probably died without anyone thinking about it when Enterprise crashed at the end of Generations)
  • The casual callousness with which Voyager's crew dismiss the EMH whenever it suits them early in the series.
  • The similarly callous treatment Vic Fontaine sometimes endures.

And, as a grey area:

  • When Starfleet decided that EMH Mark I's bedside manner left something to be desired, the existing instances were repurposed as scut-work and mining systems (presumably using mobile holo-emitters or by setting up holo-grids within the mine?). So, on the one hand, Starfleet did not simply scrap them as defective computer programs. On the other hand, it's not clear that they were asked what they might want to do with their lives now that they were no longer EMHs. In short: they were treated enough like people to not simply be killed, but not enough like people to be given choices.

In the case of The Doctor and Vic, only the fact that the holographic entities demonstrated genuine usefulness did people start thinking of them as more than just 1s and 0s to be casually deactivated and reactivated when it was convenient. Sisko remains downright derisive of the amount of time his crew is spending helping Vic when the program deliberately throws him a curveball in "Badda-bing, Badda-bang", partially because he doesn't see Vic as anything other than another computer program, and partially because he disliked the entire lounge program as being set in a time and place where a black man would not really have been welcome! Even the fact that Vic Fontaine helped one of his junior officers (Nog) to get through the loss of a leg in battle doesn't make Vic a person to Sisko. Even when he finally participates, one never gets the sense he necessarily has changed his fundamental view on whether or not Vic is really a person -- an interesting and deliberate grey area for a black man concerned about historical racism!

Only in the case of the Voyager EMH, however, do we see even a possible future in which he seems to be treated by the Federation (not just by his crew-mates) as an emancipated person on a par with Data. I don't believe we learn exactly how that came to pass, and anyway, that timeline is erased, so there's no guarantee it will happen. On the other hand, "Author, Author" strongly suggests that The Doctor's work is influencing other instances of EMH Mark I.

Perhaps, if we had seen a series take place further in Voyager's future, the writers would finally have found the courage to seriously tackle some of these issues more broadly. We'll probably never know.

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  • I'm happy with this answer. It doesn't really take into accoun the EU novels but it's a good summary of the canon TV series'
    – Valorum
    Dec 22, 2014 at 23:29
  • You might want to look at the ending of Author, Author for a glimpse at what I would regard as the inevitable rise of holographic sentient rights; chakoteya.net/Voyager/717.htm
    – Valorum
    Dec 22, 2014 at 23:31
  • Not sure about timelines, but didn't Vic Fontaine's sentience emerge some time after his introduction, or at least the crew's discovery of his sentience. As such, Sisko's derision would make sense; VF was just a holographic lounge singer, the basis of Sisko's opinions, and then one day he somehow become more. Sisko could have refused to believe in the emergence of mind (just taking it as exceptionally crafty AI programming).
    – Anthony X
    Dec 23, 2014 at 1:51
  • Yes and no. Vic was self-aware right from the beginning -- aware that he was a holographic program, aware that his "customers" were not holograms, and somewhat aware of 24th Century reality. Felix does seem to have wrought somewhat better than he knew (or perhaps better than he expected DS9's holosuite processors to manage), but the basic parameters of Vic's existence pretty much ensured at least some degree of sentience. One wonders if Vic is strictly legal, for those reasons alone... Dec 23, 2014 at 13:53
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    In regards to Moriarty, he is in the trailers for Picard season 3, so not dead. I believe there was a EU story where Spock visits the planet that Kirk died on to retrieve the body, the ship was also being cleaned up, because a species present in the solar system was about to achieve spaceflight. This might explain how Moriarty is still alive.
    – DafyddNZ
    Mar 1, 2023 at 0:18
0

"Star Trek: the Lower Decks" has an Exocomp who appears to be universally acknowledged to be at best a real jerk.

More generally, given that at least some institutions in the Federation may be democratic, the ability to create arbitrary numbers of bespoke voters at will could be problematic…. Then, of course, the question of whether one could legally simulate a genetically-enhanced human comes to mind.

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  • Hi, welcome to SF&F. The question was whether there were any other works by Star Trek authors that dealt with the use of artificially-constructed sentiences for work or entertainment and the implications of that. Merely noting the existence of another such in one of the shows doesn't really help.
    – DavidW
    Feb 28, 2023 at 22:27

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