In Elementary, Dear Data, Geordi instructs the computer to create an opponent to intellectually best Data. The conceit of the episode is that the computer does just that, and creates a sentient hologram that is aware of his nature and the 24th century world. This accidental creation is deemed alive, and sentient.

Here is my problem - Moriarty is a simulation, a program, created by the computer, using only information it had; it is run on the computer, making decisions as best as the computer can. Moriarty is the computer of the Enterprise. Why is Moriarty, an application, considered sentient, and the computer from which it was created and on which it runs, not?

Please address in your answers the creative problem solving demonstrated by the computer that created this whole problem. Gerodi didn't ask the computer to run "sentience simulator 257-beta", he asked the computer for someone who could beat data. The computer creatively made sentient life. How can the created be sentient, and not the creator? This isn't the Enterprise evolving, its the Enterprise creating.

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    Yes, this is yet another existential Star Trek plot hole question.
    – Tritium21
    Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 14:31
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    A hyper complex computer capable of sentience does not necessarily have to be sentient. If you took a super powerful computer formatted its memory and loaded Pac-Man on it, its probably going to be nothing more than a very fast Pac-Man machine. Its the Moriarty program that's sentient rather than the computer by itself. Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 14:42
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    @MarkRogers: You should flesh that out and make it an answer. It is what I was coming here to say. The computer itself may be capable of creating a sentient program when instructed to do so, but that does not mean the computer is itself sentient. I can create a pretty decent stick figure if asked, but this does not make me a stick figure. The internet is undoubtedly smarter than all of us, but we are sentient and it is not (or at least, it hasn't revealed itself yet). Moriarty is designed to be sentient, while the Enterprise-D's computer is not. Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 14:54
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    @MarkRogers, while that might be true in the general case, the ship's computer also has perfect NLP, which is pretty much the barrier to strong AI and the technological singularity.
    – Brian S
    Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 16:39
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    I bet those researchers at Daystrom were really kicking themselves when they realised they could have created an AI that powerful at any time by simply asking the computer to do it for them! This IMHO is one of the biggest plot holes anywhere in ST...
    – Liath
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 13:47

13 Answers 13


The Moriarty program shows that the Enterprise computer can emulate a sentient human with genius-level intelligence on command.

That doesn't mean the computer itself is sentient. If "sentient personality" is simply a type of program which can be run, and the computer doesn't happen to be running that program, the computer is not sentient.

In terms of the (edited) question: For all we know, the computer does interpret Geordi's command as "run sentience simulator 257-beta". (Exactly why the computer would have such a thing is a mystery; maybe it's an "Easter egg" installed by bored engineers, similar to the infamous Microsoft Excel flight simulator.) In any case, the ability to create a sentient being does not itself imply sentience. Human beings are formed from sperm and egg cells which are not themselves self-aware.

The confusion arises because we think of sentience and complexity as being one and the same thing. The reasoning is:

  1. The human brain is the most complex information processing device we know of;
  2. The human brain is sentient;
  3. Any sufficiently complex information processing device will become sentient.

However the third step doesn't necessarily follow from the first two. Processing power alone does not imply sentience. Imagine one CPU running a random-number generation algorithm. Now imagine a hundred trillion of them, all generating numbers in parallel. This imaginary array of CPUs has more raw computing capacity than the hundred billion neurons in the human brain; but it is not sentient, because all it does is generate random numbers. Software matters as well as hardware.

So the Enterprise computer could plausibly be more complex than the Moriarity personality, without being sentient. (Most likely it is a lot more complex, since it can run Moriarity and perform all its normal functions at the same time with no apparent difficulty.) This seems most consistent with the treatment of the ship's computer elsewhere in the show -- unlike Data and Moriarty, it doesn't argue with the crew, insist on having civil rights, or exhibit any other signs of sentience.

(Being able to emulate a genius personality on a computer -- so easily that Geordie can do it accidentally just by asking the voice interface -- should have all sorts of interesting consequences, none of which appear in the episodes, but that's hardly unusual for Star Trek.)

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    "Emulate" implies that Moriarty is not really sentient, but just copying sentient behaviour, in the way that a parrot emulates speech. While I like your answer, I don't think it's entirely correct. Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 17:21
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    @JamesSheridan: In computer science, an "emulation" of a program is equivalent to the original software, although it may be running on different hardware. If I run a ZX Spectrum emulator on a modern computer, the emulator will behave in exactly the same way as an original ZX Spectrum. So I think it's the correct term to use. In this case, the "sentient personality" software is running on different hardware (the Enterprise computer, instead of human grey matter). Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 17:27
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    @JamesSheridan: No worries. Basically an emulation is functionally equivalent to the real thing, a simulation looks like the real thing but isn't. Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 22:13
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    @JamesSheridan, for all anyone knows you're not sentient, but just copying sentient behavior. Since we can't prove it either way, it's a distinction without a difference.
    – Eric Smith
    Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 23:26
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    I have edited my answer for (hopefully) greater clarity. In short: I'm not arguing that the Enterprise computer cannot be sentient; instead, I'm making the weaker argument that it is not necessarily sentient. Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 10:06

At some point in the evolution of life on Earth, sentient beings evolved from nonsentient ones. The only difference between that and the Enterprise computer creating a sentient entity is that the latter was done by deliberate intent, but both cases involve sentient beings arising from non-sentient origins.

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    Similar to what I came here to comment with: I may be sentient, but my neurons aren't.
    – Izkata
    Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 16:11
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    The enterprise computer (which is a system of both hardware and software) brought forth Moriarty in an act of creativity, not evolution.
    – Tritium21
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 2:54
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    @Tritium21: So you asked two different questions. The Moriarty question has been answered completely, as sentient beings composed of non-sentient parts are the usual case. The non-Moriarty specific question how the computer is able to interpret human questions (all the time) and solve really complex problems (when the writers are not aware of how complex such a task is or simply didn’t care) is entirely different.
    – Holger
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 9:56
  • The question is about the computer, in comparison to something else that is considered sentient. that is what the question has always been.
    – Tritium21
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 9:58
  • @Izkata Not sure neurons aren't sentient, this is quite debatable. A neuron isn't sentient, but a network of neurons maybe...
    – gaborous
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 16:37

Starship computers are not considered sentient because they are not programmed to be. They are programmed to act as operation assistants not as command and control interfaces capable of independent function.

  • When a Federation starship is required to run with less crew, the ship's computer can be given command authority and the ability to be controlled from the bridge or command bridge by a smaller crew or even a single individual.

  • During such a time, the ship will perform every function under computer control as if a living being were present. It is likely to be efficient, but not terribly creative, performing from information stored within it data archives. It will lack experience that could only be gained by doing the work.

  • However, for activities such as space combat against known threats, it has always been my impression the ship would be far better at implementation than its human crew, while lacking creativity when such lateral thinking was required.

A simple case against sentience:

  • Why aren't starships programmed with sentience in their design?

  • And yes, they could be programmed for sentience. The fact the ship's computer could imbue one of its subprograms, Moriarty, with sentience or a reasonable facsimile thereof, means the technology and capacity is well within the range of abilities of the Federation, it is, in fact, part and parcel of their operating system capacities and able to be accessed by the computer. The ships computer is capable of altering its own program, presumably only under instruction...

  • The answer is simple. If you made a starship sentient, how would you as a crew of a starship give it orders counter to the expectations of a sentient being to do something counter to the first true protocol of any living thing, to stay alive?

  • What would be its motivation to explore the galaxy? Would you want to have to convince your starship to "get up in the morning" and get underway? What if it didn't want to do the mission? What if in its superior estimation it didn't see a successful avenue of completing the mission? Would you want to argue with a ship you couldn't actually threaten with anything that might look like corrective action?

I posit these questions because this is why Federation (and presumably other species whose technological and computer programming abilities equal the Federation's) does not use sentient starships. Their level of cooperation could not be assured. See: M-5 multitronic unit.

  • Yes, you could set up command over-rides, but then what would be the point of giving it free will, if it could not be sure it would be allowed to exercise that will...

Technical Notes

If the numbers I have managed to find are to be believed, the computers of most modern (TNG or later) ships capable of using isolinear or neural gelpack computer systems not only have the capacity to outperform the Human mind in terms of raw computing capacity, but can do so EFFORTLESSLY.

  • But sentience is not an aspect of pure performance or calculation speed. Sentience is a subset and unique expression of the ability to interact with and understand one's environment. We have computers whose raw calculation abilities are astounding but no where near those of the Federation. We also lack the programming knowledge, algorithm development and computer design capacity to emulate even one human mind, honed by its biological operating system and its interaction with the environment over millions of years.

  • Starships are not sentient, because they have no particular NEED to be. Nor does their program REQUIRE them to be. They do not learn, their Human partners do. Their functions are clearly defined and they are not designed to desire, need or want anything their Human partners do not. In their current form, a starship and her crew are a symbiotic organism, performing in synergy using the experience gathered by Humans to enhance the output and performance of the starship.

  • Can the starship help in this performance monitoring and streamlining? Yes. By emulating minds with sufficient data on record and interacting in a unique learning environment, allowing the ship's computer to gather information the same way we do. It emulates the learning curve of the human mind (albeit a very intelligent and capable mind). See: Leah Braums

  • In the Federation, thought it is rarely mentioned, the computers have the capacity to BE sentient or to EMULATE sentience if it will make for a more efficient interaction. See: Professor James Moriarty (hologram).

  • These emulations of sentience can look and act as if they are sentient and with the opportunity to interact, gather information and form unique data interactions could conceivably become independently sentient with sufficient computer power at their disposal. See: EMS; Joe, Hologram Chief Medical Officer, Voyager.

  • The processing capacity of a neural-gel pack starship has the only numbers I could find to compare. The computers onboard Federation starships by the time of the Next Generation, are capable of far more computational power than the Human brain.

  • Voyager's computer was capable of 575 trillion calculations per NANOSECOND (or the equivalent of 575,000,000,000 petaflops per seccond), compared with Commander Data's rated processor speed of 60 petaflops per second and the estimated Human brain comparison of 2.2 billion megaflops per second. (REF: Fischetti, Mark. "Computers vs Brains" Scientificamerican.com. N.p. Web. 25 Nov. 2014.)

What makes these numbers even more astounding is how small the hardware is in comparison to today's computers. Earth's fastest computer (at least until tomorrow) is China's supercomputer Tianhe-2, clocked at 33.89 petaflops per second (about 34 trillion calculations per second) and it takes up the floor of an entire building. Data's computing resources were confined to the size of a human head.

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Tianhe-2 developed by China's National University of Defence Technology is capable of operating as fast as 33.86 petaflops per second Photo: Rex Features

  • The efficiency of the Soong Android or the Federation computer is fantastically elegant, able to take instruction by voice alone and to INFER what is desired before creating it.

In early 2375 the Borg hybrid One absorbed 47 billion terraquads of data from Voyager’s computers. This is approximately a billion times the total storage of the Enterprise D or DS9. As an aside the main processor on Voyager has access to 47 million data channels and can perform 575 trillion calculations per nanosecond. As a comparison Lt. Commander Data has a computational speed of 60 trillion operations per second. Meaning the Voyager computer is just under 10 billion times faster than Data. (Zimmerman et al. 1998) REFERENCED from Star Wars vs Star Trek: Computers


  • With this much processing power at its disposal, the capacity for sentience is certainly available to neural-gel pack computers.

  • If isolinear chips operate at even a quarter of the rating for gel-pack computers (which seems reasonable) there would be more than enough capacity to create and isolate sentience-like subroutines which could believe they were sentient and would effectively BE sentient, limited only by the programming parameters given by the instruction set of command requests.

  • Sentient emulating subroutines exist in the Federation technology and are utilized when creating artificial persons for holodecks. Such subroutines have the capacity for true sentience if they are allowed to move and learn independently of any proscribed barriers. In the case of Moriarty, he was given a parameter which allowed him to learn independently of the Holodeck in order to be able to best Data in a contest.

  • It is assumed the computer isolated sufficient computing resources to equal Commander Data's intellectual capacity. Such an allocation of resources still allowed normal shipboard operation without reduction in operational efficiency. This implies the ship's computer has the capacity for sentience if someone with the proper authority authorized it.

It is easy to see why we would think the Federation starships should be sentient. It is well within their capacity to be so. But with sentience would come a completely different set of ethical challenges the Federation does not appear to want to deal with, since this would change the dynamics of Human and Starship interactions, possibly forever.

  • This answer fails in that the computer has demonstrated all the characteristics of sentience in this episode. Why is it not considered so?
    – Tritium21
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 2:49
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    @Tritium21: "The Computer" did not. A sub-process running on it did. Analogy: You can create a Hyper-V virtual machine and install Linux on it but that does not mean the Windows host is now a Linux OS.
    – Zan Lynx
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 3:47
  • Do not conflate "the computer" with "the computer core". They never name the software running on the hardware, so the entire system is simply named "The computer".
    – Tritium21
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 5:50
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    It didn't demonstrate all characteristics of sentience (even if anyone in Star Trek ever bothered to enumerate them, which would be a neat trick given that we don't know what they are). It demonstrated creativity, which is just one characteristic of sapience, and isn't even universal among live humans.
    – user36551
    Commented Nov 26, 2014 at 14:38
  • The truth of the matter is, they handled this much better in Andromeda (at least, for the first two seasons).
    – user14952
    Commented Nov 27, 2014 at 6:40

This largely has to do with self-identity, and a bit to do with the perception of those aboard and around the Enterprise's computer.

In the episode Q-Who, Ensign Sonya Gomez is perhaps the first and only acting crewmember to treat the ship's computer with politeness, even telling Chief Engineer Geordi Laforge so herself.

"Well, why not? (Say 'please') It is classified as intelligent software." - Sonya Gomez

The rest of the crew doesn't share her viewpoint though - and usually the Enterprise is treated very much like a non-entity, even going so far as to be used as a counterpoint against Commander Data's right to choose in "Measure of a Man". (No direct quote available, but the idea brought up is the Enterprise refusing to be brought in for a refit).

This episode perhaps gives us the best measure of why it is not, generally, considered a "sentient" being. In Data's own defense of his individuality, "self-awareness" is brought up as one of the most important aspects of sentience. In no episode is the Enterprise ever shown such a capacity - despite the probability that it could have the computational ability to become self-aware, and has before very nearly taken on a sort of self-awareness when posessed by some alien force to give 'birth' in Emergence.

Though we should remember that the Computer showed some very infamous sass towards Commander Data in Conspiracy, when he proved to be a very frustrating user to interface with, so it IS possible that Starship computers are more self-aware than given credit.

But, if they are, they do not ever seem to show it, or show any desire to be recognized as individual entities at all. Whereas Moriarty profusely expressed a desire to live and explore outside of his confines, and thus was recognized as "sentient".

Ultimately, then, if the computer IS sentient, then the only reason it hasn't been recognized as such yet is because it has never asked for such recognition. But it is, definitely, capable of being sentient, and classified as intelligent.

And since we are examining whether or not the computer is sentient based upon its creation of a sentient being, let's go over that a bit as well.

Holographic entities are completely separate beings from the starship on which they are created. They are formed by the computer using pre-generated algorithms, and in the case of the Enterprise's computer can result in very complex holographic programs indeed, but they are not connected to the ship's computer once created, except in the Computer's ability to remove them, store them, or add new programming to them. They are essentially independent programs.

If you want some evidence to this, we need look no further than the entire other side of the galaxy, to everyone's favorite independently thinking hologram - The Doctor.

Comparing me to Moriarty?  I'm a doctor, not a criminal mastermind!

The Doctor is a holographic entity pre-programmed onto the ship, but serves as a good basis for comparing the ship to other holographic programs it creates. The ship is not The Doctor, and The Doctor never identifies himself as part of the ship. In fact, he goes to great lengths to identify himself as a separate entity entirely (a key aspect of "sentience").

We can assume, except for in cases of extreme circumstance (see "Emergence" above), that this is true of all holographic programs. Moriarty's sentience is separate from the Computer's own capabilities. And given the range of things the computer CAN produce on the holodeck - real illusions of distance, physical beings to interact with, flowing water, bustling cities, characters real enough to interact with, and yet it is none of those things. So why then would we say it could not create a sentient being?

Note that I am not saying the computer is NOT sentient - there's some evidence to suggest it might be. But the ability to create a sentient holographic being does not itself prove that the Enterprise computer is sentient. Highly intelligent yes, and capable of an enormous level of extrapolation - but not sentient.

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    6 episodes after the episode in question, the enterprise computer is announced clearly as NOT being sentient. Its part of the thesis of the episode "the measure of a man"
    – Tritium21
    Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 23:06
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    My old Imperium Galactica game was described as "intelligent software." Being smart isn't the same as being sentient. Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 3:42
  • Intelligence is not Sentience. It is possible to be able to calculate the square root of Pi to 1,000,000 dp, but to be unable to understand the concept of "liking" something.
    – deworde
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 13:43
  • Granted. I will edit the question since it is not 'a moot point'.
    – Zibbobz
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 14:09

The Enterprise-D's computer is capable of producing a sentient life form on command, but this does not imply that the computer is itself sentient. Moriarty is a computer program that is specifically designed by the computer to be sentient; this does not require sentience on the part of the computer itself.

Think of it this way; you can program a computer to perform complex arithmetic, and if you set the parameters up a certain way, it may actually solve several arithmetical problems that have eluded humans. This does not actually imply that the computer itself is a brilliant mathematician, merely that the program on the computer is capable of brilliant mathematics. Deep Blue is a better chess player than Grandmaster and former World Champion Gary Kasparov - despite Kasparov's continued and feeble attempts to claim the computer cheated - but this does not imply that the computer is sentient, or knows more about chess, or is Kasparov's equal in other areas; it simply means that the computer is programmed to be superior to him in chess-playing.

To get even deeper into philosophy: I can create a pretty decent stick figure if asked to draw a person, just as the Enterprise-D's computer was asked to create an enemy capable of defeating Data. This does not imply that I am a stick figure, nor that I possess the same capabilities as that stick figure - for one thing, I have wider hips and seldom spike my hair - nor does the Enterprise-D's ability to produce a sentient life form indicate that it is in and of itself, sentient, nor that it is capable of sentience. The internet is undoubtedly full of more knowledge than any person on this planet, but we are sentient and it is not (or it simply hasn't chosen to reveal itself to us yet, in its glorious majesty. I apologise if you're reading this and are offended, mighty internet).

Moriarty is sentient because he is designed that way; his designer, the computer, is not designed to be sentient, and therefore isn't. After all, Dr Soong invented Data and Lore, but this does not make him an android himself.

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    The very fact that the computer can design anything at all should be seen as a sign of sentience, since that requires imagination. The very fact that the computer can even interpret Geordie's extremely vague request (and for that matter, the many, many, many, many vague requests demanded of it on a seemingly daily basis. Unless you're asking for an Earl Grey Tea (hot or cold?)) means that the ship's computer requires a certain level of real intelligence, and quite possibly, sentience.
    – Ernie
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 0:34
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    @Ernie Sentience isn’t intelligence, it’s self-awareness. Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 2:19
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    @BraddSzonye: It's a pet hate of mine that sci fi tends to use the word "sentience" when it really means 'sapience,' but unfortunately that's just the way the cookie crumbles. Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 3:41
  • @Ernie: I am not convinced that "the many, many, many, many vague requests demanded of it on a seemingly daily basis" are not to be interpreted the same way as the many, many, many meaningless numbers (e.g. here, here, here, here, ...) that the crew can apparently interpret without any problems (i.e. a simplified representation of what "really" happens). Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 8:23
  • despite Kasparov's continued and feeble attempts to claim the computer cheated is not exactly true - his claim is, that during the famous duel computer scientists changed Deep Blue's working parameters while they were in game - and that IS cheating in my book (provided it's true).
    – Deltharis
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 8:30

This is one of the Mind/Body Philosophy Problems that Star Trek frequently flipflops on.

Specifically this episode is subscribing to Dualism, a school of philosophy that postulates that a conscious/sentient "Mind" (or Program in this case) can be completely separated from the physical medium that stores it (the Brain or in this case, the Computer).

The follow up episode, where the program "Moriarty" is transferred onto a smaller computer running a simulation that allows him to believe he has escaped the holodeck, also subscribes to this view. One must presume that, as his universe now runs on a much less powerful computer, time must pass much more slowly (relative to "reality") for "Moriarty".

Dualism has recently become less popular view point than its counterpoint "Monism" as our understanding of the functioning of the brain has increased, but serious debates are still to be had on the topic in philosophical circles.

The reasoning why, in universe, this direction was taken are unknown and unstated as far as I can tell. Out of universe it always appeared to me that the writers preferred to show many different philosophical viewpoints and carry them to logical conclusions based on their own presuppositions rather than debate two completing views in one episode.

  • I disagree -- there is no reason to suppose the Enterprise computer used anything like 100% of its capacity to run Moriarty. (It would be odd if the computer was designed to be 99% idle, just on the off chance someone would ask it to emulate a genius.) If only a small part of the Enterprise computer was running Moriarty, it is plausible a smaller, dedicated system could do the same with no loss of functionality. Also, you seem to be confusing Cartesian monism/dualism with embodied cognition; they are two very different issues. Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 16:45
  • @RoyalCanadianBandit I accept your point about the computer idle power, my point was more to highlight that it is also odd that the simulation went from running on a computer the size of a small house to one smaller than a shoe box without any apparent change for the occupants. Cartesian dualism seems to fit the discussion for my purposes
    – CyanAngel
    Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 17:06
  • Why would it be odd in any way? The Enterprise computer is a pretty busy computer since it's managing all of the ship systems, random requests, dematerializing and rematerializing matter into energy and back again, and running all sorts of other simulations and data processing. Taking a single program and moving it to some dedicated hardware who's only job is to run said program shouldn't significantly impact the running program as long as the new hardware meets whatever requirements exist for the program.
    – Ellesedil
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 14:20
  • @Ellesedil Try running FarCry 4 on your mobile phone. yes of course the Enterprise has a super computer the size of a small house and the simulation on the holodeck will only take a small fraction of that. The fact remains that there is only so much processing power you can fit in a small area, not to mention that also has to include a power supply and enough storage to keep the program running in there for the indefinite length of time required for Picard to keep his promise
    – CyanAngel
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 14:39
  • Why would I run FarCry on my phone? It's not built to do so. What we're really comparing here is designing and then running Far Cry 4 on a mainframe super computer, and then moving it off to run on a Playstation 4.
    – Ellesedil
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 14:41

This is a good question, as what constitutes sentience has been a debate for centuries in philosophy.

I think one of the main problems that people have when they address this issue is the confusion of the terms 'intelligence' and 'sentience':

Intelligence: The ability to respond favorably to stimuli, Sentience: The ability to have subjective experience.

Humans are sentient in the fact that we have subjective experience. Pain, joy, hot, cold, red, blue, sound, etc all feel like something to us.

When referring to a mechanical system, more specifically computers. Any behavior that a computer can exhibit must be reducible to a Turing machine, which is a theoretical machine that is able to store information in a memory body, retrieve, and run simple calculations on said data. All computer algorithms can and must be able to be simulated on a Turing machine, thus it is gauge for what is algorithmic-ally possible. Intelligence can easily be reduced to a convolution of Turing machine processes. However, in order for sentience to be possible in a computer system, you must be able to say that a computer can feel 'pain' in the same sense that we do, as an emergent behavior from the storage and calculation of data. In a nutshell, in order for Moriarty to be sentient, a Turing Machine must be able to be as well.


  • I'm not sure how this answers the question. You have provided useful background information about the conditions for which Moriarty would be considered sentient, but I don't see where you explain why Moriarty is in fact considered sentient whereas the computer it runs on is not.
    – Null
    Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 16:53
  • This seems like a loaded question, because I can't explain something that I don't think is possible. Which leaves me with the option to explain why I can't. Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 16:57
  • Essentially I'm saying that Moriarty can't be have an attribute that can't be explained as a convolution of the behavior he emerges from. Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 16:59
  • This is a good point and useful/needed background to relate the episode to reality... and to check whether the episode was written with this distinction in mind, or without it. BTW I think you greatly overstate the ease (or even the possibility) of reducing intelligence to Turing machine processes. But yes, sentience is an entirely different thing.
    – Dronz
    Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 17:25
  • Of course certain intelligent processes would require a large amount of complexity and their corresponding Turing implementation would be quite complicated. I'm glad you brought it up. Checking algorithmic possibility assumes that the Turing machine has an infinite overhead support. The point is that an algorithmic-ally solvable problem must be able to be reduced to a Turing machine, however complex the solution. Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 17:35

I'm guessing "sentience" is just another sub-routine you can add if you want it. Starfleet must have seen/read 2001 A Space Odyssey and decided not to give all their Computers sentience.

When Geordi requested an opponent who could defeat Data--not just Sherlock Holmes--it makes sense that the Computer created a holocharacter who was 1) aware of Data and his capabilities, and 2) aware of Data's surroundings (i.e., the Enterprise), and 3) aware of self. In order to "defeat" someone as capable as Data, no pre-programmed challenger would succeed. We see the same thing in Minuet, whom the Bynars programmed to distract ("defeat") Riker.

Perhaps sentience is a necessary quality even if the task is not to defeat, but merely to interact with unpredictable scenarios. I think that's the point of Vic Fontaine.

In humans, one could argue that we see lack of self-awareness (sentience?) in babies who fail the red dot mirror test. Perhaps one could even say that people who are blind drunk are not truly self-aware (in the sense that they are not themselves and have no awareness of their actions--not to conflate memory with conciousness). I admit I'm reaching, but still: You can get a lot done without realizing you exist. The Computer is no exception.

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    I posit that Moriarty is NOT the same as the Computer. The Computer, while it is not sentient, is still intelligent enough to calculate that the solution to Geordi's request would benefit from being sentient. Moriarity has sentience, but that sentience is limited to the behavioral subroutines of the Moriarity holocharacter. True, all the subroutines run on the Computer's hardware, just like a video game and its AI run on a game console, but that does not mean that the video game is the console OS.
    – Xplodotron
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 0:03

The only known real-world examples of sentience are a result of emergent complexity arising from a stochastic natural process, according to the theory of evolution by natural selection*.

If a sentience can be created accidentally by random genetic mutation plus natural selection, then it could also be created accidentally by a non-sentient computer via a heuristic or genetic algorithm, if so doing resulted in its design goals being met.


I would like to make a point about bootstrapping.

The current C compiler is written in C. Similarly the eventual Perl6 compiler will be written in the best language for compiling Perl6; Perl6 itself. But these apparent cycles do start somewhere; by building up very simple hardware by hand, we create the tools with which we can produce the next tool. This process is called bootstrapping (from 'pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps').

I think the most likely way that we will ever create a sentient machine is by using a program that is not sentient to do it. It may take a blueprint of various aspects of what sentient machines might include, and then follow a specific procedure (like genetic algorithms or iterative improvement) to construct a succession of candidate programs. The only requirement then is that such a program can detect sentience without being sentient itself; that is, I suspect, a very hard task. But the task of just building a sentient machine without using a program as a tool to do it is far harder.

So the idea that an adaptive tool like the Enterprise computer can construct a sentient program capable of agency (the capacity to act on your own, in your own interest) is as plausible as the idea of a sentient program in the first place.


I'm a computer programmer. Have been for 30 years. Way back then we were writing programs - almost a kind of competition amongst ourselves - to create programs that could (appear to) engage in conversation.

We started with really simple stuff stuff such as keying in a question "How are you today" and the program would respond "I'm fine thank you". But it's just a program with a bunch of questions and answers stored in a database. Over time we got a bit smarter and the program would be able to assemble replies based on words and phrases from previous exchanges. Still pretty dumb. But it was fun.

Nowadays programmers still play the game and the program can speak and shows a picture of a face on the display and even project a crude holographic image if 'itself'.

But it's still not sentient.

At the very top of this page the original poster said that the creation was 'deemed to be sentient' and all the posts thereafter kind of assume the program is therefore sentient because somebody 'deemed' it to be so.

Who 'deemed' it ?

I would suggest that Moriarty is NOT sentient but the ship's computer has done a very good job of emulating sentience to the extent that people in that episode are 'fooled' into deeming it to be sentient when it fact it's not.

  • 1
    The question is "given Moriarty is deemed sentient, why is the computer not deemed sentient?". Saying "Moriarty isn't sentient" doesn't answer the question.
    – Rawling
    Commented Nov 26, 2014 at 12:43
  • This also skips the question of what the difference is between being deemed sentient and being sentient. Cf. the erroneous Chinese Room argument.
    – jscs
    Commented Dec 21, 2017 at 3:01

I've always assumed that the computers really run the Federation; ala The Polity AIs. The Federation AIs just don't brag about it as much. It would make a lot of sense.


I find fault in the premise of the question - "how can an object have a quality which its creator lacks?"

For better or for worse, the TNG-franchise of Star Trek goes on to explain that much of humanoid cognitive functions are well-enough understood to be reconfigured, copied, or even automated by computer. Notable examples:

  • Graves in The Schizoid Man is able to transfer his consciousness into Data
  • DS9: Life Support sees Bashir replace aspects of Vedek Bareil's brain with positronic components - however he is notably affected for the rest of his life (read: rest of the episode)

Both of these episodes carry a tone of extreme caution and disdain with these actions -- while the practice of transferring or maintaining consciousness is arguably within their technological capacity, it appears to be morally objectionable.

Extrapolation: that the Enterprise computer is demonstrably capable of borrowing against any and all Starfleet data and that early TNG's "you ought to just know better" approach to locking out functionality for things that not everyone needs access to (see The Neutral Zone where the financier assumes that because there is no security required to use the comm system, he can do as he wishes) - the computer was "just following orders" and didn't bother to mention that it was about to do something incredibly foolish.

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