Trek Tuesday (but on a monday): I, Borg and Descent

As the topic of Hugh-the-Borg was current I spent a rainy Saturday watching episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Then on Sunday evening I had no power but I did have a fully charged laptop with no internet access…

I, Borg and Descent Parts I & II

Star Trek: The Next Generation may not have always been consistent with its character’s morality but it certainly was a show concerned with ethics. Moral quandaries could drive plots and be a basis of conflict between characters. However, it was also a show where most regular characters are very competent and some might even be described as wise.

The Borg are the iconic enemy of TNG by undermining all of the Enterprise’s strengths. Their ship is more powerful than the Enterprise and hence they cannot be threatened. The Borg themselves do not negotiate and hence they are invulnerable to the diplomatic strength of the Enterprise’s crew. They are also literally dehumanised, the individual Borg have been robbed of their individuality. The Borg collective is also almost animalistic in its motivation: it exists to consume technology. Nominally intelligent, the Borg collective require little subtly of thought because they simply obliterate or assimilate what gets in their way. Resistance is futile.

Later versions of the Borg would subvert these ideas. The first proper TNG movie introduced the Borg Queen as a more humanised enemy. Star Trek: Voyager would have its own complex relationship with the Borg. However, within the bounds of TNG, the Borg were used sparingly and also given their own arc.

I, Borg is an episode from the mature era of TNG and places the crew in an ethical dilemma with the Borg. Charting a solar system with an unstable star that masks sensors, the crew responds to what might be a faint emergency call. On a planet they find a small Borg craft that has crashed. The crew are all dead except for one who is severely injured. Picard and Riker want to leave it where it is and skedaddle as quickly as possible, Worf wants to kill it but Dr Crusher feels obliged to treat it. Crusher convinces Picard to beam the wounded Borg on board.

Guinan (who people were nearly obliterated by the Borg) is less than happy about the presence of the Borg on board. However, Picard sees an opportunity to use the captured Borg as a weapon. By crating a computer virus and implanting it in the Borg unit, the Enterprise crew could then return the Borg unit to crash site and infect the whole Borg. Picrad’s plan would result in billions of lives potentially saved.

But is Picard’s plan genocide? Are Picard’s motives dispassionate or is he motivated by revenge? Dr Crusher is appalled by the plan but she offers only weak arguments. It’s questionable whether ‘genocide’ even is the correct term for the Borg, after all the individuals are all of other species and arguably they are each effectively dead already. Whoever they were or might be in the future has been subsumed into the Borg.

The Borg have been set up as an alien species that a reasonable person might regard as ethically to murder on mass. Indeed, the threat they pose and the impossibility of a negotiated peace make it almost an obligation to kill them en-masse. In the follow-up to I, Borg, the two-parter called Descent, Picard is given a stern dressing down by a Starfleet admiral that he should in no way hesitate to destroy the Borg if he gets an opportunity. Even with how the events in I, Borg play out, the admiral has a point: the Borg will happily murder billions.

The crew take multiple different positions on the topic as the wounded Borg unit becomes less of an abstraction to them and more of a person. Dr Crusher maintains a consistent position as a doctor with a patient who needs care. Guinan shifts position wildly but Whoppie Goldberg does a good job of showing the character’s shifting thoughts on the Borg. Geordie is given the clearest evolution of thought. Drawn into interactions with the Borg unit out of technical curiosity (and to implement the virus plan), Geordie finds a way to feed the Borg unit with energy and also to use that to get the Borg unit to cooperate with cognitive tests. In the process Geordie names the Borg unit “Hugh” and the re-humanisation of the Borg begins.

Separated from the Borg collective, Hugh shows increasing individuality. His inherent personhood becomes increasingly obvious. There’s a sadder, more cynical way the story could have gone where Crusher and Geordie are simply projecting an inner life onto Hugh (very plausibly given how Geordie tends to personalise machines anyway). However, soon everybody has to concede that Hugh is very much a person.

That leaves the Enterprise with a bigger dilemma. They have kidnapped a Borg unit and the Borg will hunt them down until the Borg gets it back. However, Hugh is a person and they can’t just sacrifice him to the Borg. Worse, Picard’s original plan is now unconscionable. Aside from the cynical use of Hugh as a weapon, Hugh’s independence demonstrates that the individual Borg are capable of being rescued. The Borg are both an existential threat to the Federation but also the primary victims of the Borg.

In the end, Hugh himself is the compromise. Rather than a tailored virus, the hope is that Hugh’s own individuality will disrupt the Borg and Hugh himself volunteers to return to the Borg to help protect the Enterprise crew from reprisals.

It’s a compromise that is too good to be true. After all, if the Borg are infected by Hugh’s individuality the Enterprise crew have no idea what will happen to the individual Borg. The consequences aren’t show until the two-parter called Descent.

Descent is a bit of a hodgepodge. It isn’t terrible but nor is it a classic. It intentionally sets out to ‘ruin’ the Borg as a big bad, which doesn’t stick as far as subsequent versions of Star Trek go but which makes broader sense within TNG. The show had the sense to use the Borg sparingly and avoid the Dalek problem — a fearsome, unbeatable enemy that is repeatedly beaten. Giving the Borg themselves an arc also makes sense in this context and the key to that arc is Hugh.

The Enterprise encounter a base that has been attacked. As they investigate, the away team is attacked by a group of Borg. However, the Borg units behave very differently than normal. They express anger and aggression but are also less coordinated than usual. Data also experiences some changes in behaviour, finding himself angry for the first time (or maybe not — I can think of another occasion).

The upshot is these Borg are the remains of the Borg Cube that Hugh returned to. Hugh’s individuality had disrupted them as Picard had foreseen, leaving them in chaos and starving. Somehow, Data’s evil brother Lore had found these colony-collapse Borg and had stepped in as a kind of populist/messianic leader for the Borg. The attacks on outposts are part of Lore’s plan to kidnap Data and Data’s anger issues are being directly caused by Lore who has found a way to remotely induce emotions in Data.

Hugh himself doesn’t appear to part II, the season opener for the final season of TNG. When Hugh finally encounters Worf and Riker he lambasts them for what the Enterprise crew have caused. The individual Borg on his cube suffered greatly when he returned as the ship could not operate with any degree of disunity. It feels like a strained analogy about the collapse of communism but given the time period, I would have thought that was too pessimistic take.

Hugh agrees to help Riker only because Lore has taken Geordie prisoner.

In the end Data is restored to normal, Lore is decommissioned (aka executed) and Hugh takes up leadership of the individualised Borg. Throughout it was unclear if Hugh’s individuality had impacted all the Borg or just some but towards the end Hugh implies that the Borg Collective in general still exists elsewhere.

Along with the Borg, Data’s nature is a major topic of the two-parter. I don’t want to overstate the extent to which the show ever really thought through what the nature of Data’s intelligence was or how he was different from the Borg-mind for example, but there are some interesting insights in these episodes.

Once under the sway of Lore, Data behaves in much the same way as Lore and even begins a series of experiments on Geordie’s brain. We are told this is due to Lore having somehow subverted Data’s ethical programming which is taken quite literally i.e. Data has a specific program for behaving ethically. It’s kind of an absurd idea but on further reflection, only as absurd as Data himself and the model of artificial intelligence that he appears to represent. Data has been built and programmed from the ground-up (so to speak) to be an intelligent being. I can believe that is possible and at the same time find the implications a bit absurd.

Data is a kind of reductionist view of intelligence. If he has a cognitive ability then there is a specific program that does that. Except, of course, when he isn’t… because Data has to keep transcending his programming and Data has aspirations to be more than what he has been made to be. That contradiction is amply demonstrated with his quest for emotions which is sometimes shown as being a thing he can aspire to via will power and sometimes something that can only be achieved with hardware (specifically an emotion chip which plays a role in the Descent episodes). This is all contradicted by Data manifestly HAVING emotions and emotional responses from friendship to curiosity. Brent Spiner’s nuanced performance is full of understated affect but he’s no more emotionless than Spock was.

Which takes me to the cold-open start of Descent Part I. The scene itself has little direct connection to the plot to the extent that while memorable it is easy to forget what episode it was in. Data is on the holodeck playing poker with a trio of physicists: Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking (played by Hawing himself). Einstein is whimsical, Newton is irritable and Hawking is scoring points off both of them. It’s a fun scene, with Data mildly irritated with how this meeting of minds is playing out.

Each one of them (aside from Data) is a simulation (well obviously Hawking is real real but he’s playing a simulation). They can talk, play cards and engage in novel behaviour. They are complex simulations of the personalities of each of the original people. They express emotions, indeed they are doing so a bit too much for Data who appeared to want a more cerebral encounter.

So the two-parter about the Borg, Data and Lore starts with three complex artificial intelligences interacting and expressing a range of human emotions with ease. Was this intentional or just a cute gag to fill in the start of the episode? Either way we have an utterly different model of what artificial intelligence might be. The mechanics of the Einstein simulation are neither here no there, the holodeck is simply trying to create an outward appearance of Hawking that looks like Hawking and behaves like Hawking. Rather than programmed from the ground up, the Hawking-simulation is working backwards from appearances like predictive text on your phone.

My philosophical conundrum of the day would be this. Could the holodeck make a simulation of Data but a Data with emotions? If so what would that data be like? Indeed what would a simulation of just plain-old Data be like? Would, the holodeck’s computers create a mirror of Data’s programming? Probably not but it would need to make something functionally like Data. Now how about a holodeck simulation of a Borg or a specific Borg like Hugh?

OK, I’m putting to much mass on top of a science fiction conceit that wasn’t designed to be load-bearing. The holodeck never quite stands up to scrutiny any more than Data does precisely because we have no idea how artificial intelligence could work or for that matter what intelligence is. It’s a reasonable concept for futuristic science fiction but if we could consistently portray how Data-like AI might work we probably would have already solved some of the key questions. Speculative fiction must be granted some space to be speculative.

Humans, machines, machines and humans. Both I,Borg and Descent play with these ideas but never gets to grip with them. It introduces parallels, such as Geordie’s visor versus Borg optical implants or even Stephen Hawking speaking with the aid of a machine (simulated by another machine) but leaves most of them under explored. Of the two, I, Borg is the stronger episode with Descent falling into a scrappy episodic pattern with less overall narrative coherence.

9 thoughts on “Trek Tuesday (but on a monday): I, Borg and Descent

  1. The general suggestion seems to be that holodeck characters are a surface simulation — just a more sophisticated version of “Welcome to our town, [PLAYER NAME]!”. The episode ‘Elementary, Dear Data’ makes a big deal of the inadvertent creation of a holodeck character who isn’t.

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    1. True but these simulations get to be novel and surprising and would more easily pass a Turing test than Data. Presumably they are lacking in some way but then we do keep getting examples that are more fully realised (Minuet, Moriarty, the doctor in Voyager)

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      1. It’s also interesting that Captain Rios in “Star Trek Picard” has a holographic assistant, which suggests that the Federation ban on synthetic lifeforms does not extend to holograms or that Rios just ignores the ban.

        The next frontier for Star Trek to conquer: Human rights for holograms

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        1. Yes – I still don’t know if they just haven’t thought the hologram thing through (there was one running the Starfleet archives as well in the first episode) or whether there is a grand point here.

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