The Ultimate Computer

So when I panned I, Robot, I wrote that it stuck me as a poorly made Matrix prequel.

This afternoon I sat down with the intention of getting into some of the episodes in my Star Trek Season Two box set. In particular, I watched an episode entitled “The Ultimate Computer.”

The Enterprise is ordered to report to starbase, where a majority of the crew is removed, and the ship takes on a special guest: Dr. Daystrom, the scientist who invented many of the components of the Enterprise‘s computer. He has a new project, the M-5, which Starfleet hopes will be able to assume almost complete control of a starship — in the case of Enterprise, reducing a crew of over four hundred to twenty.

It is Kirk’s mission to sit back and allow the M-5 to control the starship on a variety of missions, so that Starfleet can evaluate the machine’s ability to command. While the missions start easy, and include entering orbit and making recommendations for landing parties, the final phase includes a mock attack of four Federation starships, against which the M-5 must successfuly defend Enterprise.

At first everything goes okay – Kirk feels useless, Spock stands neutral, and McCoy goes after Spock with a vengeance: “Oh, you must be happy, you can be with a computer commander all day.” Spock demurs, stating that a computer can never replace a person’s instinct and judgement.

While the first few missions go okay, and M-5 defends well against a surprise mock attack by the Lexington, the Enterprise suddenly veers off course and attacks and destroys an automated ore freighter. Kirk wants the machine disconnected from the engine core against Daystrom’s wishes, and one of Scotty’s crew is vaporized — the machine, Spock points out, is not only perfectly capable of defending the starship, it is capable of defending itself.

As the scheduled war games fast approach, Kirk and his crew work frantically to disconnect the M-5, but there is nothing they can do, and the starship Excalibur is left dead in space, with Lexington and two others wounded. Finally, Kirk is able to defeat the machine and regain control of his ship. Once again, the moral of the story is that machine cannot replace a human being.

Unless you work in a supermarket, of course. The Giant Food in Hunt Valley, about a year ago, converted half a dozen or so checkout lanes to automated. I finally gave in and tried an automated lane about two months ago. It’s fast, convenient, and easy (so long as you don’t mind bagging your own groceries).

It also doesn’t require a human clerk to ring you up.

Machine replaces man.

And, no, I don’t think an automated checkout lane is going to take control of the store’s phasers and start shooting up minivans anytime soon, but we can hope, can’t we?