“Star Trek” inspires us by asking and answering important questions about our world in the context of a familiar — but greater — humanity. Does intelligence confer any sort of value upon a life-form? If so, do humans even make the cut?
“Star Trek” has been exploring artificial intelligence since its inception in the 1960s. Since that time, many of the series’ imagined forms of intelligence have begun to take form in our real world. Science fiction often contains flashes of the future. We consume it as entertainment, and for select people it serves as inspiration.
The Borg are among the most iconic villains of the “Star Trek” universe. They are a highly advanced race of cyborgs focused solely on their own supremacy. The Borg spread like a virus, infecting biological organisms and assimilating them into the so-called Borg collective.
The Borg first appeared in “Star Trek: Next Generation”’s second season, in the episode “Q Who?” (1989). This episode is often hailed as Trek’s first great episode. In it, we encounter and begin to learn about the Borg. When a species is infected by the Borg and joins the collective, their individualism is replaced by a sort of shared personality. A standard Borg is called a drone, the same name given to the male honey bee. The actions taken by drones, as we learn on the show, follow a predictable sequence. They are extremely machine-like. In fact, the Borg operate like a hive, if all the bees were connected by Wi-Fi. They share two essential principals with Alexa and the Amazon Echo, a smart device on track to sell 60 Million units in 2020.
Machine learningmeans that every time Alexa experiences an error in function, that data is queued for readjustment. Alexa, ideally, does not make the same mistake twice. Borg famously reconfigure their shields; when a companion dies from a laser blast, for instance, the next Borg is immune.
Natural language processingrecords input, pipes it back to a central computer for analysis, and then receives a go-ahead for providing an appropriate response from its millions of stored options.
To the ire of many Trek fans who became attached to the idea that the Borg functioned like a software virus, it is revealed during the Borg’s first non-television appearance, the 1996 film “Star Trek: First Contact,” that the Borg do have a central processing unit — and that it’s a humanoid space queen.
(Side note: Space Queen is a fantastic cross of Romulan and Cinderella 99, and is one of my favorite sativa hybrids for watching movies with heart-pumping action!)
In the same year that the Borg were storming Earth’s ramparts in “Star Trek: First Contact,” my grandmother was signing up as [email protected]. Since 1996, natural language processing and machine learning have become household concepts. Perhaps some of that ‘90s hatred of the Borg Queen was anger that the Borg were not a software virus, but operated according to the much more unfamiliar (and futuristic) concept of centralized processing. Or maybe I’m just really baked. Please don’t email my grandma.
The ascendant Amazon is our new Borg Queen, and many people consider their Alexa virtual assistants essential allies. The only difference between the Borg and Alexa or other virtual assistants is a killer instinct.
To be continued…