Silicon Valley Comic Con held a panel to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) this spring in San Jose’s historic City National Civic theater. At this panel the near-capacity crowd, siphoned from the Con’s 65,000 attendees, could confess their adoration, ask questions and spend time with the actors who portrayed their beloved TNG characters. It was very clear that after 30 years, TNG remains an inspiration to many, personally and professionally.
Star Trek: TNG, which debuted on Sept. 28, 1987, ran for seven seasons. After the success of movies based on the original Star Trek, Paramount brought back the iconic series to continue not only the voyages of the Starship Enterprise, but to channel the intellect and passion of its creator, Gene Roddenberry—and a host of talented professionals who helped him shape and realize that vision. Like the original, TNG combined technological speculation with exploration of the human condition.
While the entire cast did not attend the Silicon Valley Comic Con panel, the breadth of the show’s various vectors was well-represented by those on stage. From artificial intelligence and robotics, to medicine and management, the actors embodied the major themes Star Trek explored long before they came to impact our lives. That a 30-year-old television show continues to inspire engineers and software developers, cosmologists and physicians, even philosophers and management professionals, attests to its continued relevance.
The first speaker to the public microphone, and perhaps the most passionate, started the morning session: “I’m here to state a fact of how all these wonderful people on stage changed our lives. … I want you to know, and I’ve waited a long time for this, my name is Kevin Gaunt, I am a radiation therapist for the Palo Alto Medical Foundation. I treat 20 or 30 patients a day using a linear accelerator to try to save their lives. And while I do that I tell them about William Shatner. I tell them about Jonathan Frakes. I tell them about all you guys…I am here because of the influence through your characters that you have given me.”
For many avid fans like Kevin, each actor portrayed a character that symbolized some form of hope, fear or possibility. Here’s my take on what the characters mean today.
Data (Brent Spiner). As an extrapolation of artificial intelligence and robotics, Data easily represents the most pervasive of the technologies anticipated by Star Trek. Today we worry about robots replacing human labor, and AI transforming our collected data into a recommendation-driven-totalitarian-nanny state. Star Trek, and Data, redirect fear and explore what is perhaps a more realistic future. Data, and his brother Lore, represent rare instances of artificially intelligent beings. They come from one creator, and while others, including themselves, may aspire to create other artificially intelligent beings, all ultimately fail.
Much of the very constrained machine learning we call artificial intelligence is neither artificial nor intelligent. It is real (non-artificial) in the sense that it takes millions of data points to create a pattern recognition matrix, and it is not intelligence because most systems can do one and only one thing well. Apply machine learning in the wrong context and it fails miserably. On the opening night of the Con, host Steve Wozniak, the Apple co-founder, tried to explain transcendence (the transplantation of human intelligence into machines) to William Shatner. Shatner just stared at Wozniak and said, “Bullshit.”
Machine learning as we know it today, however, will likely disrupt work as it takes over increasingly complex tasks. In the episode, “The Neutral Zone,” Captain Picard explains to a businessman from the 20th Century, “A lot has changed in three hundred years. People are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of ‘things.’ We have eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions.” It is far from clear that the need for possessions will change (Picard’s antiques and fish offer a counter argument to his own statement), but an economy that can make most things at nominal cost with immediate distribution eliminates the need for the consumer-feeding economy of today. Machine learning, in Roddenberry’s 24th Century, may allow for the redirection of the human spirit and the unleashing of its creativity. Perhaps the fiction will inspire creativity that will lead not just to technological innovations, but to new economic models that reconciles human existence with our technological advances.
Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden). Medicine in Star Trek always pushed the limits of sensor technology. From converted commissary salt shakers that pretended to scan bodies, to beds that displayed a constant stream of vital data, Star Trek always pushed technology’s ability to probe and repair physical bodies in ever less-intrusive ways. The most recent example of TNG’s influence comes in the form of DxtER from Basil Leaf Technologies, the recent winner of the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE. The prototype device was designed to diagnose illnesses and monitor the health of people in their homes. Like Dr. Crusher’s instruments, DxtER employs non-invasive sensors, custom-designed to collect data about body chemistry, biological functions and vital signs. Artificial intelligence, informed by years of clinical emergency medicine experience and data, rapidly assesses the user’s state of health. While the device won’t differentiate between species, the prototype clearly demonstrates the value of non-invasive techniques, and the power of fiction to inspire real solutions.
Tasha Yar/Sela (Denise Crosby). As the U.S. government and North Korea saber-rattle across the Pacific Ocean, and as U.S. cruise missiles pummel Syria, we are reminded that even in Star Trek, while war on Earth was a thing of the past, defense remained a strong component of even the most exploratory of space vessels. Seemingly necessary to some, and disconcerting to many, weapons research and deployment remain central to strong national borders, and economic prosperity, along with national resource and human capital protection. Interestingly, in her other role as the Romulan Sela, Crosby’s character focused on covert efforts to destabilize the Federation. While Roddenberry insisted for the most part the Federation represent a kind of compassionate conservative utopia, the threats from the Soviet Union and other powers manifested in metaphorical aliens that continue to offer warnings about our ability to effectively navigate our own future.
Commander/Admiral William T. Riker (Jonathan Frakes). As much as management theorists dialog about networked organizations, command-and-control, hierarchical organization charts, succession planning and titles that reflect organizational placement remain dominant. But like many modern organizations, decision-making and execution have become more horizontal, and accountable delegation more pervasive. On the Enterprise, Frake’s Riker, while second in command, was often responsible for organizing and managing the collective wisdom of the ship. He knew who knew what, and he was effective in leading diverse teams to work together. That inclusive management style clearly influences many who watched show. It also inspired the 1996 management book by Wes Roberts and Bill Ross, Make It So: Leadership Lessons from Star Trek: The Next Generation: Leadership for the Next Generation.
Counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis). Inclusive management often embraces organizational development leaders aimed at diagnosing, developing and empowering the intellect of the organization through improved practice and better emotional connection. While no human possesses Deanna Troi’s half-Betazoid telepathic ability, empathy substitutes in human-centric organizations. Many progressive organizations believe they make better decisions when they include diverse views, including very human, emotional, relational and community perspectives. Troi’s character was clearly influenced by humanistic and psychological trends of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Her place on the bridge at the Captain’s left-hand amplified and spread the idea of connecting heart and soul, as much as mind and body, to work.
Chancellor Gowron (Robert O’Reilly). The Klingons were, and remain, the principal metaphor for the Soviet Union. As détente warmed the Cold War, so too did relations between the Klingon Empire and the United Federation of Planets. O’Reilly’s Gowron represented the levelest of heads among a society bent on animosity. While the Klingons find an increasingly comfortable cooperation with their former enemies, the stark differences in culture, and the cultural memory of hatred and war, remain hard to shake. On this stage, O’Reilly represented the other—he was the one out of place. Not a member of the Federation nor of the Enterprise crew, the actor, and the character he portrayed, stand apart. Every immigrant, Dreamer and refugee in America understands the story of ambivalence told through Klingons serving on a Federation ship or negotiating for peace with their enemies. That earth still faces these issues might well be Gene Roddenberry’s most unfulfilled legacy.
Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner). Technically, William Shatner was not a member of the Star Trek: TNG cast; however, he did appear in the movie Star Trek Generations. Picard entered the temporal Nexus to recruit Kirk to help him defeat the enemy du jour (in this case El-Aurian scientist Dr. Soran.) Like Shatner, Kirk represented an older generation, a previous generation of captaincy, but one clearly in the tradition of inclusiveness and integrity that continued to be refined by Picard and Riker.
Thirty years later, and more than 50 years after the debut of the original show, Roddenberry’s vision continues to ask humans to boldly go. That is the important point. All else is commentary.