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Star Trek’s Data, ‘Measure of a Man’ and the Ethics of Androids

Ever since the science of robotics was introduced during the beginning of the 20th century, art found in it a new way of contemplating the essence of humanity. This has been proven time and time again in film: Metropolis (1927), Blade Runner (1982), A,I. (2001) I, Robot (2004)…

Television also played an important role in representing the possible conflicts that could exist between a human being and a human-looking machine. In these kind of stories, it is very often to see the android wishing to be human. We’re so arrogant as a species that we believe that any other new species would wish to be like us, instead of working in evolving as species. Or… do android just want to be like humans so that they will stop being treated as an inferior being that only exists to serve humanity?

Star Trek presents a different view to the issue. That’s why we’re gonna study the case of Data, the android commander in the USS Enterprise in Star Trek. Especifically, New Generation, episode 2×09, ‘The Measure of a Man‘.

In case you don’t know who Data is, he is an android with a positronic brain that is never doubted for his skills or intelligence as the second officer and chief of operations officer. In many ways, he has been compared as the successor of the Original Series‘ Spock in the role of showing an outsider point of view of humanity. They both represent the idea of “otherness“. 

In ‘The Measure of a Man‘, commander Maddox wants to do an experiment on Data: he wants to clone him to have several androids like him. However, he doesn’t know enough to perform such a complicated operation, and a little mistake could result in Data’s death. If we were talking about a human being, no one would even consider to take such a risk. But of course… Data is not human, is he?

Capt. Picard: I have to consider Starfleet’s interests. What if Commander Maddox is correct? There is a possibility that many more beings like yourself can be constructed.
Commander Data: Sir, Lieutenant La Forge’s eyes are far superior to human biological eyes, true? Then why are not all human officers required to have their eyes replaced with cybernetic implants?

During all the episode, the contrast between being human and being android is constantly shown to the audience by subjecting both species to the same scenarios. They wouldn’t risk losing a human so that a single trait could be cloned. But they would do it with Data, because Maddox believes that he’s just a machine property of the Starfleet. Yes, he is a machine created by a man. But does that mean he’s property of mankind and that he has no freedom at all to decide over its own body?

When being in a trial to decide whether they’ll carry on with the experiment or not, they make Data a series of questions and make him demonstrate a few things to prove how non-human he is.

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Riker removes Data’s arm

“Its purpose: to serve human needs and interests. It’s a collection of neural nets and heuristic algorithms. Written by a man, its hardware built by a man. And now… and now a man will shut it off”. – Riker


Therefore, before being shut off, Data requires a process of verbal de-humanization. This works as a way to not make the other characters (and the audience) feel guilty about turning it off. “It’s just a machine”, they would think. Would you feel sorry for resetting your computer?

“You are endowing Data with human characteristics because it looks human. But it is not. If it were a box on wheels, I would not be facing this opposition”. – Maddox

Guinan reminds Picard that, in the history of many worlds, there’s always been ‘disposable creatures’: living things that do all the dirty work that humans don’t want to do (the robots in I, Robot are an example). Picard notes that she’s referring to slavery and he suggests that “property” is nothing but and euphemism of “slavery”. This also raises other questions: do androids have rights? do they have fredom? and, ultimately, does Data have a right to refuse?

Just as an android can be seen as human-like, a human being can also be perceived as mechanical. Commander Picard refers to humans as “machines of a different type“. This is a call back to philosophers like Descartes, who had a mechanistic view and believed that, without the mind, the bodies were pure machines. With this, Picard tries to put himself in the same level as Data. Why should they be judged differently?

Picard makes a very good statement in saying that, if a hundred or thousand of Data were created, they would become a race. And therefore, humans would be guilty of slaving a new race and calling it their property.

It is indeed true that these are all very complicated and delicate issues and, when arguing about this topic, one cannot help but end up quoting philosophers. It is such a complicated ethical problem, and it’s all based in pure speculation!

“Is Data a machine? Yes. Is he the property of Starfleet? No. We’ve all been dancing around the basic issue: does Data have a soul? I don’t know that he has. I don’t know that I have! But I have got to give him the freedom to explore that question himself. It is the ruling of this court that Lieutenant Commander Data has the freedom to choose.” -Louvois (lawyer)

Star Trek has always been seen as a very progressive TV show, especially for its time. The Next Generation is considered as the most utopian of all the series. A future where there’s no wars, no money… it’s just different species and races getting along and exploring space. That is why, n this case, instead of the typical “robot who wants to be human” conflict that is often presented in science fiction, Star Trek presents an android who accepts himself as what he is and just wants to be free to decide. The final decision in this case is that he’s not either a human nor a robot, but an android. A living thing that deserves the right to have freedom of choice.

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