Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Automation Paradox in Science Fiction

One of the obviously ridiculous aspects of Star Trek and similar science fiction shows is that humans not only make the larger, more strategic decisions ("Attack that ship!"), they also make more detailed decisions that would certainly be automated.  There is absolutely no way, for example, that if sensors detected a vessel of unknown intentions charging their weapons the procedure would be for the weapons officer to notice this, speak to the captain, after which the captain considers the situation, eventually realizing that if shields are not raised the ship will be destroyed, so he tells the weapons officer to raise shields, which he then does.  No way!  The shields would be raised automatically.  Depending on pre-programmed decisions depending for situations matching those encountered, an automatic attack (or retreat) would probably also be launched, though the captain could disable this feature when it was deemed in appropriate. 

In fact, most of the bridge activity makes no sense whatsoever; it would mostly be replaced by automation except for the big decisions that (to be meaningful) have to be made by the humans (or Vulcans, or whatever):  things like, "Are we friends or are we enemies?"  

Engineering would not be much better.  A sailing ship of the 18th century could make most repairs using tools and materials already aboard ship, possibly with the use of raw materials (like trees) that could be obtained without further help from civilization.  If a circuit board on a modern aircraft carrier is fried, though, the ship does not have the facilities to fabricate a replacement.  The more technically sophisticated a ship is, the more dependent it is on a technically sophisticated society to supply its components.  If the Enterprise's engines were working properly, they probably would need to be controlled automatically (human reaction time again being too slow); if the engines were broken, it would probably be impossible to fix them without a tow to a shipyard.

What is interesting, though, is that increasing automation comes at a cost, the automation paradox.  As the crash of Air France flight 447 makes clear, we have already reached the point where that paradox has begun to be a problem. If that is true on a modern jetliner, it will be vastly more true on future spaceships.  

It would be interesting to see this dealt with seriously in a science fiction context.   Maybe -- just maybe -- it could be used to justify having a helmsman, a weapons officer, etc., rather than automating the whole operation.


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  2. You're right. It would be needless for humans to supervise many things in these futuristic shows. It is interesting that you never commented that every human speaks English and many of the aliens either speak English or some alien language that eventually translates to English.

  3. The "speaking English" thing is at least sometimes addressed by the use of a universal translator (not that that could really work; something is ALWAYS lost in translation) or by the language "really" being some other, interstellar language which is rendered in English for the viewing audience.

    Needless to say, there are ALL KINDS of problems in science fiction. One of the reasons I like Stargate SG-1 so much is they at least poked fun at their own problems through the use of a "fictional" TV program, "Wormhole Extreme", that was loosely based on the "real" Stargate project and could be used to provide plausible deniability.

    1. I always thought of Star Trek as a space soap opera - it would really have a similar story line if set in the deep sea or in the desert. There isn't a lot of science to it, is there? Its more of a futuristic fantasy, I think. And sci-fi and fantasy often get lumped together but each is unique.

      I always think that Star Trek is one of the few shows that generally depict the future as positive ...