April 24 2024

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Chabon: Two Types of Computers And A.I.s In Trek

4 min read

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Chabon, a lifelong Trek fan, spoke to Deadline about his recent Star Trek: Short Treks episode Calypso and also about the Picard series on which he is now working. Note: there are spoilers below for Calypso.

Chabon has been a fan since childhood, and so was thrilled to be working on Star Trek. “Everything in my life has been leading up to this,” he said. “And I say that in all semi-seriousness.

“I’ve been a Star Trek fan since I was about ten years old and I’ve watched every version of the show since the first-run after the original series, which I watched first in reruns; and I’ve seen all the movies and look, I’m a huge fan. I’ve absorbed a lot of the Star Trek ethos so as soon as I sat down and started trying to write for Star Trek, a lot of those questions — what are the parameters, what are the givens, what are the underlying assumptions — I think a lot of that is stuff I’m doing almost subconsciously so I don’t have to stop and think about it. I think what appealed to me in this germ of an idea [with Calypso] is when I perceived of this artificial intelligence being a character in the story which grows out of the traditions.”

According to Chabon, Trek has gone one of two ways when it comes to stories about computers. “In a way there are kinda two competing strands in history of Star Trek in terms of looking at computers and artificial intelligences — although that’s not what they would have been calling them in the original series — and one that was especially prevalent in the original series was this idea of computers being dangerous. There’s one episode where there’s this computer called Nomad [The Changeling] that believes its mission is to sterilize the human race, expunge it from creation because it’s imperfect. So you’ve got sort of like doomsday computers and mad computers and that’s a common trope in the late sixties and early seventies where this super-mad computer was going crazy, taking over the world and killing all the humans. You see that over and over coming through Terminator and all kinds of cautionary tales right up to the present moment.

“Then there’s this other strand that really emerges and its best and fullest form is on Star Trek: The Next Generation with the character Data who is more than just an A.I. He is an artificial human. Which is another way of looking at it and with Data it gets at one of the perennial Star Trek questions which is: What does it mean to be a human being? And whether you’re looking at that from Mr. Spock the question was framed as: How much of human nature is based in emotion and how much is based in intelligence or logic? And then you have Data really pushing that question. It comes up again with Seven of Nine and the Borg. So it’s something that Star Trek has always been fascinated by and it’s that sub-genre that this new story is coming from with the story of this castaway and the Artificial Intelligence that saves him. What is human and how does he come to view her.”

In Calypso, the A.I. running Discovery has “been lonely,” said Chabon. “She’s overjoyed to have company. She’s so excited that she’s finally got a crew again even though it’s a crew of one. Her programming, her mission is to ultimately serve the needs of the crew. She kind of goes a little bananas in that regard and tries to do everything she can think of to keep Craft happy and ultimately she has this underlying longing to keep him. She’s been alone for a thousand years and then there’s this guy and there’s part of her that doesn’t want to lose him. She’s kind of mischievous…she has personality because my thought was that over a thousand years with no crew to tend to; she would have spent time upgrading herself. She calls herself Zora. It’s similar in a way to Data’s mission to become more human but she’s had a lot more time to work on it.”

So what’s next for Chabon? The writer is working on the new Picard Trek series which will also air on CBS All Access. Chabon found Sir Patrick Stewart to be “a very willing and literate resource,” who will “make the show” and “take it to another level.”

And personally, said Chabon, Stewart is “a sweetheart,” who is “really, really” smart.

Calypso can be streamed now on CBS All Access. There is no release date for the Picard series yet.

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