Monday, March 20, 2006

The Thing About Being a Hologram . . .

Starting with The Next Generation, the holodeck became as much a part of the Star Trek universe as the transporter and warp drive. One outgrowth of the holodeck concept was the creation of sentient holograms, most notably Professor Moriarty (TNG: “Elementary, My Dear Data” and “Ship in a Bottle”) and the Doctor (VOY: “Caretaker” et. al.). The concept of a sentient, living hologram is intriguing and is explored throughout the seven seasons of Voyager in particular.

In the process, however, the writers have allowed a persistent logical gaffe into a number of story lines that fail to recognize that holograms aren’t discreet, self-contained things, they are representation of data in a file.

I am not talking about a debate over what holograms are when they appear on the holodeck (the tractor-beam-manipulated-matter vs. photons-and-force-fields debate). I am talking about what they are at a fundamental level. They are computer files. Yes, they are highly sophisticated computer files, but they are still computer files. Before citing examples of where this fact has been ignored or sidestepped, let’s first examine this basic premise and its implications.

Holograms As Computer Files

“Projections” (VOY) - The Doctor spends the better part of this episode locked in an internal debate over the nature of his own existence. In his delusion, he is supposed to be a human being. At the end of the episode, to confirm that he is a hologram, he tries to pass his arm into the corridor. His forearm disappears as it breaks the plane of the doorway—his holo-emitters cannot reach beyond that point. While his arm disappears, it isn’t amputated. He simply pulls it back into sickbay all in one piece.

This makes perfect sense. Somewhere in the EMH file is a subroutine for the Doctor’s arm. Just because the holo-emmiters cannot display his arm doesn’t mean he doesn’t have an arm or that it doesn’t exist anymore. The relationship between a hologram and a system of holo-emitters (like a holodeck or Voyager’s sickbay) is similar to the relationship between an html document and your monitor.

If you grab the window you are reading this page in and drag it partway off of the screen, you know that you can pull it back onto the screen. Your browser and this page will be in tact.

What you see on the screen is only a visual representation of a file. Moving that representation outside the area your monitor can display in doesn’t effect the original file. In a sense the page is always “there” even when it’s off the screen. You can’t see it, but the computer, in it’s own virtual world “knows” where each portion of that page is.

Similarly, the Doctor is a file in the computer’s memory like an html document. His program interacts with some kind of software just as an html document interacts with a web browser and operating system. Finally that software tells the hardware, the holo-emitters, to display a representation of that file just as a web browser and operating system tells your monitor to display a representation of a particular file.

“The Swarm” (VOY) – In this episode, the Doctor’s file, the actual essence of what he is, was in danger. He had accumulated too many extraneous data from years of use, and the only obvious solution was to reset him to his original programming. The Doctor we know and love, with all his memories and experiences would have truly “died,” been lost forever.

It should be noted that there may have been a back-up with at least some of his memories and experiences available as indicated in the episode “Living Witness” (see below). In any event this episode demonstrates that in a worst-case scenario, the Doctor’s program can be reset to its original configuration.

“Living Witness” (VOY) – This story is set 700 years in Voyager's future where a copy of the Doctor is reactivated on a planet that Voyager had encountered during its trip back to the Alpha Quadrant. Let me repeat that. A copy of the Doctor is reactivated. This episode demonstrates that Voyager saves backup copies of the EMH in some kind of protected archive (which starships have been known to have at least since the TNG episode “Contagion”).

We don’t know how often these backups are made, but to be useful we have to assume they are made fairly often. So even though this backup was lost (in the sense that the piece of hardware that contained it was stolen), it is unthinkable that they didn’t start making new backups right away. These backups should be available througout the series.

Holograms Treated as Real, Irreplaceable Things

While Moriarty and the Doctor have every right to want to be treated like real people in terms of their personal rights, the writer have lapsed into treating them like real people in terms of the form of their existence. Following are sampling of episodes that reflect this problem:

“Ship In a Bottle” (TNG) – This episode featured the return of the nefarious Moriarty and his efforts to leave the holodeck for the real world. This episode makes a great point of saying that if a holodeck character were to walk off the holodeck they would cease to exist. Not that they would just disappear until the computer displayed them again, but they would actually, fundamentally cease to exist!

Picard even makes a great show of tossing a holographic book through the open doors of the holodeck. It disappears in flash of light. But it is unthinkable that the file, the data, the information that describes that book is completely erased from computer memory. (I would argue that if the doors were at that moment closed and the arch disappeared, we might even see the book laying where it would have landed had the holo-emitters been active in that part of the holodeck.)

Similarly, when there is an effort to beam a chair off the holodeck (albeit a simulated effort to do so) the characters act as if the chair is now lost forever—and thank goodness it wasn’t the Countess! Does it really make sense that they could never again conjure up that particular chair from the computer’s databanks just because a representation of that chair disappeared? But no one in the episode seems to view it this way.

Picard, Data, Barclay, Moriarty and later the newly sentient Countess all talk about the danger that if these characters walk off the holodeck they might be lost. There is particular concern over no harm coming to the Countess by not letting her walk off the holodeck prematurely. But can’t she pass her arm in and out of the holodeck like the Doctor in “Projections”? And if she can do it with her arm, why not her whole body?

There was certainly enough drama in Moriarity’s quest for freedom and his threatening control over the Enterprise for the purpose of telling a good story. There was really no need to act as if the Countess couldn’t try walking off the holodeck (or beaming off the holodeck for that matter) and just seeing what would happen. Worst case scenario: they reactivate the program where it left off – there is no reason for anything to be lost because she isn’t a thing, she’s a file. A trial and error approach shouldn’t have any risks associated with it.

“Message in a Bottle” (VOY) – The Doctor is sent through an alien network to the experimental Starfleet ship the Prometheus. While the episode focuses on his efforts to outsmart a group of Romulans who have taken over the ship (with the help of a reluctant EMH Mark II) there is a sub plot regarding Harry’s efforts to create a replacement EMH in the Doc’s absence. The whole notion that the Doctor was sent and actually gone and irreplaceable is just a variation on the inconsistencies we saw in “Ship in a Bottle.”

This isn’t like sending a person through a transporter beam, this is like sending an email with an attachment—there should still be a copy of the original left behind. In other words, because the Doctor is a program, it should be possible to send a copy of him through the network without losing the original. And we know from "Living Witness" that there are backup copies of the Doctor's program anyways. This episode ignores that.

“Virtuoso” (VOY) – The Doctor decides to abandon Voyager for a singing career. Janeway objects, in part because it will leave the ship without his services. Admittedly the plot wouldn’t allow the Doctor to leave the ship and have an exact duplicate take his place. That duplicate would have the same desire for stardom as the original. But even if they lost their friend the Doctor as they knew him, couldn’t they reboot a copy of his program to its original settings or load in an earlier back-up of his program with at least some of his memories after they left Quomar behind?

Suggesting that kind of resolution might seem demeaning to the sentient status we have watched the “real” Doctor attain to over the five and a half seasons leading up to this, but the technology would allow for this as indicated by “The Swarm” and “Living Witness.” However, such a solution, however unpleasant to the Doctor’s friends, is never even proposed in “Virtuoso.”

“Life Line” (VOY) – In terms of the Doctor’s program, this is “Message in a Bottle, Part II.” The Doctor is transferred to Jupiter Station to treat his creator, Doctor Zimmerman, with an emphasis on transferred. Not copied, but transferred, disappearing from Voyager’s sickbay as if there were no way to copy his file or retrieve it from the archives.

“Critical Care” (VOY) – The Doctor is kidnapped by a thief and conman named Gar. The mobile emitter, as a physical object, can be stolen, but what about the Doctor’s program? Why would this thief “cut and paste” the file instead of “copying and pasting” the file? If he had simply duplicated the Doctor it may have taken the crew longer to realize the EMH had been pirated and the real mobile emitter stolen.

Even allowing for poor planning on Gar's part, why would he not only “cut and paste” the Doctor but also delete his fully functional back-up file(s)? He wouldn't have, it would only make Voyager that much more intent on tracking him down. So there should be something more than an old training file left in protected memory, there should be a fully functional backup. But in an effort to make the Doctor’s kidnapping “real” the writers ignore what he really is and act as if he is simply gone.

“Author, Author” (VOY) – This episode deals with a holo-novel written by the Doctor. An unscrupulous publisher steals his work claiming that he can do whatever he wants with it because the Doctor, as a hologram, is not legally a real person and therefore has no legal rights.

The closing scene portrays a situation alluded to in “Life Line.” According to that episode, the EMH Mark I’s were reassigned to menial physical labor. Now we get to see them. The closing scene, which is admittedly an impressive bit of VFX, shows a whole cavern full of EMH Mark I’s toiling away in a mine. They have acquired a copy of the Doctor’s novel and there is an implied civil rights movement afoot.

As much as I like the scene from a technical standpoint and because of what it suggests for the future of holographic rights, it reflects the basic premise that these holograms are things, not files. The scene suggests that if there were 100 star ships with an EMH Mark I, there are now exactly 100 EMH Mark I’s that have been transferred to other kinds of assignments. But the EMH on any ship is just a copy of a piece of software, not a thing that can be physically transferred.

Imagine if a new word processor came out and no one liked it because it wasn’t user-friendly. Can you imagine the software company saying, “Okay, let’s resell it as photo-editing software”? Of course not. They might sell an upgrade that replaces the existing version and fixes the bugs, but they wouldn’t re-release it as something else. And if they did, it would be at that point truly be something else. It wouldn’t be the original in any sense of the word, even if some of the basic operating code or interface carried over.

The Challenge the Writers Faced

In order to create dramatic tension and help us view certain holographic characters as "real people", the writers have treated them as destructible and irreplaceable. Star Trek has told plenty of “reset-button” stories, but to create characters that literally have a reset button seems to lack dramatic appeal. If a character dies and can simply be reloaded from protected computer archives, then you can’t put them in real jeopardy, at least not as easily as you can a flesh in blood being. To create that kind of danger, the hologram's program and all backup files would have to be threatened at the same time. That could happen, but it would require a much more elaborate problem than your average alien threat of the week.

I have cited some specific occasions when the Doctor left the ship (or was going to leave the ship) for what was presented as a permanent (or possibly permanent) absence. The truth is, there have been numerous occasions when the Doctor used his mobile emitter to leave the ship on short term away missions of one kind or another. The implication has always been that when he’s using his mobile emitter, he cannot be activated in sickbay. But the evidence we have considered at the outset suggests he could be. And why not? Why leave your ship without a doctor for any amount of time?

Each time the Doctor leaves, a duplicate of his current program could be left behind in sickbay. When he returns you wouldn’t have to have two Doctors. The two could be merged back into a single hologram that shares the memories of both. This would have been a intriguing concept to explore, something unique to an artificial intelligence like the Doctor. He could be split apart and reintigrated, eventually having a lifetime of parallel memories. This seems like a great source of potential stories or at least of an interesting sub-plot or two. Unfortunately, this kind of idea was never pursued.

Simply put, while the writer’s choice to treat Moriarty and the Doctor as things is understandable from the standpoint of dramatic story telling, it is very difficult to reconcile logically with what we know of the technology.

But then again, who ever said humans were logical?

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Utopia Planitia Online

If you visited the Google website earlier this week you may have seen their logo was modified as a tribute to Perceval Lowell and his studies of Mars, and the launch of Google Mars with its interactive map of the red planet.

See the List of Planitia on Mars

If you follow the above link, and search through the list of plains (or planitia) on the left, you can find Utopia toward the end of the list and find it on the map. Utopia Planitia is, of course, the site of Starfleet's Ship Yards and the birthplace of the USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D.

More precisely this is the location over which the ship yards are in a geosynchronous orbit as explained in the ST:TNG Technical Manual and confirmed by visual evidence from the Voyager episode "Relativity". (This makes me wonder if Earth Station McKinley is in geosynchronous orbit above Mt. McKinley.)

The idea of the Utopia Planitia Ship Yards was introduced during The Next Generation. It was mentioned (and barely shown through a window) in the episode "Booby Trap". Geordi used the Enterprise's design specifications from its original construction as a reference. This holodeck program, which also included a re-creation of Dr. Leah Brahms, was briefly seen again in the episode "Galaxy's Child" when the real Dr. Brahms stumbled across the program and her doppelganger, much to Geordi's chagrin.

In the seventh season episode "Eye of the Beholder" it is learned that a brutal murder was committed on the Enterprise during its construction at Utopia Planitia, but again, we never really got to see what the Ship Yards were actually like.

But finally we got to see Utopia Planitia during Voyager's fifth season, and now we can see its name-sake on Google Mars.