The Ultimate Computer is another take on the use and importance of artificial intelligence so dear to Star Trek since its beginning. But even though the theme is not entirely original (see The Return of the Archons, The Changeling, The Apple and I, Mudd), the plot still offers something new and it doesn’t feel like a repetition of the usual warning against the dangers of relying too much on computers, something that by now we know it inexorably leads to pain, sadness, ruin and the usual redshirt death.
Starfleet decides to test Richard Daystrom’s (William Marshall) latest creation on the USS Enterprise. Daystrom is a genius and his latest creation is the revolutionary M-5 computer capable of governing entire space vessels all by itself, thus replacing 400 human(oid)s. Kirk reluctantly obeys Commodore Wesley (Barry Russo) and spends the first half of the episode wondering if the time has really come to retire and do something else, abandon space exploration and leave it to computers. In fact, this is precisely the intent of Daystrom: despite being the episode’s antagonist who tries to take away the job from Kirk and company, his motivations are noble! He wants to avoid the dangers and deaths related to space travel, and let humans engage in higher and less risky activities. One cannot fail to see that this is a very topical issue even in 2020, since we are talking more and more of jobs at risk due to automation and the increasingly widespread use of smart objects and big data and all that (even the European Commission publishes documents on that)!
Going back to the episode, everything goes awry when the M-5, feeling threatened, first destroys an unmanned freighter, the USS Woden, and then attacks the four Federation ships engaged in the exercise to test its capabilities in battle: the Lexington, the Excalibur, the Potemkin (named after the Russian battleship of the same name whose crew rebelled against the tsars in 1905) and the Hood (like the last battlecruiser of the British fleet sunk by the Bismarck in 1941). I like these little details that continue to give a sense of plurality and diversity to the future imagined by Gene Roddenberry (as if Uhura, Sulu, Scotty and Chekhov on the bridge were not enough)!
How does Kirk save the day this time? He takes advantage of the fact that the good Daystrom has modeled the M-5 after his own brain, so after it realizes the death and destruction it has caused, it repents and leaves the ship helpless and ready to be destroyed by the “enemy” ships. ” Fortunately, Wesley is in command of those ships and, since he’s not a computer, he understands what’s going on and calls off the attack and saves the Enterprise and our heroes on board.
This is a beautiful episode: it has great rhythm, good twists, and it’s centered on a debate that 50 years on is more relevant than ever. Not only is the theme of humanity’s superiority over artificial intelligence interesting, but the Daystrom character is complex, not your run-of-the-mill villain at all! He’s a man who, after winning the Nobel prize at the age of 25, spends the rest of his life trying to prove that he wasn’t just a wonder boy and who could give more to the world. Naturally, pursuing such an obsessive goal couldn’t lead to anything constructive. Moreover, Spock is surprisingly intuitive in this episode: instead of appreciating being under the command of a computer (as McCoy accuses him), he cannot understand it because he finds it illogical! And he’s actually right, given that the M-5 behaves exactly like Daystrom, rather than as an efficient and rational computer. As (almost) always, the half-Vulcan is right! Ciao!
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