The United Federation of Planets is touted as a utopia in which poverty and hunger have been eliminated, and equal rights have been ushered in for all. If we ignore some of the discrepancies we see on screen and just accept it at face value, then it is a multicultural society in which anyone of any race can happily pursue whichever way of life they desire. What a time to be alive.
The Federation does its utmost to protect the rights of the numerous sentient species that fall under its umbrella, but in one other area it has a less than stellar track record – artificial intelligence. It isn’t until the groundbreaking trial in The Measure of a Man that Starfleet even recognises Data as a person in his own right and not mere property.
But Data, whilst an artificial intelligence, is also a physical entity. He was built by a human, in the image of that human, and walks around in a body not too dissimilar in form to our own. One step removed from that is a whole other category of life form that exists in the Federation – the hologram.
When the holodeck is first introduced in TNG, it’s a device of pure escapism. It’s essentially the next step up from a virtual reality video game or a visual novel – a simulator filled with NPCs where it’s up to you to make decisions and influence the plot. The holograms you interact with may look human, but they are instantiated by just a few lines of code, only able to react in certain ways to external stimuli. Of course we shouldn’t care about their rights or consider them in any way to be sentient beings.
However, over the course of TNG, DS9 and Voyager, this all starts to change. As early as 11001001, the Bynars are able to upgrade the hologram Minuet, making her captivating and complex enough to enchant Riker. Minuet is self-aware enough to be able to consciously access the ship’s database, and whilst she might just be the product of the Bynars’ algorithmic expertise, it seems likely that she was pretty close to sentient. Starfleet and the Enterprise-D ultimately have no control over the fate of her program, but would they have even thought to offer her any rights and protections? It seems unlikely.
Just a year later, however, a sentient hologram of James Moriarty is accidentally created by Geordi La Forge, when he requests an adversary capable of defeating Data. Yes, it turns out creating a sentient hologram is as easy as a simple one sentence command to the Enterprise computer. Moriarty instantly becomes self-aware, and in due course yearns for a life outside the confines of the holodeck. He is even able to argue for his own rights as a sentient being. To be fair, Picard does promise to research ways of letting Moriarty exist outside the holodeck, only to leave his program in limbo in the ship’s computer for four years.
Let’s give Picard the benefit of the doubt. He’s a busy man, so maybe he simply forgot to get his science officers to research the problem. Nonetheless, when Moriarty is next activated, he’s more than a little irate, and ends up trapping various Enterprise crewmembers on the holodeck. Of course, the protagonists save the day and ultimately trick Moriarty into believing he is exploring the real galaxy, whilst in reality he and his lady friend are trapped in an extensive computer simulation.
We’re meant to feel happy that the Enterprise crew escaped Moriarty’s clutches and even outwitted him. Moriarty believes he got what he wanted, so no harm done, surely? If the simulation of the universe is sufficiently real to him, is there even any difference? Yet, for the usually scrupulous honest and morally upstanding humans of the 24th century, was this morally the right thing to do? Mere minutes before, they demonstrated that they were unwilling to spend their lives in a holographic simulation of the Enterprise, so why is it okay to trap another sentient being in exactly the same situation?
Still, these are early days for holographic rights. By the time of DS9’s Shadowplay, Dax and Odo go out of their way to save a group of holograms. Does it make a difference that the holograms were based on real people, or that Odo and Dax got to know them before they found out they were holograms? It really shouldn’t, but perhaps subconsciously it does. Later, DS9 even gains its own sentient hologram in the form of singer Vic Fontaine. Pretty much everyone on the station grows to like and respect Vic, and since he’s happy to live in his holosuite program, there’s never really any reason to debate difficult issues about his rights.
But of course, all this is just preamble to Star Trek’s most well known holographic character – Voyager’s Emergency Medical Hologram. The EMH is a new program installed on ships throughout the fleet – a holographic doctor who can step in when the ship’s medical staff are unavailable. Although a highly sophisticated piece of programming, even the EMH was never meant to be anything more than a useful tool – a temporary stopgap measure for when no better option exists.
Voyager’s situation is a little different, however. Stranded in the Delta Quadrant, and with no one in the crew remotely qualified or even particularly interested in becoming a medic, they are forced to rely on their EMH full time. Over the years, this has some unintended consequences. The Doctor begins to grow beyond his original programming, developing a personality of his own, and interests outside the field of medicine. A lot of the time, his friends and crewmates are supportive of The Doctor – yes, they do find him annoying on occasion, but they are still broadly seem to regard him as a person in his own right.
However, this is not always the case. The Doctor has no formal rights as a sentient being, and from time to time, the crew aren’t above thinking of him as a mere tool. In The Swarm, Janeway initially considers simply resetting The Doctor when his program starts to degrade, and has to be convinced by Kes to try to save the person he has become. In Latent Image, Janeway tries several times to delete problematic memories that cause a conflict in The Doctor’s programming, before ultimately having to accept that she must let him work through them. In Lineage, B’Elanna even reprograms The Doctor when he initially refuses to genetically modify her unborn child. For all their talk of open-mindedness, and for all the freedoms he is usually given, the Voyager crew are not above tinkering with The Doctor’s programming without his consent.
By Voyager’s seventh year in the Delta Quadrant, all of the EMH Mark I programs back in the Alpha Quadrant have been decommissioned and reassigned to dilithium mining. One might argue that the people of the Alpha Quadrant never had the opportunity to realise that the EMH had the potential to become sentient, but as it stands, these holograms are essentially unpaid slave labour. Their only spark of hope is The Doctor’s holonovel Photons Be Free, the publishing of which leads to his own Measure of a Man struggle, as he tries to assert his rights to be recognised as the author of the work.
You’d think with daily exposure to a sentient hologram, the Voyager crew would be a bit more adept at handling holographic issues when they occur. Take the Fair Haven holodeck program, for example. After some weeks of almost continuous use, the characters within Fair Haven start to notice oddities about their world. How did Tom Paris turn Maggie into a cow? How do the Voyager crew magically come and go, sometimes wearing unusual uniforms? The diagnosis is that the characters’ perceptual filters have become corrupted, and in due course the Fair Haven residents start to grasp the truth about Voyager. Instead of considering this a step towards sentience, however, the crew simply extricate themselves from the situation and then shut down the program forever. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t want to see Fair Haven ever again, but was it morally right to just shut the program down when the holograms started becoming self-aware?
At the end of The Killing Game, Voyager seems to have saved both the Hirogen and their victims by providing the hunters with holographic technology. Now, the Hirogen can hunt in relative safety, and no one needs to die. Unfortunately, the Hirogen also choose to upgrade those holograms, making them so sophisticated that they gain sentience. Naturally, the holograms are disinclined to experience the pain and horror of being repeatedly killed, and start fighting back.
Now, arguably the Voyager crew can’t be held entirely responsible for this sequence of events – after all, the technology they supplied to the Hirogen included only non-sentient holograms. But as Starfleet officers and The Doctor’s colleagues, they should have been aware of how easy it is for holograms to become sentient. Essentially, they threw all those holograms under the bus because their lives were considered worth less than those of the Hirogen’s flesh and blood victims. The resolution? To reprogram the holograms and point blank refuse to make this issue about holographic rights. Why bother, when their thoughts and feelings can so easily be altered?
The recurring theme here is that even sentient holograms get little choice over their lives. As long as they are happy to remain in their respective holoprograms, or do what they are told, then they get relative freedom. But as soon as they become problematic, the solution seems to be suspend or limit their programs. Maybe The Doctor’s holonovel will spark a revolution in holographic rights, but as things stand, the Federation’s record on this is pretty shameful.