On this week’s Words With Nerds, set to release a couple days after this post, we ponder a question to which I’ve never gotten a satisfactory answer, and which puzzles me constantly.

Why doesn’t the Federation in Star Trek use more robots?

Data Firing
Serious gun shooting face!

The driver of the question is really the casualty rate in the respective engineering departments of the ships we’ve seen. If something goes wrong, there’s a reactor leak that kills people, an attack that blows people into space, or tons of people die in fiery terror when someone stranded on Ceti Alpha V one-ups an admiral.

There are a lot of casualties that could be avoided if the positions were either automated or staffed by robots. Of course, not sentient robots like Data, because then you get into the entire argument about whether you’re creating a slave class of artificial intellects like they did in the Star Wars galaxy.

I ponder if it’s because the Federation is a reflection of the Socialist/Communist paradigm of a place like China, that gives people jobs as a means to keep people occupied. Maybe putting people into whatever job they can is a way to keep a growing population occupied; no special skill set means a risky voyage on Kirk’s ship.

This seems likely since the Federation doesn’t seem to control population growth or evolution directly. I’ve never seen evidence of that textually in book or film, despite the fact that a lot of Trek fans I know seem to support eugenics either expressly or implicitly.

The Argument Against Robots

The only argument against using robots I can see is that they remove an important factor we can’t ignore: Risk.

Humans love risk. At least, it seemed that we once embraced risk and all its potential. The astronauts knew they could die, but they also knew that they could maybe touch the stars in a way few ever will in this lifetime.

I think human beings need risk to drive us to do important or monumental things. An innate risk or suffering – potential loss of life, even – will convince us of the worthiness of doing something. It gives us the thrill to let us know we are, in fact, alive in a way that is meaningful. It took me a while to get there – I was a sheltered little boy for a long time – but the appeal is inarguable.

Conversely, perhaps the problem now is that we have such a cultural aversion to risk and failure that we’re happy to be Salieri instead of Mozart. We are content to create only so long as we have a safety net; there’s no need to go out on a limb. Better to let our gaming consoles deliver the simulation of risk, all the while knowing we’re safe.

Perhaps that’s why our own drive to explore the stars is vanishing. We’d rather watch TV shows about it than look skyward, because the risk has been removed. We can send Mars Rovers and probes and satellites to the far reaches.

Let the robots find the monoliths! Humanity will find its evolution through Twitter mobs and Internet outrage culture, gorged on Mountain Dew and degrees in Surfing Studies.

That should work out well.

Somewhere, a lonely black slab awaits contact that never will come.