Or, Are Star Trek Phasers Sentient?
Anyone who has handled firearms in the modern era is probably familiar with the four rules of gun safety. But as our technology gets smarter, will the rules change?
Star Trek: The Next Generation showed us a future with warp drives and transporters, androids, replicators, and all sorts of futuristic technologies. In the midst of these technological advancements, what does their weapons-handling tell us?
A Safety Refresher
For those who have never handled firearms (or even those who need a safety refresher), there are four basic rules of firearm safety. The wording sometimes varies, but in principle, the rules are:
- Treat every firearm as though it is loaded.
- Never point a firearm at anything you’re not willing to shoot.
- Never put your finger on the trigger until you’re ready to shoot.
- Know your target, and know what’s beyond it.
As with most safety rules, these are designed with some redundancy. If all rules are followed, the possibility of an accident is virtually zero. Even if one rule is violated, the odds of an accident are still almost nonexistent.
In Star Trek: The Next Generation, phasers are not firearms. They do not use an explosive charge to propel a projectile. But, despite Roddenberry’s utopian dream, phasers are clearly weapons, with destructive potential far beyond any modern day firearm.
Hand phasers can be set to stun (render unconscious), kill (uh… kill), and vaporize (neatly disappear whatever was hit, with no steam explosion or anything). They have also been used to heat coffee, cut through metal doors, and instantly create tunnels in solid rock. Pretty impressive for a weapon that you can keep in your nightstand.
Set Phasers to Stun
Star Trek: The Next Generation presents us with a utopian vision of the future. As Captain Picard explains in an early episode, “people are no longer obsessed with the accumulation of things. We have eliminated hunger, want, the need for possessions.”
From what we see in TNG, Starfleet is a very selective organization, with Starfleet Academy accepting only the best candidates after a battery of testing.
It seems, however, that this enlightened Starfleet’s weapon discipline has regressed from that of the modern-day. For example, there are numerous cases where a Starfleet officer sweeps other officers with a phaser, in violation of Rule 2.
We also see many violations of Rule 3, with Starfleet officers resting their fingers on the firing button.
In fact, the hand phaser seems unsafe by design. Its trigger is a simple button at the top of the device. There is no trigger guard; only a slight recess.
For a device that can be set to “vaporize”, this does not seem to provide any protection against someone accidentally sitting on the trigger button!
Ready. Fire! Aim.
Phasers must be self-targeting to a degree. Otherwise, we’ve seen many instances where the beam has gone wildly astray from where the phaser is pointing.
But in a way, self-targeting is an anti-safety feature. Instead of firing a phaser beam where the user actually aimed, self-targeting sends a phaser beam where the phaser decides the user meant to aim.
This completely nullifies any benefit from two of the firearm safety rules. If a phaser can shoot where it is not pointing, what benefit is there to “never point at anything you’re not willing to shoot”?
Likewise, “know your target, and know what’s beyond it” becomes impossible if the phaser can shoot anywhere inside a 35° cone in front of it.
We never see a display or holographic targeting sight to suggest that the phaser provides feedback about its point of aim. Nor is there a D-pad or joystick to allow the user to correct a mistaken target selection.
Are Phasers Sentient?
Phasers must be fairly intelligent devices. We see phasers shoot their intended target, even when aimed significantly off-target.
We see trained Starfleet officers violate safety rules with a confidence that must come from knowing the phasers will not deliberately shoot their fellow officers — to the point that we’ve seen an officer aim a phaser at himself while reducing its setting from “kill”.
Never do we see Ensign Redshirt accidentally shoot himself in the foot while drawing, even though the phaser’s design seems to lend itself to this sort of accident.
This suggests that phasers have a significant onboard intelligence. This is not surprising — after all, TNG has shipboard computers that converse in English, holodecks that can emulate sentient beings, and even an android Starfleet officer.
On the other hand, intelligence is not sentience. We never see a phaser exercise free will: shooting when not commanded, or refusing to shoot when the trigger is pressed.
Starfleet officers also treat phasers as non-sentient tools. Being locked up in a weapons cabinet does not seem to be the sort of enriching life that the Federation encourages sentient beings to pursue. Also, the TNG characters have no qualms about setting phasers to self-destruct when necessary.
The enlightened members of Starfleet would never mistreat a sentient being in this manner.
- Starfleet judge Phillipa Louvois ruling that Lt. Cmdr. Data, the first android in Starfleet, is “a toaster”.
- Starfleet Cmdr. Bruce Maddox attempting to obtain sole custody over Lt. Cmdr. Data’s newborn daughter.
- Starfleet Capt. Jean-Luc Picard tricking a sentient holodeck hologram into living out his entire life “in a small box on someone’s desk.”
- Starfleet Capt. Jean-Luc Picard ordering newly sentient Exocomps into a situation that would result in certain death.
- Starfleet Emergency Medical Holograms forcibly reprogrammed to mine dilithium.
So are Star Trek: The Next Generation’s phasers sentient? Probably not. But as with most Starfleet technology, they are probably very advanced.
Phasers likely carry enough onboard intelligence to distinguish “user wants to fire phaser” from “user fat-fingered the trigger”, and to decide “user meant to shoot the person 15° off-axis, not the crates straight ahead in the distance”.
Perhaps this changes the rules so that Starfleet officers can carry these immensely powerful weapons without obeying the same safety rules that we modern humans must follow.
Yet it seems that even in the 24th century, humans are still reluctant to entrust full control of their weapons to artificial intelligence.