Star Trek’s “The Ultimate Computer” and Today’s Fears About AI

Still from “The Ultimate Computer” episode of Star Trek.

In a recent article in Forbes, Jack Kelly says “There is a reasonable concern that AI can create havoc. Geoffrey Hinton, a professor at the University of Toronto and a co-founder of the Google Brain project, is heralded as one of the world’s most respected voices in the development of deep learning, a type of machine learning that has revolutionized AI. In a statement to the New York Times, Hinton announced that he was leaving Google to focus on his research and to speak out about the potential dangers of AI. In March [2023], Elon Musk and other prominent technologists signed an open letter warning about its potential risks. They called for a pause on AI development and training, as it poses ‘profound risks to society and humanity.’”

This is troubling indeed, and it’s really interesting to recall that Star Trek predicted this same possible outcome in 1968 with the episode “The Ultimate Computer,” which features a computer called the M-5 that took control of the Enterprise and destroyed several other space ships, including the Enterprise’s sister ship, the USS Excalibur. In the early scenes, Captain Kirk expresses concerns that he might be replaced by the machine, a fear that is now common in many quarters. When the M-5 begins its rampage during the war games, Kirk convinces the machine’s creator, Dr. Daystrom, to talk to it and try to make it stop, but Daystrom suffers a nervous breakdown before he can get the M-5 to discontinue the attack. Kirk then proves the M-5 is guilty of murder, and the computer shuts itself off and leaves the Enterprise unable to defend herself from attack from the surviving ships in Commodore Wesley’s attack force. Fortunately, Wesley decides not to destroy the Enterprise, and Kirk comments that he knew that Wesley would act with compassion. Dr. McCoy, always true to character, then remarks: “Compassion. That’s the one thing no machine ever had. Maybe it’s the one thing that keeps men ahead of them.”

I heartily agree with McCoy’s statement, and hope that our fears about AI taking ALL our jobs in the near future, are overblown, at least for most people. Some people have not been so lucky, such as workers in automobile factories, but I try to stay optimistic, and optimism is at the core of Star Trek’s vision of the future. Even though it is fiction, Star Trek assures us that humanity will survive and prosper in the future. It’s a message many of us need to hear in these deeply troubled times, and I am pleased that many of my students find that watching and analyzing the ethics of Star Trek is actually therapeutic.

Star Trek author Marc Cushman thinks this episode is prescient as well. “‘The Ultimate Computer’ is as relevant now as in 1968 when people were beginning to lose their jobs to computers and automated systems. There is, and was, great satisfaction in watching the dynamic James Kirk fight and defeat his would-be mechanical replacement of people. Kirk has reason to distrust computers. He was nearly brought down by one in ‘Court Martial.’ He pulled the plug on a computer used to wage war in ‘A Taste of Armageddon’ and two others that enslaved the people who worshiped them, in ‘Return of the Archons’ and ‘The Apple.’ This episode was the fourth and final time Kirk used logic to short-circuit a mechanical mind.” But this time it was different because the “machine’s failing resulted in being very much like a human, handicapped with both ambition and a confused sense of morality.” (p. 556)

This is a very effective episode, and I think if Elon Musk hasn’t seen it, he should, because it would confirm (in fiction) that his real life concern about AI might be justified unless there is “an OFF switch”.


Jack Kelly “Artificial Intelligence May Be Coming For Your JobForbes, May 24, 2023.

Marc Cushman; Susan Osborn. These are the Voyages – TOS: Season Two (These Are The Voyages series Book 2) (p. 556). Jacobs Brown Press. Kindle Edition.

Roger Thompson is a research fellow at Dalhousie University’s Centre for the Study of Security and Development, the author of Lessons Not Learned: The US Navy’s Status Quo Culture, a former researcher at Canada’s National Defence Headquarters and Korea’s first Star Trek professor.