Sci-fi has been fascinated with sentient synthetic life since ‘s androids.
Just a warning going in: This explainer will touch on plot details covered in the first episode of Star Trek: Picard near the end (get caught up, it’s great!). We’ll post our usual spoiler image when we get there.
The Androids of the 23rd Century
You can’t talk about where androids end up in the Star Trek universe without also untangling the franchise’s relationship with human augmentation in general.
In the 23rd century of the original series (fleshed out in Discovery and eventually in the even-earlier predecessor Enterprise), genetic augmentation of humankind has been outlawed since the mid-2200s, in the wake of the Eugenics Wars”a series of conflicts in Trek‘s 1990s over the decision to advance human civilisation through selective breeding and genetic manipulation; these conflicts eventually sparked World War III”and the creation of bioengineered superhuman beings like Khan.
In the wake of that ban, there were still scientists interested in the idea. Arik Soong, an ancestor of Dr. Noonien Soong (who we’ll be discussing later), started his generation-spanning desire to explore human augmentation not through synthetic life, but controversial genetic engineering, entrusting his descendants to carry on his work.
But human augmentation in various forms is alive and well by the time of 23rd century Starfleet in spite of this ban. Despite it being against Federation law, microbiologist Paul Stamets becomes an augmented human on Discovery when he splices himself with Tardigrade DNA to pilot the titular ship’s spore-drive, enhancing himself further with cybernetic augmentation to better facilitate the process.
And speaking of cybernetics (and the eventual path to the development of synthetic life) and Discovery, you’ve also got cyborgs like Lieutenant Commander Airiam, an augmented human who, in the wake of a nearly-fatal shuttle crash, received major cybernetic upgrades”at this point in Trek history they were not as advanced as you may expect, though, with Airiam having to selectively manage the storage of her own memories to avoid overloading her augments.
But moving beyond human augmentation and to the androids we encounter in this earliest period of Star Trek on screen, it’s interesting to note that even with beings like Airiam as contemporaries, completely synthetic sentient life is a pipe dream. Every android we meet in the time of the original Star Trek comes from societies that exist outside of the Federation”from ancient, long-gone civilizations, or seemingly omnipotent beings whose grasp of technology is clearly established as being far beyond the current understandings of Starfleet.
On the “ancient civilisation” front, you have androids like Rayna in “Requiem for Methuselah,” the creation of an immortal named Flint who, despite completely passing as a human female, was not advanced enough to deal with…the flirtations of Captain Kirk“she overloaded her circuits dealing with the intense emotional overload of her attraction to him and her creator. There were also the Mudd androids of “I, Mudd,” the servants of an unknown precursor civilisation from the Andromeda galaxy dispersed as researchers and observers of the less-advanced species of our own galaxy until they encounter Harry Mudd, who naturally forces them to make him a harem of fembots to do his bidding. But as advanced as these self-replicating androids were, like Rayna before them, their adherence to logic in the face of emotional variability proved to be their undoing.
Separately, early Trek also featured androids that, while synthetic, were replicas of organic beings instead of their own selves. “I, Mudd” featured a few, notably Mudd’s recreation of his “beloved” wife Stella”but we also had the Exo III androids of “What Are Little Girls Made Of?” Even more advanced than the Mudd Androids or Rayna, they couldn’t just deal with emotions but developed their own android duplicator that could create a synthetic copy of an organic being, complete with their memories and personality.
Star Trek: The MotionÂ Picture also gave us a grim form of android in V’Ger’s creation of the Illia Probe, a hybridisation of one of its sensor probes with the unfortunate body of the Enterprise‘s Lieutenant Illia, using her corpse essentially as a puppet. We also got the inverse of that idea in the Sargon-types of “Return to Tomorrow””android “shells” designed by the disembodied being Sargon, intended to store the disassociated minds of the last survivors of his race.
Not only are all of these androids products of beings far beyond the capabilities of the Federation, they’re also all coded as inherently sinister”they are alien, antagonistic forces, whether passively observing our heroes as technological lessers or, in some cases, outright intended to replace them. It would take Star Trek‘s leap into a whole new century”and a whole new show”for the series’ portrayal of androids to radically transform and evolve.
By the 24th century”and by The Next Generation“android technology had taken steps that were paradoxically massive and incremental. By TNG‘s 2360s, Federation-aligned scientists had managed to do what was so alien a century prior and create sentient synthetic life. Or, rather, one scientist had. One of Arik Soong’s long descendants, not a geneticist like his ancestor, but a renowned, infamous cyberneticist: Dr. Noonien Soong.
Based off a “positronic brain””a completely technological, intricate recreation of a human’s nervous systems”Soong-type androids could achieve sentience unlike any previously known kind of android. They were also so difficult to make, no other scientist could effectively replicate the task of manually recreating positronic relays, and even Soong himself struggled. From his research lab on Omicron Theta, he only ever made six, seemingly the only ones to exist within the Federation at this point in time: two unknown protoypes, B-4, Lore, and eventually Data, who went on to serve in Starfleet as an officer aboard the Enterprise. His final android was, unlike his prior efforts, not a replication of his own youthful visage, but a recreation of his deceased wife, Juliana Tainer, who was actually advanced enough to be unaware of her android nature.
B-4, Lore, and Data are the most notable and important of Soong’s advancements in synthetic life. Though B-4 was a predecessor of Data and Lore, he’s actually the last Soong-type we met, appearing in the godawful Star Trek: Nemesis. While functional, B-4 was based on a simpler version of Soong’s positronic technology, in turn, giving him a simpler personality compared to his “brothers.” That personality was eventually overridden by Shinzon to make B-4 an unwitting spy, and then Data attempted to expand his sibling’s capacities by giving him his own archive of memories.
Lore, meanwhile, first introduced in the TNG season one episode “Datalore,” was B-4’s successor. More advanced, Lore was also highly aware of his capabilities being far beyond that of a human, and eventually developed a narcissistic personality that, combined with his inability to balance his unstable emotional reactions, made him a threat to the human colonists living on Omicron Theta. It got so bad that Soong was forced to deactivate Lore and put him in stasis. Data was then created as a response”a Soong-type that had all of Lore’s intelligence and advanced abilities, but could also better deal with emotional concepts.
Data’s creation was a landmark moment not just in terms of Federation science, but upon first contact with Starfleet in the form of a landing party from the USS Tripoli“which found Data abandoned by his creator and his fellow colonists on Omicron Theta after an attack on the planet by the Crystalline Entity”he became a landmark in Federation ethics, too. “Measure of a Man,” one of TNG‘s most iconic episodes, dealt with the ramifications of Data’s existence as a synthetic, sentient being. The complete scarcity of android lifeforms within the Federation made Data’s place as a member of the Enterprise‘s crew an abnormality, a being respected as a Starfleet Officer but not actually given any of the fundamental rights a citizen of the Federation has.
His ascension through Starfleet Academy and into the organisation itself was opposed by Daystrom Institute cybernetics researcher Bruce Maddox, and Maddox’s own desire to break Data down and research his positronic brain to see if the Federation could craft its own synthetic life sparked Data’s quest to be recognised as an individual. What followed, as seen in “Measure,” was an unprecedented legal tribunal that ultimately lead to a ruling that not only was Data an individual citizen of the Federation, but that should more androids of his kind ever be created, they would be tantamount to the establishment of a new species.
Despite Maddox’s opposition to his status as a being, Data kept in touch with him, encouraging the scientist in his work to create more androids”and even experimented with expanding his own development with the use of an emotion chip, which allowed him to physically stimulate and experience emotion for the first time…to varying degrees of success.
It was, however, never meant to be. Over the course of The Next Generation, and even beyond in the Star Trek timeline, androids were still incredibly scarce beings. Data himself attempted to create one in the form of his “daughter” Lal in TNG’s season three episode “The Offspring.” After attending a Federation cybernetics conference that discussed the development of “submicron matrix transfer” technology, that would allow the already-existing neural network of a functioning positronic brain to be duplicated and inserted into another, Data set about creating his own Soong-type advancement, declaring the product to be his daughter. Unfortunately, while Lal was in many ways more advanced than Data, the transfer process was still imperfect, leading to brain degradation that ultimately forced him to shut her down.
With Data’s own demise during the events of Star Trek: Nemesis, and both B-4 and Lore deactivated (the latter permanently, the former stored for research purposes by the Daystrom Institute after Data attempted, and ultimately failed, to transfer his own memories to his body), it would seem that, coming into Star Trek: Picard, the Federation’s development of Android technology had hit a considerable roadblock. Scientists had developed a way to replicate positronic neural nets, but with only B-4’s limited”and compromised”brain available, creating a successor to Data was seemingly far out of reach.
A Post-Data World
Two decades after Data’s death in Nemesis, the world we encounter in Picard has once again undergone dramatic changes in the field of android development, even if his death has also stagnated it at the same time.
By 2389, for example, lower functioning Androids than Soong-types have become an accepted form of manual labour. They are seemingly not afforded the same kinds of rights as Data and are perhaps a replacement for holographic labour (as glimpsed in Voyager‘s seventh season episode “Author, Author,” which established that, unlike Soong-types, holograms capable of achieving sentience akin to Voyager‘s Emergency Medical Hologram had yet to be afforded citizenship in the Federation). Well, that is, until an android workforce at the Utopia Planitia shipyards was corrupted by an unknown force and used to stage a terrorist attack that decimated one of Starfleet’s most important dry docks, scuttling a flotilla of ships intended to offer evacuation relief to Romulans fleeing the destruction of their homeworld.
If Data’s death hadn’t already stagnated synthetic sentience research in the Federation, the attack on Mars did”the loss of nearly 100,000 Federation citizens (and a valuable source of industry) led to a complete and total ban on synthetic life. And even without it, the creation of an android akin to Data’s capabilities was still centuries away from development.
Picard‘s debut episode “Remembrance” tells us that prior to the ban, Federation scientists at Daystrom’s synthetic research division (led by Bruce Maddox himself) were on a path to developing something akin to an organic equivalent of the Sargon-types Kirk and his crew encountered in “Return to Tomorrow.” They’d have flesh-and-blood bodies that could house a positronic brain. But Data’s death meant access to functioning neural networks with which people could stage a submicron matrix transfer was all but impossible.
Except the episode reveals that Maddox, who fled Daystrom in the wake of the all-but-shutdown of its synthetic research, apparently managed to gain access to remnants of Data’s positronic network before his death. As explained to Jean-Luc Picard by one of Maddox’s former co-workers, Agnes Jurati, Maddox was working on a theory called “fractal neuronic cloning””which, unlike submicron matrix transfers, would allow the creation of a full positronic brain out of an individual synthetic neuron. Except it apparently wasn’t just a theory, and Maddox, using a fragment of Data’s neurons, created two identical androids (the process apparently requiring a pair of cloned organic bodies): Dahj and Soji Asher.
Right now, little is known of just how advanced Dahj and Soji are in comparison to Data”whether they were, because of the cloning process, equally capable or even more advanced. Like Data’s successor in Soong’s Juliana android, neither Android is aware of their synthetic nature. Or at least, Soji isn’t, with Dahj’s enhanced abilities”enhanced hearing, advanced hacking skills, and even strength and combat techniques”being activated when she is attacked by mysterious Romulan assailants.
Whatever either she or Soji are capable of, however, they represent an entirely new generation of android in the Star Trek universe”and are about to be more vital to not just Picard, but the Federation at large, than ever imagined.
With Picard revealing its focus on the creation of Data’s legacy”and how it might return the Lieutenant Commander himself”it’s clear we’re about to get even more exploration of androids, their rights, and the boundaries of what it means to be post-human in the franchise than we’ve perhaps seen it tackle in years. Just how Trek‘s relationship to one of sci-fi’s most enduring technological feats will evolve remains to be seen, but for now, as always, it seems like it will continue to be a tumultuous and fascinating one.