Star Trek Search

The Star Trek computer is light years smarter than today's computers. It's often smart enough to parse partial, garbled, or implied commands, remember past commands to build context to understand current commands, and use reasonable values for unspecified parameters. Here's an example of using the computer to search for a half-remembered table within five thousand tables. Since our search problem is similar (finding one page out of thousands given only half-remembered attributes) the example repays study.

In the season six episode, Schisms, of Star Trek: The Next Generation a few crew-members have had their memories partially wiped; Counselor Troi takes them to the holodeck to help them remember. Here's what happens:

Troi: Well, you all remember a table, so let's start with that. Computer, show me a table.

Computer: there are 5,047 classifications of tables on file. Specify design parameters.

[In other words: I simply can't be bothered to even guess what kind of table you want. I can't possibly just reproduce the last table I was asked for, or the most frequently accessed table, or the most common table, or any other notion of a representative table. That would be insane. All I'm going to do is render exactly what you tell me and it must be an exact description of the table, even though you don't know how many and what kinds of tables I have. If you refuse to do this then you're a dolt and a moron and you won't reproduce and besides that, you smell bad. So there.]

Troi: [to the group] Can you be more specific about the table? You mentioned it was smooth and cold. Can you remember what shape it was?

Extra: was long.

LaForge: Yeah...and it had a rectangular shape.

Troi: Computer, show me a rectangular conference table.

[Computer does so. Never mind that this is inconsistent with it being unable to choose any table at all just a minute before.]

LaForge: It's too high. Computer, reduce the height of the table by 25 percent.

[Computer does so.]

Worf: No, the table was smaller. And it was inclined. Computer, decrease the table's surface area by 20 percent, and incline the top by 15 degrees.

[Computer does so.]

Ryker: Nah, it wasn't made of wood. It was smoother, more metallic.

Troi: Computer, make this a metal table.

[Computer does so.]

LaForge: Yeah. yeah, that's starting to look right.

Troi: Was there anything else in the room? Furniture? Chairs? A door? Other people?

Extra: No, it was dark.

Ryker: Yes, it was dark. Couldn't see beyond the table.

Troi: Computer, lower the surrounding light level.

[Computer does so. Note that it doesn't ask by how much.]

LaForge: There was a light right in my face: a bright light. Computer, gimme a bright light right above the table [gestures above the table].

Computer: Specify light source.

[In other words: I simply can't be bothered.]

LaForge: I couldn't tell. It was above overhead lamp.

Computer: Estimated distance of light source.

[In other words, I still can't be bothered. Although note that it was smart enough to parse the implicit request correctly.]

LaForge: [getting annoyed] I don't was at least 2 or 3 meters above.

[Computer produces a light source.]

LaForge: Brighter...

[Computer increases the light level. Never mind that this is inconsistent with it being unable to produce a light source without being told its distance before.]

LaForge: Brighter...

[Computer increases the light level.]

Troi: [to Ryker] You said you were uneasy when you sat down at the con position.

Ryker: Yes. I felt trapped by the console. But it wasn't like this, it was something else here.

Troi: A restraint of some kind?

Ryker: Yes, it was a restraint. It was flat and metal---it was made of metal. [walks around the table] It came down [gestures] over my, it... no, it was across my chest, right here [gestures].

Troi: It was holding you down?

Ryker: Yes, it was part of the table. It was here [gestures]. It was right here.

Troi: Computer, create a restraining arm, attached to the right side of the table at the midpoint.

[Computer does so. Note that it can't be bothered to watch what's going on to try to interpret the numerous gestures. Troi is forced to translate everything into terms it can deal with easily.]

Troi: [to Ryker] Was it like that?

Ryker: Computer, put controls on the restraining arm. A control panel...lights.

[Computer does so. Note that it's smart enough to parse the term "restraining arm".]

Extra: There was something else there---over the head of the table---a metal swing-arm. Computer, create a metal swing-arm, double-jointed, total length one meter, connected to the head of the table.

[Computer does so.]

Worf: There was something attached to it, a tool of some sort...scissor-like. Computer, produce a pair of scissors attached to the armature.

[Computer does so.]

Worf: The handle is wrong. It was not scissors. Computer, make the handle a single-piece grip, ten centimeters long, solid metal.

[Computer does so. Note that it is smart enough to parse "make the handle...".]

Worf: Now make one blade longer...

[Computer does so. Note that it is smart enough to connect this command with the last one.]

Worf: Curved inward...

[Computer does so.]

Worf: And give the other blade a jagged edge...

[Computer does so.]

Troi: All right, you were lying on the table, you had a bright light shining in your eyes. Were there any smells in the room? Were there any sounds?

Ryker: Yes, yes, there was a sound. Computer, there were noises coming from the darkness. Strange, like whispering...

[Computer makes whispering sounds. Note how complex Ryker's request is to parse.]

Extra: More like clicks...clicking sounds...

[Computer makes clicking sounds. Note that it's smart enough to parse this jumble and connect it to the last chain of commands as a request to change the sounds.]

Ryker: Louder...

[Computer does so.]

Ryker: Faster...

[Computer does so. Note that to parse this it must know that clicks have a frequency and that "faster" is a request to increase that frequency.]

[Extra puts her hands up to her ears and looks distraught.]

Ryker: More of them...

[Computer does so. Note how complex parsing this command is.]

LaForge: [holding his hand to his mouth] I've been in this room before...

Ryker: We've all been here before.

And so, despite the computer's intermittently annoying attitude, the crew manage to recreate the scene in its entirety.

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