Star Trek and the law: the case of Captain Kirk vs. The Computer

CBS is now streaming the original Star Trek series for free on its website. Even better, CBS is now providing code to permit episodes of Trek and many other series to be embedded on websites and blogs.  Very cool, and a good step in the direction being taken by others such as Hulu, and soon, ABC.

Here’s the episode Court Martial, first airing Feb. 2, 1967. Kirk’s being court-martialed for the death of a member of his crew.  The most damning evidence is a computer video log that seems to conclusively prove Kirk’s guilt.  The prosecutor says she will present the case as “Kirk vs. The Computer.”


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Enter Kirk’s lawyer, Samuel T. Cogley, who distrusts computers and surrounds himself with his beloved law books.  Around 13 minutes into the episode, you can see Cogley surrounded by what looks like copies of United States Reports and case reporters from West.  (Hmmm.  I wonder what volume Federal Reporter will be up to by the year 2267.  At a new volume every 14 years or so, West should be up to at least F.22d.)

Ultimately, digital skepticism wins the day.  Mr. Spock, believing Kirk to be innocent, tests the ship’s computer.  After winning a seemingly impossible five chess games in a row against the machine, Spock realizes the computer has been altered.  Cogley then moves to present evidence regarding the ship’s computer.  The prosecution objects.  In response, Cogley argues passionately about the importance of not believing digital records blindly:

Cogley: The most devastating witness against my client is not a Human being. It’s a machine, an information system. The computer log of the Enterprise. I ask this court adjourn and reconvene aboard that vessel.

Prosecutor: I protest, Your honor!

Cogley: And I repeat, I speak of rights! A machine has none. A man must. My client has the right to face his accuser, and if you do not grant him that right, you have brought us down to the level of the machine! Indeed, you have elevated that machine above us! I ask that my motion be granted. And more than that, gentlemen. In the name of Humanity, fading in the shadow of the machine, I demand it.  I DEMAND IT!

Cogley and Kirk prevail.  It turns out that the “dead” man was still alive and was trying to get revenge on Kirk for an earlier incident that destroyed his career.  Even in the 23rd century, computers aren’t always right.

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