“Synthetic Diplomacy”

By Christopher L. Bennett, STA Contributing Writer
Art by Nick Greenwood


When I was invited to pitch Star Trek Adventures standalone missions in the Star Trek: Picard setting, the two major story threads of season 1 both suggested ideas to me. My previous adventure, “Children of the Wolf,” addressed the Romulan evacuation effort prior to the supernova of Romulus’s sun. This new standalone, “Synthetic Diplomacy,” came from the other main thread, the outlawing of synthetic life-forms or “synths” (i.e., androids) in the wake of the 2385 attack on Utopia Planitia. What if a planet where androids were commonplace was negotiating for Federation membership when the ban came into effect? What if the players had to try to salvage the membership effort in spite of the new law? With tensions high in the aftermath of the attack, the player characters might be divided on the appropriateness of the ban, but would still have to represent Federation law and policy in their diplomatic dealings.

While the potential for character conflict and drama is clear, there was a muddier issue I had to tiptoe around. It was necessary to clarify that the androids of the planet Noaru were not sentient, since Picard season 1 established that the secret of synthetic sentience was still a mystery to the Federation 14 years after the timeframe of this mission. To make the premise work, though, I had to establish that the Noaru don’t much care about sentience when it comes to the devotion they feel for their androids, any more than we do with our pets.

The muddiness comes in when you look at how other Star Trek series depict synthetic intelligence. Several holograms have been shown to develop sentience: Professor Moriarty and Countess Regina in The Next Generation, the EMH in Voyager, and arguably Hologram Janeway in Prodigy. Lower Decks established the exocomps from TNG: “The Quality of Life” as Federation members, plus a prison full of sentient megalomaniacal computers at the Daystrom Institute. If sentience is so easy for holograms or non-humanoid artilects to achieve, why is it so hard for androids? Just plug one of those sentient computers into the head of a robot body, and bam.

It was while writing “Synthetic Diplomacy” that I finally figured out a way to reconcile it. While these various sentient A.I.s exist, all of them either gained sentience unintentionally or were created outside the Federation. Thus, their existence does not contradict the idea that Federation science is still unaware of how to create A.I. sentience on purpose.

I do wonder, though, how the synth ban in Picard affected artilects such as Voyager’s EMH or Lower Decks’ Peanut Hamper. Is it just a ban on research into creating new ones? Although the synth ban was not one of the Federation’s finest hours, I find it hard to believe it would have stripped existing Federation citizens of their rights. Canon hasn’t answered the question, which leaves players room to explore it in their games.

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