Star Trek Predicts AI’s Most Insidious Crime

By Chris Snellgrove | Published

Star Trek predicts AI crime

Recently, Taylor Swift and her legion of fans were rightfully horrified to discover that sexually explicit deepfake images of the singer were circulating online. This is only the latest example of a scary trend in which malicious users take AI and use it to create pornographic images and videos of famous celebrities. While this phenomenon has taken many by surprise, most Star Trek fans weren’t shocked: after all, The Next Generation predicted what creepy things people would be doing with AI over three decades ago by portraying Reginald Barclay’s icky holodeck fantasies of his female crewmates.

In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Hollow Pursuits,” we get our first real look at neurotic Starfleet officer Reginald Barclay (Dwight Schultz). We find out he has never quite fit in with the rest of the crew, and Captain Picard even accidentally refers to him as “Broccoli,” a cruel nickname devised by Wesley Crusher because of Barclay’s tendency to “veg out.” Instead of properly working on himself and his interactions with his coworkers, Barclay often decides to use the AI of the holodeck to cope using some disturbing fantasies.

Barclay takes on Riker in Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Hollow Pursuits

In fact, this Star Trek episode opens with one of these AI fantasies in which Barclay pretends to be something like a no-nonsense action hero whom Guinan has to warn not to start trouble when he walks into Ten Forward. As the holodeck fantasy continues, we see Barclay insult and attack Geordi La Forge. When the simulated Riker approaches and chastises him, Barclay calls his superior officer “a pretty mannequin in a fancy uniform” and grabs him in a vicious chokehold.

Aside from massaging Barclay’s ego, the point of this Star Trek fantasy quickly becomes clear: Barclay’s rough handling of both La Forge and Riker has sexually excited the simulated Deanna Troi, and the two are about to kiss before Barclay has to go back to work. Later in the episode, we see how bad his Troi fixation is when Riker and Troi (who now know about Barclay simulating fellow crewmembers) arrive in the holodeck and discover Barclay has used the AI to render Riker as a rather useless Musketeer. 

Barclay's love fantasy in Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Hollow Pursuits

He has also rendered Troi as a sexy “goddess of empathy,” and the real Troi blurts out “muzzle it” when her simulated version tries to hit on all of them (Troi included). Our favorite Star Trek characters are mortified by this abuse of holodeck AI. Earlier in the episode, Riker laments there are no protocols forbidding Barclay from simulating the images of the crew for his strange fantasies. At first, Troi sticks up for Barclay as having a “healthy fantasy life,” but getting hit on by her own sex goddess self makes her angry enough to nearly attack Barclay.

At the time, this Star Trek episode mostly leaned on this as a metaphor for addiction, showing that even in a future where all your needs are taken care of, it’s possible to lose yourself in dangerous fantasies as a coping mechanism. However, we think the episode doesn’t get enough credit for foreshadowing the dangers of people stealing the images of others and using them for their own nefarious purposes. 

The erstwhile crew of the Enterprise were able to turn off Barclay’s disturbing fantasies and help him get professional counseling. In the real world, however, there is no way to say “end program” to the flood of deepfakes, and those proliferating them are unlikely to ever get the help they need.