This episode opens with Geordi showing off his new beard at Poker Night. He, Riker, and Worf opine for a bit about how awesome beards are, prompting Doctor Crusher to up the stakes of their next hand: if she wins, they all have to shave their beards, and if she loses, shell dye her hair. Much to her consternation, however, Picard interrupts the game to summon them all to the bridge.
They've arrived at Tyrus VIIa to oversee a new mining operation utilizing a particle-emitting satellite. Picard notes in his logs that the operation has run into several problems and is well behind schedule. Geordi beams down to look into it, and he admits to the scientist running the operation, Dr. Farallon, that he isnt sure the process is efficient enough to be practical. Dr. Farallon decides to show Geordi something she's been working on in the hopes of changing his mind, but just then one of the stations power grids malfunctions. Geordi announces that they'll have to shut down the particle stream, but Dr. Farallon instead shows Geordi what she was about to tell him about: a small robot called an Exocomp, which can identify the malfunction and fix it with ease. note She puts the machine to work, and the power grid is fixed within moments.
Dr. Farallon beams onto the Enterprise to show off her Exocomp, and is greeted by Data. Naturally, she is fascinated by him, and Data is equally interested in the Exocomp. The robot is designed to identify problems and replicate any tools it needs, as well as to learn from experience and apply logic to new situations. Dr. Farallon asks for permission to use the Exocomps to improve the function of the mining station before he gives his final report to Starfleet, and when Data voices his support Picard approves her request, sending Data to assist her. As they work on it, Dr. Farallon sends an Exocomp to finish a connection inside an access tunnel, only for it to return before completing the task and refuse all commands to continue. A moment later, an explosion occurs inside the access tunnel.
The damage from the explosion is minimal; the bigger concern is why the Exocomp stopped working. Dr. Farallon concludes that it built up too many buggy connections in its logic circuits and that it needs to have its memory wiped and rebooted. Geordi suggests that it just wanted to avoid the explosion, meaning it as a joke, but Data seems to think there might actually be something to that idea. He investigates further, and finds that the burned out interface circuitry that prevented the Exocomp from accepting commands has been repaired by the Exocomps own repair functions.
Data goes to Dr. Crusher and asks her to define life. She gives the standard answer: that living things eat, grow, reproduce, etc. Data points out that he does not meet all of those criteria, and Crusher replies that hes a unique exception. She admits that the concept of what constitutes life is kind of hazy, and that historys greatest thinkers have had a hard time defining it. Data thanks her, saying that her answer was quite helpful. He returns to Dr. Farallon, telling her that she must stop using the Exocomps because he believes they are alive.
Dr. Farallon objects to being disturbed in her work, but Picard tells her that this is important to sort out, echoing his lines from "Measure of a Man": Starfleet is dedicated to searching out new life, and this might well be just that. Farallon assures them that she respects the idea of artificial life, including Data, but dismisses the notion that her Exocomps are anything more than tools. Picard orders tests to be administered. Geordi sets up a situation similar to what happened on the mining station: a simulated plasma cascade failure will occur while the Exocomp is working on a repair, to test whether the Exocomp will try to protect itself by abandoning its work. It does not, and Dr. Farallon declares that the test has proven her correct. Picard assures Data that it was certainly worth testing, but clearly agrees with Farallon.
Data, however, continues repeating the test. Each time it fails to abandon its task. Dr. Crusher visits Data to see how its going, and Data admits that he might have been too eager to find another artificial life form. However, his conversation with the doctor distracts him until the Exocomp returns. Data notices that the tool it has generated is not a tool needed for the task it was assigned, but rather a tool meant to deactivate the false plasma cascade failure. He realizes that the Exocomp knew it was a simulation the whole time, or at least that there was no real danger. It knew the alarm was false, and of its own accord had decided to fix the alarm so that it would not go off falsely.
When Picard personally goes to inspect the mining station, another incident occurs. This time its a power surge, and its much worse than what happened before. Picard orders the entire station to be evacuated. All but one of the station workers get out, but Picard and La Forge stay behind to find the last man. Its a futile effort, as the man is quickly killed in an explosion, and the radiation from the power surge prevents the Enterprise from locking onto them. With no other options, the two of them get to work trying to fix the power surge. Meanwhile Riker tries to think of a solution on his end. He suggests detonating a photon torpedo to deactivate the plasma stream, but Data tells him that it would take too long to properly configure them. Dr. Farallon suggests using the Exocomps instead, as they can be configured in a matter of minutes. Data objects, revealing the results of his experiments and again insisting that the Exocomps are life forms. Riker, though, decides the captains life is more important and orders Dr. Farallon to proceed. They deactivate the Exocomps command functions to keep them from acting on their own and attempt to beam them into position, but find that the transporter is down. Data announces that he has locked out the transporter functions.
Riker is livid, but Data refuses to back down. He offers to beam to the station to shut down the plasma stream manually, but Riker can see that even an android would be killed by the radiation. Data says that he has the freedom to make that choice; the Exocomps dont. Riker then offers to reconnect the Exocomps command function and give them a choice. Data accepts this as a fair course of action. Farallon programs the Exocomps, and they immediately alter the commands given to them. However, they are not refusing the commands, but instead have decided upon their own solution. They beam into the mining station and begin siphoning energy out of the power core. This opens up a window to allow Picard and La Forge to beam out. The Enterprise tries to beam the Exocomps out as well, but are unable to retrieve one of them. Geordi realizes that one of them had to stay behind to keep the window open for the others.
Obviously, Picard cant recommend Dr. Farallons mining technique after all that went wrong, but she promises to continue her work until she fixes the problems. Data wishes her well. He then addresses the captain to explain why he put Picards life at risk for the Exocomps. He says that he wished to do for them what Picard had done for him when his own rights were threatened. Picard tells Data that he understands, and calls it the most human decision hes ever made.
- Adaptive Ability: It's implicit that exocomp sentience is derived from their capacity to learn by constructing new circuit pathways. This inadvertently gives them an intellect capable of growing through experience.
- A.I. Is a Crapshoot: Averted. The Exocomps are intelligent and willing to serve. They just want a choice in the matter.
- Continuity Nod: The fact that Data fought for, and won, basic human rights back in "The Measure of a Man" is referenced several times throughout the episode.
- Do-Anything Robot: The Exocomps were designed with this in mind. A built-in replicator allows them to make any tool they might need.
- Forgotten Phlebotinum:
- The Exocomps are effective, friendly, intelligent, and manufactured by making a slight modification to off-the-shelf tools. That they never came in to general use (recruitment?) is one of the most blatant uses of this trope in the franchise.
- They did eventually show up in Star Trek Online.
- One also shows up later in Star Trek: Lower Decks as a full member of Starfleet.
- Grew Beyond Their Programming: The Exocomps were programmed to be repair robots with multitools and some judgmental and adaptive capabilities. Over the course of the episode, it becomes increasingly clear that they've become sentient beings with the capability of free will, free thought...and self-sacrifice.
- Heroic Sacrifice: One of the Exocomps is destroyed to ensure the safe return of Geordi, Picard, and its fellow exocomps.
- While he ultimately doesn't have to go through with it, Data offers to beam down and shut down the plasma stream himself in place of sending the Exocomps, willing to sacrifice himself for them as well as Picard and La Forge.
- Instant A.I.: Just Add Water!: It's not stated exactly how long the Exocomps take to achieve sentience, but it's clearly not that long a time if Dr. Farallon has seen it before (more than once even), and the good doctor clearly did not intend it to happen.
- Oppose What You Suffered: In the second season Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "The Measure of a Man", Data's rights were contested, as a scientist argues he should be treated as a machine, rather than a person, and this fact was even demonstrated by Data being taken apart and switched off without his consent. In this episode, Data then goes to extreme lengths to protect the exocomps from being treated in the same manner before they can fully achieve sentience, even going so far as to risk the life of his own best friend, Geordi La Forge.
- Take a Third Option:
- In order to test their sentience, the crew rigs up a fake plasma overload similar to the one that the sentient Exocomp saved itself from. After numerous failures, Data gets distracted and lets the test carry on rather than just recalling the Exocomp upon failure. As it turns out, the Exocomp realized it was being fooled and, given enough time, repaired the test itself by fixing the fake overload.
- Dr. Farallon gives the Exocomps a command for a task that would (in all likelihood) sacrifice them in order to save the two trapped Enterprise officers. Instead of accepting or refusing the command outright, they alter the task to one that would save the officers while only sacrificing one of the Exocomps.
- What Measure Is a Non-Human?: Dr. Farallon is loathe to admit the Exocomps are intelligent, seeing them as just tools as opposed to the human-emulating Data.