Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Star Trek Physics: The Bynars

Star Trek the Next Generation (1987-1994) (Picture)
Season 1, Episode 14

The bynars, an alien species that live and work in pairs, board the Enterprise at Starbase 74 to perform some repairs and upgrades to the computer systems. These creatures live symbiotically with computers and have a language and way of thinking that is linked strongly to binary. Binary is the most basic level of computer programming - all higher level programs are eventually understood by the computer as a combination of 0's and 1's. In this post I'm going to muse on the possibility of a species like the binars existing someday.

This is a tantalizing question and I don't have a clear cut answer. The relationship between the living part of the bynars and the computer part can be viewed as a symbiosis. There are three generally accepted forms of symbiosis:

Mutualism - two organisms of different species interact in a way that benefits both
E.g. Clownfish and sea anemone. The anemone protects the clownfish from predators and the clownfish fertalizes the anemone with its waste.

Clownfish and a sea anemone, an example of mutualism (Source)

Commensalism - two organisms of different species interact in a way that benefits one and is neutral to the other
E.g. Barnacles on a scallop. The barnacles benefit by having a hard substrate on which to attach itself, while the scallop is unaffected.
Parasitism - two organisms of different species interact such that one benefits at the expense of the other
E.g. Mosquitoes. They suck blood to spawn new baby mosquitoes and we lose blood and can get passed diseases.

The biological/computer components do not fit neatly into any of these classifications. I'm going to say that relationship is not exactly symbiosis, because symbiosis is between two different species. In this case it would be strange to think of computers as being a species. Still, I think the types of symbiosis are useful in describing the relationship between the biological and computer sides of the binars.

The relationship is clearly not parasitic, because one does not harm the other. Arguments could be made for either mutualism or commensalism. The argument for mutualism would be that the binars benefit because they can store and process incredible amounts of data and can basically talk to computers, while the computers have access to lots of data and are maybe "better cared for" because they have a species that is built to understand them. On the other hand, if computers are believed to not be capable of having an opinion, the relationship seems commensal because the binars benefit from the relationship but the computers don't really care.

What complicates this in my mind is that during the episode the bynars were dying because their computer system was in jeopardy. This means that they rely on the computers for life. This seems like a bad configuration - without the biological components, the computers are screwed and vice versa. My belief is that a relationship like that would not really develop in nature. Even in the clownfish/anenome example one can live without the other, though their chances of survival might be lower without one another.

So Could the Binars Exist?

I think ultimately the existence of beings like the bynars that are integrally bound to computers is possible under the following conditions: their dependence on computers will have to come from them being derived from a being that was not initially dependent on computers. There must have been some selection pressure on the beings that required them to use technology to survive. In this way, the newly born beings would be unable to survive without the technology. In this sense, they are not born with computer parts in them but would need to couple themselves to computers after birth in order to survive.

The coupling is a slippery slope, but i think it can be done in some capacity. Let's look at an example: today there are people who require pacemakers or prosthetic limbs, so there is a precedent for people living with mechanical parts. We are also able to send electrical signals to the brain and measure responses. People who were previously completely blind can now "see" to an extent with technology. The same goes for people who could not hear before and now have a kind of "hearing".

Now imagine a selection pressure on the population that results in only people with genetic blindness or another specific disability surviving. The result could be that every person on earth requires computers or other machines for "sight." The same sort of process could have occurred to the bynars, making them reliant on the computers for life. How they rely on them for life I am not sure, but the concept of having an entire species dependent on computers for survival is not too farfetched. It certainly inspires the imagination. Thoughts?

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