Saturday, March 01, 2008


I have a guilty pleasure: namely The Terminator, the series of movies--and now a TV series--that deals with time travelers trying to prevent the end of the world. Or to be precise, the end of human beings in the world.

In case you have been living in a convent for the past couple of decades, or for some other reason are not familiar with the plot, the gist of it is that humans in the very near future will invent an intelligent military computer called SkyNet which, with the aid of various robotic war machines, is intended to make the world safe from the scourge of war. Due to a tiny glitch, however--something that could probably have been fixed in version 2.0 of the software--the computer decides that humans are the enemy and sets out to destroy them all. Um, us all. It does this by launching the nuclear missiles it has been given control of and destroying all the cities in the world, and then using its fleet of flying, crawling, and walking machines to hunt down and exterminate the survivors.

So far, this is just another apocalyptic plot, but time travel provides an interesting twist. Somehow the remaining humans have got access to a time machine, and one of them goes back to the past to attempt to prevent SkyNet from being invented, thus saving the human race from the ultimate holocaust. The "Terminator" is a cyborg (hybrid robot and flesh) which is sent back by the machines to prevent the prevention, thus insuring that the machines will win. In addition, the machines want to eliminate a teenage boy named John Connor so that he will not live to lead the human resistance in the future, in which case the whole time travel thing would never have happened.

Starting with the first sequel to the original film, a further twist is introduced when the future humans manage to reprogram one of the robots so they can send it back to fight the other robot--thus preventing it from preventing the prevention--as well as to protect young John so he will still be there in the future. Convoluted enough for you? The rest of the action is just a series of chases, car crashes, shootouts, and superhuman wrestling matches as the forces of good and evil jockey for position.

What keeps the story compelling is that there is always the subtext about free will and destiny. Is the future bound to happen? If we foresee something, can we avoid it, or are we powerless to stop the course of history? And naturally, it is all about our relationship with the technology we have created, and whether it will--or already has--run out of control. Will technology destroy us, or will we at the last minute learn to reprogram it to save ourselves? Or instead, will the technology itself become "human" enough to be humane and to protect us from ourselves?

All of this was fun enough when it was only an intellectual exercise. Originally (the first film dates from 1984) the idea that "machines" would get so advanced in so short a time seemed incredible, even to an old sci-fi addict like me. Recently however, it has become known that our military is spending billions on developing "autonomous" weapons (read "robotic"). They are already being widely used in Iraq and elsewhere for surveillance and in dangerous roles like investigating possible roadside bombs. "Predator" remotely piloted aircraft are now armed with missiles which can be used to attack the targets they spot. So far it is still a human who pulls the trigger, but the military is actively seeking advances in artificial intelligence that would enable these machines to identify friend from foe and respond accordingly. (More info in this story from Scientific American.)

Not so funny anymore? I suspect it is only a matter of time before we learn of the first "friendly fire" casualties inflicted by a robotic agent. Of course, Pentagon spokesmen will be quick to apologize for the mishap, and will cite statistics about how much more reliable autonomous weapons are than humans, who are often known to make bad judgments in the heat of the moment. It will be small comfort to the victims to know that the bad judgment that affected them was made in the cool consideration of a manufactured intelligence instead. The result will be the same, and the ultimate responsibility will fall on those who decided to create the machines in the first place--all of us.

The original Terminator and former body builder, Arnold Schwarzenegger, was destroyed in the first film where he was the bad robot, then returned in the second and third ones where he was the good robot. Now Governor of California, the evil Republican who was swept into office by the "get rid of Gray Davis" campaign is now showing a human side and working for things like universal health care. So maybe there is hope after all.

But just in case, perhaps we should put the brakes on this whole robotic weapons thing now, before we need a time machine to correct our mistakes. Nor are robots the only things we need to fear. I refer you to the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, where they are trying hard to foresee what's coming and to develop a moral awareness of the consequences.

At the very least, I think we should wait until artificial intelligence is advanced enough for us to have a discussion with it about the morality of warfare. I can see this manufactured being (perhaps looking like the one called Sonny in the film I, Robot) listening carefully as we try to explain its proposed role in a place like Iraq. Then it would turn its head to one side, look at us, and say, "You want me to do what? Are you crazy?"

Then we'll know we're all right.

1 comment:

  1. Alas, a friend reports there has already been a form of automated weapons "accident" detailed in this story:


    These weapons need to be smarter than we are, then they will be wise enough NEVER to shoot.