Rise of the 'Real' Skynet?

Contributor:  Nick Younker
Posted:  07/27/2010  12:00:00 AM EDT
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In James Cameron’s famous “Terminator” film series the primary antagonists are killer cyborgs (Arnold Schwarzenegger plays the role in the first film), that are hunting John Connor, the only hope for the survival of humanity after nuclear fallout.

However, the real villain in these wildly popular movies is a computer network named Skynet that has become self-aware and thus has become a true form of artificial intelligence. It is Skynet that initiates the atomic attack against humanity and is masterminding the extinction of humans via control of its brutal Terminator cyborgs.  In the movie this advanced computer system is created by a collaborative effort between a fictional major defense contractor called Cyberdyne Systems and the United States Air Force Strategic Air Command.

This film franchise isn’t the first time that it has been proposed that some sort of advanced computer intelligence designed by humanity could eventually turn on its creators.  This storyline has been passed around as early as 1964 in Arthur C. Clark’s short story “Dial F for Frankenstein.” Or the 1966 “Doctor Who” serial “The War Machines” that featured an antagonistic supercomputer named WOTAN.

The older versions of this archetype portray a brand of science fiction that feels more like fantasy than reality.  Scenarios that seem well suited and written for purely entertainment purposes and could never come to pass, much like a Harry Potter film.  However, in Cameron’s Terminator movies (especially the latter ones) this archetype of cybernetic revolt has a more real-to-life and threatening feel.

This is clearly due to the rapid advances in military technology that have entered the battlefield in the 21st Century.  OIF and OEF are the first wars where it is a common site to see a UAV patrolling the skies for ground based threats.  There are even unmanned drones that can launch offensive attacks that are controlled from hundreds of miles away.

A recent article featured on Yahoo! News displays a new aircraft unveiled by the UK’s MoD named Taranis.  It is unmanned and is capable of “long range strike missions”.  Further, it is heralded as the “combat aircraft of the future”.  As if to really say, “goodbye manned strike-fighters we won’t need you anymore”.  This article makes a quote in Cameron’s T2: Judgment Day (uttered by Arnold’s T-101 Terminator) sound eerily like a forewarning and prediction of things to come.  The Terminator says something to this effect, “All stealth bombers become unmanned and are updated with Cyberdyne software.  They fly with a perfect operational record.”

Taranis’ sleek shiny exterior, clean lines and strange red triangular “eye” in its center look as if it could have been dreamed up by Cameron himself.  It wouldn’t have appeared out of place in the sky in one of the many future battle sequences in the film series that depict unmanned aircraft controlled by Skynet patrolling the sky in the post apocalyptic world.

Another alarming article published by Defense News and out only weeks apart from the MoD Taranis piece is about lethal robot sentries being deployed along the Korean DMZ.  According to the article this robot will act as a sentry and is capable of detecting and killing intruders along the border.  It also is said to have capabilities of surveillance, tracking, firing, and voice recognition.  Again, this could be a description taken straight from a 1984 Terminator film script.

Of course all of the evolving technology in the form of robots and unmanned aircraft are meaningless in a “Terminator” comparison without the aforementioned Skynet.  So where does a something like Skynet fit into modern day warfare?  Is it something that still only exists in the imaginations of men like James Cameron and the minds of all sci-fi movie fanatics?

DARPA which stands for The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is a Pentagon controlled organization that is responsible for developing new technology to be used by the military.  One of the DARPA projects called Deep Green is a computer system that is supposed to serve as a decision making support system for military commanders.  It is reported to have advanced predictive capabilities which can enable computers to efficiently and accurately predict possible future scenarios.  It has been dubbed “General in a box”.

It is important to note that all of the above mentioned programs are completely within the control of human decision making at this point and are all tools to achieve maximum mission accomplishment with the use and loss of minimal resources.  In no way are these anywhere close to the film versions of Skynet and Terminators.  However, it seems clear that James Cameron’s vision of 2029 is not completely a far fetched dream in 2010.  Many of the developing military programs have striking similarities to his ideas.

So it’s worth asking: if we’ve reached a point in human history where we trust our investment decisions to primitive versions of artificial intelligence and let early stage robots operate on our bodies and teach our children, then just how far away can we be, really, from giving a machine tactical independence on the battlefield.

Maybe not so far.
Not so far at all.

So … are you nervous yet?


Then consider this: there are folks at the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research who are much, much smarter than you or I – and they are nervous.

Nick Younker Contributor:   Nick Younker

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