Technology

A Creator of Skynet Ponders Google


Terminator 2: Judgement Day

Photograph by Robert Patrick via Everett Collection

Terminator 2: Judgement Day

After an eight-year detour in which he served as governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger has returned to his true calling as a cyborg assassin. Shooting on a new Terminator film reportedly got under way last month in New Orleans and is expected to be released sometime next year. But the resurgence of one of the film’s main characters, the self-aware computing network Skynet, is already a fait accompli. Skynet is invoked every time a military contractor dispatches a fleet of autonomous vehicles, or a shadowy corporation begins rallying a robot army, or scientists develop “a cloud-based hive mind for robots to upload and download information and learn new tasks from each other, completely independent of humans.”

With life imitating art, I spent a few minutes discussing our robot overlords with William Wisher, who wrote the original Terminator movies along with James Cameron. (Wisher is not working on the new Terminator movie.) The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Skynet sure gets a lot of attention in recent days. Have you been following along?
Wisher: I have, and I can’t say I’m crazy about it. Terminator 1 and 2 were not how-to movies. They were more cautionary tales. But a lot of that kind of thing seems to be happening, between the NSA spying and Google (GOOG) Glass, which apparently has a new app with facial recognition software, designed to look at you and then your face compared to millions of others in the database, including social networks, and it comes up and tells the person who you are, where you live, and so forth and so on, and all the information that’s available to you in the Internet. Here we are, welcome to the future.

What parallels do you see to the Terminator films?
I think very general ones. The thing we wrote in the films was about Skynet becoming self-aware. Every program the NSA has is just collecting information. That feedback loop might change, and human beings might become redundant. Terminator was about AI deciding it can operate without human thought. Then the movies start. I’m unaware of any private or government program regarding artificial intelligence that’s on the verge of becoming self-aware, but what I do see is a rather amazingly fast erosion of privacy in this country.

Are you familiar with the concept of the singularity, which many people in Silicon Valley seem to believe is just around the corner?
Oh yes. I know that there are people working on achieving the singularity, and I think it will happen. It’s just a matter of application and a few more rungs on the ladder. Does it necessarily mean that it will be a bad thing? That’s an important question.

The tech is just a technology; it’s just a hammer. You can use a hammer to build a house, you can also use it to crush somebody’s skull. It’s not the hammer’s fault. But what do you do with stuff once you’ve created it? That question is hanging out there. I would imagine that artificial intelligence would reflect the goals, aspirations, personalities, and flaws of the people who’ve created it. What is AI’s personality like?

A lot of this stuff has for decades and decades been an inspiration for people working on real world stuff. That becomes a goal. They’ll go and see a film or read a book and think that’s cool, why don’t we work on that. I don’t mean to say that people like me are responsible for it, but we do have an influence on real-world events, just like we were influenced by trends in the real world. It becomes part of a massive exchange between real-world technology and fictional imagination.

What was the real-life technology you used as a model for the Terminator films?
One of my inspirations was Darpa, although I don’t know that there was any particular technology. People were talking about what the possibilities were. It was in the air, as more of a general thing, kind of a feeling of where tech industries were heading. We imagined a rather dark conclusion.

Does the stuff happening now plant the seeds of new fiction in your brain?
Oh, lots of things. I’m working on something right now that has to do with the NSA and the CIA, and a kind of a competition that may indeed be happening right now. I don’t want to say much more.

Anything else you’ve seen in films or media exploring these issues that you’ve found compelling?
Real life, at the moment, is far more fascinating than what’s on TV.

Brustein is a writer for Businessweek.com in New York.

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