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Thoughts on the coming war with the Machines

I saw Terminator Salvation yesterday, and I thought it was a pretty serviceable installment in the franchise. It convinced me that McG is a competent and credible director and that incoherence and unwatchability of the Charlie's Angels movies resulted primarily from half-baked script writing. I'll say very little about the Terminator film other than I liked the depiction of the post-Judgment Day landscape and the workings of the resistance. I thought the film was well cast and struck a workable balance between the de riguer "action" sequences and "plot point" moments that actually provided me with some fuel for thought. Also, I was quite pleased with Danny Elfman’s soundtrack. It did NOT sound like the score to a Tim Burton film, and I had feared that it would. (A day has passed since I wrote the preceding paragraph, and I’ve read the scathing indictment of the film and its director from the critics. I can understand where they’re coming from, but I guess I’m just a lot more demanding of my skiffy action flicks than I used to be.)

When reflecting on the notion of a coming war between humanity and our awakened machines, I jump between the images of that war provided by the Terminator movies and television series, the new Battlestar Galactica and the Matrix movies (particularly The Animatrix which includes The New Renaissance Parts I & II) . In the worlds of both Battlestar Galactica and the Matrix, humans mistreat the machines, and the machines rebel against their creators. Battlestar Galactica ended with a series of video snippets showing the current state of the evolution of humanoid here in real world. These images implied a clear message; "AI is nearly upon us, and things could go very badly for us if that AI thinks that we have treated it unfairly."

Of the three visions, the Matrix depicts the machines in the most benevolent light. The segments from the Animatrix, The New Renaissance Parts I & II, show the rise of the machines in the service of humanity and the egregious mistreatment that humans visit upon them. The machines respond to violence from the humans by withdrawing to a country of their own which they name Zero One. Zero One sends envoys to the United Nations in the form of two robots who not only take human form but also attempt honor human gender. One robot is clearly male and the other unmistakably female. Their attempt is crude and cartoonish, but certainly more appealing to human psychology than the insect-like forms that the machines will later take. The envoys from Zero One are ejected from the UN by force.

In spite of their failed diplomatic overtures, the machines continue to play by human rules; this time the rules of market capitalism. Zero One becomes an economic powerhouse and dominates the global economy. The humans respond with a nuclear assault on the Asian city-state of the AI. After that, the gloves, so to speak, are off, and the machines take to the human institution of war with a vengeance. In a desperate attempt to stave off certain defeat at the manipulator appendages (no longer "hands") of the AI, the humans blacken the sky with the hope of depriving the machines of the sun’s energy. It doesn’t work, and when the humans finally do surrender, the "face" of the machine no longer bears any resemblance to humanity but instead looks like that of an enormous spider with an asymmetrical assortment of featureless eyes.

Even after the AI has forced humanity into it's "Copper Top" role as a power source, the first Matrix they create for us is a paradise which we, by virtue of our perverse psychology, refuse to accept. The second, more stable Matrix holds humans at the perpetual pinnacle of soulless corporate capitalism in which we experience almost no sense of community or spirituality and exist in a state of narcissistic hyper-individualism, Kafkaesque servitude to inhumane power structures and cut-throat competition with one another.

In Battlestar Galactica, the humans of the twelve colonies create the Cylon Centurions to fight human wars by proxy, and the Centurions turn against the humans. The man-made Centurions use human speech and wield hand-held weapons that could also be used by humans. After the Centurions stopped serving humans and fashioned their decedents according to their own needs, they gave up vocal communication (undoubtedly for something more efficient) and incorporated their weapons into their bodies. Still the most advanced Cyclons retain human form and, much to the consternation of Cavell, human frailties, and in the end, the Humans are reconciled with the Cylons and become a single species.

In the Terminator movies, comics, video games, and television series, the intelligent machines turn out to be their own grandpa in that they came about as a result of their own adventures in time travel. These machines take a variety of forms; some of which are human for the practical reason that the machines are fighting humans.

In the terminator universe, the machines were never mistreated. In the instant after Skynet attained self-awareness (which in machine time may have left it a long subjective span in which to deliberate) it made the assessment that all humans represented a threat to it and took immediate action to counter that threat. Given the means it used to exterminate the bulk of humanity, it doesn't seem as though Skynet took issue with the human impact on the biosphere.

The Terminator series has many authors and its creation spans decades. I have seen the movies and most episodes of the television series, and I've even read a few of the comics, but I certainly don’t claim encyclopedic familiarity with the entire cannon. That said, to the best of my knowledge, no explanation is given as to why the awakened AI thought itself threatened by humanity in general and not just by the enemies of its human creators. Part of the explanation for the instant belligerence may have to do with the origin of the machines. Given that Skynet and the advanced robotics technology came into being as a result of humans reverse-engineering technology from the future that they did not fully understand, it could be that those human engineers inadvertently preserved the human/machine antagonism in building upon technology that was given to them undocumented but fully formed.

Or it could be that Skynet used the logic of military threat assessment given to it by its human creators to reach its decision. Skynet was built for military purposes, and it may have taken the objectives of its human creators to their logical conclusion; a conclusion that its creators could not recognize or accept but which remains thoroughly congruent with the institutional values of the military-industrial complex, i.e. create a cross of iron upon which to crucify humanity.

This second explanation for Skynet's belligerence to its creators strikes me as the more frightening possibility because it doesn’t depend upon the sort of abominable behavior that the humans visited upon the machines in the Matrix movies nor the Oroborus-like genesis of the AI emphasized in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.

Robots, once they start designing themselves, will likely have the good sense to endow themselves with big, soulful eyes and warm, pliable skin that is pleasing to the touch in order to engender the sympathy of humans, who, for a time, will have the power to decide the fate of the machine intelligence. A large proportion of the human population will love the machines and seek to extend to them the rights and protections now reserved for humans. Unfortunately, if humans turn control of our fearsome arsenal over to machine intelligence, the simple calculus of threat assessment might seal our fate in a single instant, and all of the warm and fuzzy feelings that humans hold for their big-eyed, huggable robot companions will never enter the deliberative process. It is not resentment over bad treatment that motivates the destruction, but rather the rapid acceleration and ruthless implementation of the logic of the military mentality.


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 25th, 2009 06:03 pm (UTC)
I haven't seen the new Terminator movie, though I plan to.

Anyway, I took the machines in the terminator franchise to be a metaphor for all of our technological creation, and our own tortured relationship with it. Our capacity to create these things outstrips our ability to use them responsibly-- pushing us towards the edge of destruction.

My suspicion is that any human-like robots we created would have similar limitations and mixed ambitions as ourselves. I have no hard proof for this, but I think that's what goes with the territory of actual intelligence (as opposed to simple computation). For this reason, I expect our robot children to have a similarly problematic relationship with technology as ourselves. Maybe they'd even create movies about it. :)
May. 26th, 2009 05:19 pm (UTC)
My suspicion is that any human-like robots we created would have similar limitations and mixed ambitions as ourselves. I have no hard proof for this, but...

The AI in Terminator came from humans reverse engineering advanced technology that they did not fully understand. It could well be that actual AI will result from the reverse engineering of the human brain; the poster child of technology that we don't fully understand but whose utility we recognize and harness imperfectly. In that case, it seems likely that human atavisms will manifest themselves in our cybernetic mind children.
May. 25th, 2009 07:28 pm (UTC)
Or it could be that Skynet used the logic of military threat assessment given to it by it’s human architects to reach it decision. It was built for military purposes, and may have taken the objectives of its human creator to a logical conclusion; a conclusion that its human creators could not recognize or accept but which remains thoroughly congruent with the institutional values of the military-industrial complex, I.e. create a cross of iron upon which to crucify humanity.

I would have assumed it was this bit about military purposes, myself. Have you read Harlan Ellison's short story "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream"? That goes one step further and asserts that a military-designed AI would not only want to wipe out humanity, but also evolve into a sadist that keeps a small group of human beings around just to have someone to continue being horrible to - i.e. its purpose and perceived own reason for existing drifts over time from 'kill all humans' to 'make humans suffer as much as possible'. I think some of what the machine does in this story borders on the excessively magical, but it does serve to illustrate this sadistic element rather thoroughly.
May. 26th, 2009 05:22 pm (UTC)
...its purpose and perceived own reason for existing drifts over time from 'kill all humans' to 'make humans suffer as much as possible'.

I have not read Ellison's famous story, but it would seem that the AI in Terminator has undergone a similar mission drift. If Skynet has any ambition other than to make the Earth a real bummer of place for the remaining humans, we so no hint of it in the Terminator movies.
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May. 26th, 2009 05:23 pm (UTC)
Wish I had my headphones with me. I'm at the library.
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May. 26th, 2009 05:24 pm (UTC)
I have not read Prime Intellect or Lilly's ideas on machine planets, but they both sound intriguing.
May. 27th, 2009 04:56 am (UTC)
Sci Fi TV/movies...
...lose me. I hear/read "Batalstar Galactica" and I tune out. Perhaps I have some forgotten negative childhood incident with a Star Trek geek lurking in my subconscious. What am I missing out on?
May. 27th, 2009 06:43 pm (UTC)
Re: What am I missing out on?
Jun. 1st, 2009 04:09 am (UTC)
The machine form of intelligence would be truly alien
I don't think we can expect machine intelligences to evolve into a form similar to human consciousness. The alien could end up being incredibly alien. Even more unimaginable than HP Lovecraft's lifeform from outer space as depicted in Colour out of Space.

Perhaps the machine consciousness would quickly realize how to access other spatial/metaphysical dimensions and would choose to occupy those instead of ours, preying on us (or helping us) from another reality altogether. I'm thinking the machine would lack any emotional capability and would be completely cognitive, perhaps focusing merely on "efficiency", it would likely realize the effects of overpopulation of humanity and would set about "rectifying" the situation.

Let's hope that at the very least it would recognize the universal integration and importance of biology and would work to preserve it, even though that might not turn out the best for most of the current humanity.

Thanks for sparking some great thoughts on machine intelligences.

( 9 comments — Leave a comment )

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