More than three decades after blowing up theaters, James Cameron’s Terminator 2: doomsday remains not only a cinematic milestone, but also a prophetic vision for some – including star Arnold Schwarzenegger – who believe the sci-fi blockbuster has spurred the evolution of modern artificial intelligence.
Released July 3, 1991, the sequel to Cameron’s 1984 action classic. Saw the return of Schwarzenegger as a T-800 cybernetic organism (a machine made up of both organic and biomechatronic body parts) sent back in time from a future where an AI defense network called Skynet has become self-aware and promptly begins a nuclear war to wipe out the humanity.
The T-800’s mission: to protect a young John Connor (Edward Furlong), the future leader of the human resistance, from a more advanced Terminator, the shape-shifting T-1000 (Robert Patrick), sent to rescue the teen. murder. Together with John’s mother, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the trio set out to destroy Skynet in present-day 1991 before it’s too late.
The plot may have sounded far-fetched 30 years ago, but with the rise of machine learning platforms like ChatGPT, TensorFlow, and PyTorch, we wondered: How close is modern AI to becoming Skynet?
Here’s what some of the leading minds in artificial technology had to say.
What went wrong with Skynet?
As depicted in the film, Skynet is an AI system created for the US military designed to monitor the country’s nuclear arsenal and defense network, allowing for a faster and more efficient response to international military threats. However, once the system builds up the capacity to learn and improve itself, it becomes self-aware. When its creators try to deactivate it, Skynet considers humanity an enemy and decides to unleash a nuclear holocaust to eliminate the threat.
According to AI experts, Skynet did exactly what it was designed to do: eliminate threats. When faced with the possibility of extinction, the system went into survival mode, similar to what a human or other organism would do. And since its creators designed Skynet with virtually no ethical constraints, the system, as designed, sought to wipe out the enemy.
That won’t happen anytime soon, I assure you Yulin Wang, a technology analyst at IDTechEx specializing in robotics, says industry lea
ders view such storylines as examples of what not To do.
“Certain movies, like T2, indirectly contributed to the regulation of the use and commercialization of AI,” he tells Yahoo Entertainment. “This is one of the societal consequences of science fiction films.”
Indeed, Elon Musk and tech leaders have been calling for a pause in the development of systems that exceed ChatGPT-4’s capabilities [the latest model]. In May, ChatGPT founder Sam Altman spoke to Congress about considering similar measures, while in June the European Union set up a committee to focus on AI regulation.
“Given the rapid evolution of technology that surpasses any other historical precedent, AI development can move forward quickly,” says Wang. “It is not inconceivable to envision the emergence of a system comparable in complexity to Skynet within the next two decades.”
Can AI turn against us?
Jürgen Schmidhubera German computer scientist often labeled the “Father of Modern AI” says the last thing AI systems want is to harm humans – for now.
“Hollywood loves AIs enslaving humans. That’s stupid,” he told Yahoo Entertainment. “A super-smart AI that can quickly build superhuman robots to fulfill any of its goals won’t be interested in enslaving humans, just as humans aren’t interested in enslaving cacti.”
To that end, he admits, scientists are creating machines so advanced that they will eventually need strict rules to limit their scope. One thing is certain, however: today’s machines are built to help people, not replace them.
“My lab has published AIs based on artificial neural networks that not only slavishly imitate humans, but set themselves their own goals,” he says. “Like babies and scientists, they invent their own experiments to find out how the world works and what can be done in it. Without this freedom, they wouldn’t become more and more general problem solvers.”
Alex J Champandardthe brains behind the largest online hub for AI games, AiGameDev.com, who spent years as a senior AI programmer at Rockstar, says the depiction of machines in movies and video games could distort public perceptions of the technology.
“T2 has significantly influenced the direction of AI research,” he says. “There is a strong irrational fear of it [AI], but real life isn’t that dramatic. It turns out the Terminator will just take over our jobs.”
What did T2 be right about AI?
Unlike previous decades, autonomous systems and weapons now have the ability to select and engage targets without human intervention, similar to scenes in T2 where the Terminators use tools like facial recognition to locate allies and enemies in a crowd. They gain additional knowledge about their environment by using sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell, just as humans do.
If Wang explains that similar humanoids are being developed by Tesla and by companies in Japan, Saudi Arabia and China. But equipping them with human qualities, like those of the Terminator, remains a challenge.
“It’s common knowledge that humans have inherent flaws, including behaviors like lying and cheating,” he says. “If these negative human traits were to be learned by robots equipped with immensely powerful computing and physical capabilities, the consequences could indeed be catastrophic. Conversely, if robots were to acquire positive qualities such as friendliness, helpfulness and friendliness and use them properly, the potential benefits to society would be truly remarkable and unimaginable.
What’s more, tools and gadgets throughout the film that seemed like pure science fiction at the time are quite common today, Wang notes. That includes unmanned vehicles and drones that operate remotely or autonomously, as well as self-operating surveillance systems, cybersecurity, and command/control systems that process real-time data to improve human decision-making, all of which are shown by Schwarzenegger in the film.
Such inventions are a testament to the imagination of designers inspired by science fiction, Champandard acknowledges, but it’s important to remember that machines don’t come up with new ideas on their own. They need a little help from us.
“AI learning today is done by assimilating large amounts of data and learning from it en masse,” he says. “It is not very human, but can serve as a substitute. So instead of learning on the fly, AI systems can simply recall past situations from training data and use them.”
Can AI develop consciousness?
It’s important to distinguish between consciousness and intelligence, Schmidhuber emphasizes. Consciousness, which cannot be achieved by machines, is a state of self-awareness while intelligence is an ability to learn, understand and ultimately apply that knowledge to adapt to new situations.
Still, “we’re getting closer” to AIs becoming as advanced as human scientists, he says, noting that computers get “10 times cheaper” every few years.
“In the 21st century, low-cost computers will appear with a thousand times the computing power of all human brains put together,” he continues. “Soon there will be millions and billions and trillions of such devices. Almost all intelligence will be outside the human brain.”
It may sound terrifying, but Schmidhuber says the amount of intelligence gleaned from various gadgets and machines will help us perform everyday tasks more efficiently.
“AI will continue to make people’s lives longer, healthier and easier,” he says. “AI is likely to play a much more overt role in future society as opposed to today. Expect more interactions with machines and automated systems.”
‘It‘s people who are people’s greatest enemies’
Machines declaring war on humans is a terrifying thought, but experts say we shouldn’t let sci-fi movies stop us from exploring the potential of AI.
“Due to the limited knowledge of the underlying technology and the influence of entertainment media, there is a sense of apprehension about the development of AI,” says Wang. “The current state of AI is far from the fictional Skynet system.”
“Unlike in Arnold Schwarzenegger films, there won’t be many direct conflicts of purpose between ‘us’ and ‘them’,” predicts Schmidhuber. “People and others are especially interested in similar beings with whom they share goals, so that they have a reason to compete and/or cooperate.
“Just as humans are mostly interested in other humans, super-smart AIs will be mostly interested in other super-smart AIs,” he continues. “People are people’s worst enemies, but also their best friends. Similar to self-driven AIs. In the long run, humans will be protected to some extent by AI’s lack of interest in humans.”