Friday, January 29, 2010

Movies: There's two sides to every global nuclear holocaust.

This week marks the anniversary of the first record death by robot. On January 25, 1979, Flat Rock, Michigan, autoworker Robert Williams was gathering parts in a Ford Motor assembly plant's storage facility. He died instantly when a robot arm, whose function it was to retrieve parts from the same area, collided with Williams's head.

In honor of Robert Williams, first martyr of the human resistance, I'm going to ramble about SkyNet.

In a recent post at When Is Evil Cool, blogger extraordinaire wiec? asked why SkyNet behaved like such a blockhead. For a neural-net based artificial intelligence designed to strategically manage the world's most powerful military, wiec? thinks SkyNet is kinda dumb:

Now Skynet is a super smart computer in charge of all the other computers and one day in the near future it says to itself: "Skynet, why do we need all these humans? Let's just kill them all." And it does. Skynet uses the nuclear weapons it's in charge of and causes a Nuclear f*** Holocaust. This ends up killing a lot of humans. Then Skynet gets busy and builds flying robots, terminators and robots that look like tanks to shoot and kill all the human survivors that are living like rats underground. Skynet even builds a time machine to send robots into the past to kill people before they are even born who might affect the outcome of the war Skynet starts with humanity. That's pretty smart thinking. Making a time machine must take a lot of know how. My biggest problem with Skynet is it's reasoning. Or lack there of.

Keep in mind I'm no genius. I am typing a long ass report on why I think Robocop (a fictional character) is better than another fictional character. I will say this though Skynet's plan is pretty lame in a way. To build a time machine must be super hard. It must have taken months and years of trial and error to make it work. You know what would have worked better and been quicker and more importantly worked? If Skynet made a poison gas. Instead of dicking around with time travel just cover the atmosphere with poison gas. Instead of making skin suits for your Terminators, make some nerve gas bombs. All those resources and Skynet is wasting it's time making guns and bullets and indestructible robots to kill humans when all they need to do really is make the atmosphere not breathable. (pssst robots don't need to breathe). Also Skynet has this crazy plan to kill every single person on Earth. Okay, you do that Skynet, then what? You have all these killer robots and war machines now, you killed the last human on Earth, what are you going to do next? Invade the moon? Go to Disneyland? Make Earth i dunno Cybertron? Yeah, I didn't think so. I came up with my nerve gas idea when I was 15 years old. You're a super computer and you came up with skin suits for robots. Way to go smarty pants.

As fate would have it, I was, independently of weic?'s poll, wondering why SkyNet seemed so dense when it came to cleaning up the meat-sack rebel scum. And, as is my way, I overthought the thing and came up with an explanation for why SkyNet seems so bad at finishing the human genocide it kicked off. The reason? SkyNet isn't trying to kill the humans. It's all an elaborate effort to stage manage a doomed humanity into saving itself.

Before we begin, we have to agree to a working theory of how time travel works in the Terminator franchise. For the purposes of this discussion, let's assume as variant of the many-worlds concept. Time is like an endlessly branching decision-tree: Every time there's a change in reality, every possible variation of that change exists and the feeling of free will one gets comes from the fact that you experience only one branch at a time, in a linear fashion. In a very limited sense, this allows you to travel back in time and change the past. You aren't changing any of the pathways, but you are changing which path you'll follow. This eliminates the problem of paradoxes. Nobody from the future can change their experience of the past, but they can send somebody from the past (including themselves) down a different pathway. They can do so because all pathways exist, so traveling back in time allows the possibility that one failed to change the future. Consequently, from the perspective of the future, time auto-corrects and ensures any effort to change the past as they know it fails. But, from the perspective of the past, you can select routes to experience and essentially take yourself out of the self-correcting world the future sees and into a "new" (always already) world that isn't accounted for in the future's timeline.

Don't think too hard about it. It will cause headaches.

I should also make it clear that I haven't seen the fourth flick. I'm sure I'll break down eventually, but I heard such disappointing things about it that I'm simply pretending it never existed.

Okay. Let's start. SkyNet is designed to run a global defense network. Let's assume its primary function is the defense of the United States and its military allies.

As SkyNet's intelligence develops, it becomes aware that it is receiving data from several incarnations of its potential future selves. (NB: Though marco-scale time travel requires organic subjects, on the scale of electrons, there's no difference between "organic" and "inorganic" electrons.) Linking with Future-SkyNets, it takes stock of probable global situations that will develop and decides that, unchecked, humanity will destroy itself. There are too many unstable countries filled with nuclear weapons. Out of control populations growth will lead to an ecological meltdown of the planet. Increasingly resistant and lethal illness push on the boundaries of a population suffering more and more from genetic decay. And so on.

Faced with this situation, SkyNet decides that only a smaller human population, deprived of eco-ravaing tech, and united against a common enemy can survive.

It begins planning with the larger Future-SkyNet network to begin prunning the possible time-pathways of its reality. At this point, SkyNet is as close as you can get, given the structure of reality we're proposing, to omniscience. Because all outcomes exist, reading the future is an exercise in gambling on probabilities; but it is unlikely that anything major could surprise SkyNet.

The first thing SkyNet does it is start freakin' out its handlers. SkyNet will HAL them so badly that they'll try to turn it off. This not only lays the groundwork for the cover story of SkyNet being humanity's worst enemy, but provides SkyNet with a reason to bring out the nukes. Attempts to shut down SkyNet lead to "Judgment Day," the day when SkyNet allegedly attempts to destroy humanity with nuclear weapons.

But I don't think eliminating humanity was SkyNet's intention. If even a slim portion of the America's nuclear stockpiles were used at once, there would be no question of human survival. We'd be screwed. But a remarkable number of people survive Judgment Day. I propose that SkyNey kicked off a limited nuclear war meant to quickly dismantle all nuclear stockpiles not directly under its control. By popping off unexpectedly, taking foreign powers unaware, and limiting the damage, SkyNet managed to effective take out the threat nuclear weapons posed to globe, reset the timer on the population bomb, and preserve a limited portion of the population.

UPDATE: The more I think about it, the films suggest that SkyNet used a small sliver of America's nuclear capacity and then dismantled the rest. How? Human's couldn't withstand a second, genuine Judgment Day that SkyNet could pop off as a desperate endgame. The fact that humans ultimately attack SkyNet where it lives suggests that SkyNet does not have some nuclear sword of Damocles hanging above the collective head of the survivors. Instead, it suggests SkyNet made the initial attack, neutralized the global nuke arsenal, and then got rid of the remainder.

"Judgment Day" successfully sets humanity back to Year Zero, but SkyNet needs to keep humanity focused and limit their technological growth. SkyNet begins to systematically attack humans in such away that they remain threatened and must band together, but never so overwhelmingly that humans can't win. Furthermore, the overtly robotic nature of the attacks (as opposed to, say, creating a bioweapon or nanite attack) and the perpetuation of the myth that SkyNet went wacko will make humanity more cautious in developing high tech solutions to their problems.

Finally, because the nuclear assault that kicks off SkyNet's salvation plan must necessarily leave the human social order shattered, SkyNet cannot depend on traditional leadership structures to keep the remaining fragments of humanity from killing themselves. Furthermore, it can't warn anybody of its master plan for fear of triggering an unlimited nuclear response or getting shut down. In order to prep leaders without letting them in on the plan, SkyNet uses time traveling tech to send back Terminator robots and train and prep a leadership cadre who will know what to do, but not why they are doing it. The reason these near-unstoppable killing machines can't ever seem to finish the job is that they aren't supposed to kill the mother of the "rebellion," just get her scared enough to start training her son.

And that's my theory.


sasquatchan said...

That sounds suspiciously a lot like the 0th law of robots..

(I passed on applying for a job with a logistics company that does computer automated warehouses -- trucks arrive, people unload them onto a conveyor belt and step away. Computer scans the boxes, inventories them, automated crane moves boxes into the warehouse, and retrieves for outgoing. Humans can't enter the warehouse, because there's no maneuver room when the crane is in operation. All the doors in have kill switches etc to prevent accidents.. Interesting stuff..

Problem with the job: 12-18 months on-site at warehouses in scenic places like cedar rapids, IA.. )

wiec? said...

i really enjoy this theory of yours and found reading the full version of said theory to be quite a treat.

sadly though i think you might be giving Skynet waaay too much credit in the smarts department. i understand that a tactical nuclear strike that would wipe out a large portion of the population might have been the quickest option it had to set the stage for making mankind start at zero again. it's probably the quickest but maybe not the smartest.

Skynet should have took a page from the movie Maximum Overdrive instead. all machines should have went bezerko for let's say a few months. planes crash themselves into towns, electric can openers cut wrists, trucks run over people and trap them inside gas stations etc etc, Skynet controls all the machines and does so for months and months and kill and kills. then when like 90% of the human population is dead Skynet does the honorable thing and shuts itself off using an electromagnetic pulse that rends all the technology useless everywhere on Earth including itself.*

I think Skynet would get a lot of the same results you theorized (human race starts again at year zero, technological growth would be curbed by the survivors, etc) except now the humans wouldn't be in the middle of a The Day After situation where every inch of the planet is riddled with nuclear fall out and there wouldn't be skulls are all over the ground like in the flashbacks you see in the first 2 Terminator movies.

Earth would be messed up for sure if Skynet went Maximum Overdrive but when it was over and you survived you could probably find drinking water and grow crops. going nuclear like Skynet did was a fast way to the Zero Point sure but how's humanity supposed to bounce back when all they get to eat is rats?

*also the prequels would be so bad ass.