Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Terminator Genisys’ obsession with the tech threat on the button

I finally got to view Alan Taylor’s Terminator Genisys (2015) on the plane to Korea, which we are visiting for the third time to attend a conference in Seoul on posthumanism, and to do some mountain climbing in the beautiful Seoroksan mountains near Sokcho, a stone’s throw from the demilitarised zone and the North Korean border. Quite appropriately, one might say, given the Terminator movies’ thematisation of extreme danger, and, as Koreans have told us several times, their awareness of the constant danger in which they live, given the unpredictable nature of their northern neighbour’s somewhat megalomaniac leader, Kim Jong Un.

Like its nominal predecessors, Terminator Genisys features different models of the deadly machines called Terminators, as well as the by-now familiar characters, including John Connor (Jason Clarke), the resistance leader in a future world where humans are fighting back against the machines that destroyed their world when Skynet – the globally interconnected network of computers comprising one gigantic artificial intelligence, at least in one of the previous four versions – launched nuclear warheads against humans, eliminating more than 3 billion of them virtually immediately. The rest of humanity has been waging a guerrilla war against the machines since then, and according to Terminator Genisys in 2029 this culminates in a colossal, supposedly “final” attack against Skynet by humans, in the hope of destroying it once and for all.

Ostensibly the soldiers of the resistance succeed in destroying Skynet, only to discover that, before their offensive, Skynet (as in previous Terminator films) dispatched a T-800 cyborg Terminator to the year 1984 to kill John’s mother, Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke, of Game of Thrones Kalissee fame), something that, if successful, would prevent John Connor from being born, therefore almost guaranteeing the machines’ victory. As in the first Terminator movie, John Connor’s trusted lieutenant, Kyle Rees (Jai Courtney) is sent back in time to protect Sarah, only to find that, contrary to his expectations, she already knows about him, and has a guardian T-800 Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) protecting her. Rees, who has had visions from his childhood in 2017, realises that the timeline (the future) has been changed, and when (after some nail-biting encounters with the T-800 executioner as well as a liquid-metal T-1000 model Terminator) Sarah and the guardian (quaintly called “Pops” by Sarah) want to time-travel to the year 1997, when Skynet is supposed to become self-conscious, he persuades them to travel to 2017 instead to prevent Skynet from activating Armageddon.

At this stage I don’t want to reveal any more of the plot (I’ve already omitted some crucial events), lest I spoil the film for those who have not seen it. Suffice it to say that, having arrived in 2017 San Francisco, Rees, Sarah and (today’s Arnie as) “Pops”, the protector-Terminator, are confronted by a super lethal, virtually indestructible Terminator-agent who was sent after Rees from 2029 to prevent their mission’s success, and their struggle with this agent takes up the rest of the film narrative. It is the nature of the “beast” (Skynet) that the trio of world-savers have to confront that interests me here, given its uncanny resemblance – in fact, its utter familiarity – to what one witnesses around one today, in 2015. This “beast” is the predecessor of (and soon to become) Skynet, namely the eponymous global operating system, Genisys.

What is so inimical about a global operating system, one may wonder. Isn’t that what everyone is striving for in the ITC business worldwide, and what we already have, in a sense, in Facebook and other social media sites, supported by the global internet? That is precisely the point. All around them, Sarah and Rees witness screens of various sorts, people busily working with their smartphones or tablets, and one character tells them that he is “completely connected” through all his devices, from laptop to smartphone and tablet.

Not much different from today, is it? Of course not, and this is what Terminator Genisys is out to critique – a global system of interconnectedness that approximates, and could in principle actualise, “total” (inter-)connectedness, in so doing allowing “Skynet” to emerge as the condition of possibility of artificial intelligence-control of humanity. One could also phrase it in the language of Raymond Kurzweil, tech-optimist and prophet of the singularity: the event when artificial intelligence will putatively exceed all human intelligences combined and assume, in almost mythical proportions, a new, unheard-of, supremacy. Skynet’s emergence is the equivalent of the singularity.

Unlike Kurzweil and his ilk, however, Terminator Genisys – or rather, the writers of the movie script, Laeta Kalogridis and Patrick Lussier, as well as director Alan Taylor, like James Cameron before them in the first two Terminator films – see this holy grail of complete, all-inclusive connectedness, not as paradise regained, but as the opening of the gates of hell. This has to be understood almost literally, because if (when?) artificial super-intelligence Genisys/Skynet gains access to human defence systems, it could (would?) use its capacity to override defensive human decisions and launch nuclear attack weaponry against humanity in an effort to eliminate or “terminate” it once and for all.

It is not only in the Terminator films where this scenario unfolds; as I have indicated in a recent post, several recent movies foresee the same possibility, if not probability, and two thinkers of undisputed importance (Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking) have warned that this sci-fi scenario is not far-fetched at all. One could add many other films to these, for example Transcendence, but the most important of these is probably the long-running TV series Battlestar Galactica, which depicts human history as fatally committed to the invention and development of artificially intelligent beings, or robots, that – like the robots in the Terminator films – eventually turn on their human creators in an effort to destroy them. Mary Shelley already had that intuition in her gothic sci-fi novel of the early 19th century, namely Frankenstein.

What is new in Terminator Genisys is that its creators have seen the link between the present mania concerning “(inter-)connectedness” and the development of a global system that would have all the characteristics required by Skynet to function the way it is depicted in the film. Hence the reference, in the title of this post, to “the limits of connectedness”. Sometimes, if not always, it is a good thing NOT to be connected to global information networks uninterruptedly. That way, Genisys could not become Skynet. It is no accident that in Battlestar Galactica, the Galactica survives the cylon attack because, unlike the newer battlestars, it is not connected to the system which the cylons use to destroy 99% of the humans. Ecologically speaking, every living thing is interconnected rhizomatically with all others. This is good interconnectedness as far as life goes, except when ecological damage breaks down the connections. But artificial, technologically mediated connectedness is not good without qualification, as Terminator Genisys shows persuasively.

I know that this will be laughed at by 99% of the people who read this post, but I’ll say it anyway: there is practical wisdom – what the ancient Greeks called phronesis – in NOT being connected all the time. It is therapeutic. When my partner and I go into the mountains, we don’t switch on our mobile phones, because we don’t want to be accessible all the time. I don’t have a smartphone; I carry the most basic little model of mobile phone, which can only text and receive calls, or call, which I hardly ever do. And unlike many people who have smartphones, I don’t show the symptoms of quasi-OCD. We don’t REALLY need smartphones; we are smart enough without them.

Without wanting to sound melodramatic, this is probably one of the most important blogs I’ve written on Thoughtleader. While people are preoccupied with fluctuating issues such as the economy, the scenario sketched in Terminator Genisys is unfolding, slowly but inexorably, because of human beings’ fascination with the quest of using technology to (re-)create artificial intelligence. They should remind themselves that artificial intelligence is NOT artificial life. Life is organic, and fragile. Protect it.

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