Gaming the Robot Revolution

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

May 22, 2009

Terminator: Salvation

, the fourth installment of the Terminator franchise, takes place in 2018, a number of years after an artificial-intelligence network devised by the U.S. military, called Skynet, has turned on its masters and set off a nuclear war. The sentient computer now controls an army of killer robots tasked with hunting down and killing every last member of the human race. It’s Hollywood popcorn at its best, if not for the scary fact that the movie touches on some very real trends in modern military technology.

At about the same time that producers started working out how to make a Terminator movie without the governor of California, I set out to study what was happening as the machines of science fiction started to be used on our real-world battlefields. I interviewed scientists, generals, insurgents, and human rights activists for my book Wired for War and along the way discovered that our use of robotics in war is already surprisingly extensive. The U.S. military went into Iraq in 2003 with only a handful of unmanned systems in the air. We now have more than 7,000 drones in the force, including the famed Predator drone now gaining notoriety for its near-daily visits to Pakistan. Similarly, the invasion force that went into Iraq used no unmanned ground vehicles. The military now has more than 12,000 of them—including the lawnmower-sized Packbot, which is made by the group behind the Roomba robot vacuum cleaner but hunts for roadside bombs instead of dust bunnies. The next generation of machines now at the prototype stage are being armed with everything from machine guns to rockets.

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of American soldiers who are alive today because of robotics, so in many ways this triumph of technology should be celebrated. Many of the people I talked with described robotics as being equivalent to the rise of the steam engine or the computer in terms of its massive military, political, social, and economic ripple effects, making the Predators and Packbots of today akin to the Wright brothers’ Flyer or the Model T Ford. Bill Gates described robots as being parallel to where computers were in 1980 and said we’re “on the verge of a new era.” But many others describe robots in the same way we now discuss the atomic bomb—as an invention we might one day wish we could take back. According to military robots pioneer Robert Finkelstein, the new technology “could end up causing the end of humanity, or it could end war forever.”

This is important stuff that necessitates a debate in the here and now. But in our world, it is often pop culture that reigns supreme. So Slate has asked me, a guy with a Harvard Ph.D. in security studies and who helped write the new president’s defense policy agenda, to answer whether Terminator‘s robot revolt could ever come true. Fortunately, I am also an admitted sci-fi geek, so I am somewhat well-equipped to wrestle with the question of whether the metal ones might come for you.

Essentially, four conditions would have to be met before a Skynet-like entity could take over the world.

First, the machines would have to have some sort of survival instinct or will to power. In the Terminator movies, for instance, Skynet decides to launch a nuclear holocaust against humans in self-defense after the frightened generals attempt to take it offline. Yet most of the focus in military robotics today is to use technology as a substitute for human risk and loss. We use the Packbot in Iraq because, as one U.S. military officer tells, “When a robot dies, you don’t have to write a letter to its mother.” It would serve the very opposite goal to give our robots any survival instinct.

Second, the machines would have to be more intelligent than humans but have no positive human qualities (such as empathy or ethics). This kind of intellectual advancement may be possible—eventually—given the multiplicative rate at which computer technology progresses. But an explosion of artificial intelligence that surpasses humanity (sometimes referred to as the Singularity) is by no means certain. My Roomba vacuum, for example, still can’t reason its way out of being stuck under my sofa, let alone plot my demise. There’s also an entire field, called “social robotics,” devoted to giving thinking machines the sort of positive human qualities that would undermine an evil-robot scenario. Researchers at Hanson Robotics, for example, describe how their mission is to build robots that “will evolve into socially intelligent beings, capable of love and earning a place in the extended human family.”

The third condition for a machine takeover would be the existence of independent robots that could fuel, repair, and reproduce themselves without human help. That’s far beyond the scope of anything that now exists. While our real-world robots have become very capable, they all still need humans. For instance, the Global Hawk drone, the replacement for the manned U-2 spy plane, has the ability to take off on its own, fly to a destination 3,000 miles away, and stay in the air for 24 hours as it hunts for a terrorist on the ground. Then it can fly back to where it started and land on its own. But none of this would be possible if there weren’t humans on the ground to fill it with gas, repair any broken parts, and update its mission protocols.

Finally, a robot invasion could only succeed if humans had no useful fail-safes or ways to control the machines’ decision-making. We would have to have lost any ability to override, intervene, or even shape the actions of the robots. Yet one has to hope that a generation that grew up on a diet of Terminator movies would see the utility of fail-safe mechanisms. Plus, there’s the possibility that shoddy programming by humans will become our best line of defense: As many roboticists joke, just when the robots are poised to take over, their Microsoft software programs will probably freeze up and crash.

The counter to all of this, of course, is that a superintelligent machine would figure out a way around each of these barriers. In the Terminator story line, for example, the Skynet computer is able to manipulate and blackmail humans into doing the sorts of things it needs. It’s also able to rewrite its own software, a scenario that may be not so far-fetched. There is much work today on “evolutionary” or self-educating artificial intelligence that can even begin to take on its own identity. Just as humanity ended up with both Gandhi and Hitler, there is no guarantee that our machines will evolve to feel only love and compassion.

Most importantly, we rarely take heed of the lessons of science fiction. The military routinely carries out research into systems against which writers and filmmakers have long warned. Indeed, the scientists are often directly inspired by those cautionary tales. For instance, H.G. Wells’ dark fantasy of what he called an “atomic bomb” in the 1913 anti-war story The World Set Free actually helped guide the thinkers behind the Manhattan Project. In my book, I mention how one robotics firm was asked a few years ago by the military whether it could design a robot that looked like the “Hunter-Killer robot of Terminator.” (It wasn’t such a silly request. The design would be quite useful for the sort of fights we face now in Iraq and Afghanistan.)

In my final judgment, however, The Terminator may not be the best guide for how a machine takeover might take place in the real world. Instead, another science fiction series, The Matrix, may be more useful. By this I don’t mean that we can look forward to a future of humans living in jelly bubbles and Keanu Reeves’ avatar running about in leather pants. Rather, the films give us a valuable metaphor for the technologic matrix in which we increasingly find ourselves enmeshed but barely notice. For all our pop-culture-stoked fears of living in a world where robots rule with an iron (or digital) fist, we already live in a world of technology that few of us even understand. It increasingly dominates how we live, work, communicate, and now even fight.

Why would machines ever need to plot a takeover when we already can’t do anything important without them?