“How Close Were the Terminator Films to Reality?”
by Adam Smith
“The date 21 April 2011 has been prophesied in the "Terminator" series as Judgement Day, when the machines rise up and bring about the end of human society as we know it. Artificial intelligence clearly has not developed in quite the way James Cameron's science-fiction franchise predicted, but how close are we to the technologies he depicted? Central to the Terminator series is the idea of Skynet, the United States's "Global Digital Defense Network", which develops self-awareness and begins a nuclear war.
Western military forces have long relied on networks to distribute information, such as the US Department of Defense's system for sharing top-secret information - the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System. Yet despite the vast amounts of confidential data stored on such networks, the greatest military disaster to have occurred to date is probably Wikileaks's release of diplomatic cables. More worrying to would-be members of "the resistance" is the rise of augmented systems and unmanned military technology. The Guardian reported last week that a Ministry of Defence study had warned this technology could be the start of an "incremental and involuntary journey towards a Terminator-like reality".
• 4 August 1997: The date Skynet goes online according to the first Terminator film
• 29 August 1997: The first Terminator film claims this is when Skynet becomes self-aware and destroys human civilisation
• 25 July 2004: This is the date Judgement Day is pushed back to in Terminator 3 after the Skynet research is destroyed in Terminator 2
• 19 April 2011: The date Skynet goes online in the Sarah Connor Chronicles
• 21 April 2011: The date in the Sarah Connor Chronicles when Skynet launches its first missiles
Chris Cole, a campaigner who runs the Drone Wars UK website, said: "It's a fictional scenario... which we are some distance away from, but it's becoming easier to imagine because of the push towards speed. Military decision makers are saying we are too slow to react and we need to start handing over more decision making to machines. We should not go down this route, just like chemical weapons and biological weapons are regarded as being beyond the pale, we should be saying this about automated systems."
Of course for fans of the "Terminator" series, the real point of contention is the date Skynet will implement its attack against humanity. In the original Terminator film Kyle Reese, played by Michael Biehn, is sent back in time from a post-apocalyptic future and tells how Skynet was installed on 4 August 1997 and gained its deadly self-awareness on 29 August. This future was, however, altered in the second Terminator film, where the heroes succeed in destroying the research that led to the creation of Skynet. But, as is conveniently revealed in the subsequent sequels, the apocalyptic future was not prevented but merely postponed.
Alternative futures: In the timeline shown in the TV show "Sarah Connor Chronicles," we see a young Kyle watch as Skynet finally succeeds in launching missiles on 21 April 2011. The film's director, James Cameron, told the TMZ website: "Kyle Reese said in the first film that it was only one possible future - clearly, not the one we're in. Maybe Kyle, Sarah, John and the T-800 changed things enough to steer us away from that possible future." He added: "Now instead of nuclear war we need to worry about global climate change. And the machines taking over? With everybody going through their lives bent over their Blackberrys all day long, you could even argue the machines have already won."
Mr Cameron's cinematic vision has, thankfully, not been borne out, but could there be a final twist in his tale? To this day the UK's family of military satellites is still called Skynet - a name first coined in 1969 when the first one was built in the US. A spokesman for Astrium, the company which builds them, said the name preceded the film and was probably a coincidence. But he added it was just possible the director could have read something about the UK satellite system and adopted the name."