Return of the killer robots - is 'Terminator: Dark Fate' a glimpse of things to come?

Cast member Arnold Schwarzenegger poses by a Terminator replica at the premiere of "Terminator Genisys" in Hollywood, California June 28, 2015. The movie opens in the U.S. on July 1.  REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni - GF10000143023

Man vs machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger returns as the robot killing robots killing humans. Image: REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Robin Pomeroy
Podcast Editor, World Economic Forum
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Arnold Schwarzenegger is back on the big screen as the killer-robot he first played in The Terminator 25 years ago. The movie not only defined his career, it spawned a franchise of sequels and countless imitations exploiting our fears that technology could one day develop its own consciousness and turn against us.

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In the original, released in the pivotal sci-fi year of 1984, Arnie is sent from the future to ensure that the human who is to lead a slave rebellion against the machines is never born. The robot's super-human strength and intelligence should make him the ultimate killing machine, but the grit and sheer humanity of his target, Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), prove more than a match.

Terminator: Dark Fate is the sixth installment, but, according to Variety, the only decent one since 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day, considered a classic that changed the way Hollywood made science fiction. "In Dark Fate, the very premise of the 'Terminator' series — the elevation of A.I. into a fascist force that sets out to destroy the civilization that created it — has gotten a facelift," writes critic Owen Gleiberman.

The hype surrounding the movie has prompted concerns that it could increase the public's concerns about artificial intelligence without improving understanding of the possibilities of new technology. A BBC article asked whether Dark Fate could do for AI what Jaws did for sharks - by instilling unshakable and irrational fear.

"Typically, when people talk about the risks of AI, they have in mind scenarios whereby machines have achieved 'artificial general intelligence' and have the cognitive abilities to act beyond the control and specification of their human creators," Edward Grefenstette, a research scientist at Facebook AI Research in London, told the BBC.

"With all due respect to people who talk of the dangers of AGI and its imminence, this is an unrealistic prospect, given that recent progress in AI still invariably focuses on the development of very specific skills within controlled domains."

That's unlikely to put everyone's mind at rest. Killer robots have been a staple of science fiction since the start of cinema (see below), and the rise of automation, drone warfare, and the migration of much of human activity to the internet, makes the idea more compelling than ever.

Killer-robots: five moments in movie history

Metropolis (1927)

The dystopian world in Fritz Lang's Metropolis has an underclass of humans enslaved by machines. The silent, black and white movie's striking visuals are still an inspiration to movie-makers, although the film might be read more as a metaphor for the social inequality of its day than a vision of the technology of the future.


2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

The astronauts in Stanley Kubrick's epic are at the mercy of HAL, a computer that runs their spaceship and talks to them in a soothing, benign voice. Surely HAL, programmed to protect them, could do no harm?


Westworld (1973)

Written and directed by Michael Crichton, Westworld is a forerunner of his Jurassic Park. Both are about theme parks in which technology allows us to experience the thrill of real danger (cowboy shoot-outs in Westworld, marauding dinosaurs in Jurassic Park) in what should be a safe environment. The robots in Westworld are programmed to put up a fight against the humans but not really hurt them. But they are armed with real guns, so what if the software goes wrong? The movie has been remade as a TV series which has a new season in production, to be screened next year.


Blade Runner (1982)

In Blade Runner, the robots have developed such a strong sense of consciousness that they flee their human masters to seek a freer and longer life. Harrison Ford's Deckard is the man hired to hunt them down. The movie, based on a short story by Philip K. Dick, poses fundamental questions about what it is to be human, a theme picked up by the sequel Blade Runner 2049, released in 2017.


Black Mirror - Metalhead

This episode of the TV series Black Mirror strips the killer-robots trope to the bare essentials. In a post-apocalyptic future, a group of survivors disturb a box in a warehouse from which emerges a dog-like machine that knows only one instruction: hunt and kill humans.

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