Twenty years ago today, Skynet, the fictional artificial intelligence network and antagonist of the “Terminator” movie franchise, became self-aware.
In the films, a Silicon Valley tech company built the network of supercomputers for the U.S. military to replace the humans who control America’s nuclear arsenal. The idea was that the program would offer better reaction times and fewer mistakes than humans and engage in strategic warfare unencumbered by emotion, political incentives or ego. According to dates cited in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day,” the network was activated on Aug. 4, 1997 and started thinking on its own on Aug. 29, 1997.
But Skynet had a problem. The data points it used to calculate risk didn’t account for the vast nuances of human psychology, behavior and motivations. For an intelligent neural network, Skynet was really only capable of rudimentary, if-this-then-that thinking. It refused to listen to others and ran commands without factoring in the economic, social and geopolitical implications of its actions.
In the first “Terminator” movie, all of the computers suddenly behave erratically. Human engineers, realizing their grave miscalculation, panic and try to shut down the system. Perceiving that it is under attack, Skynet makes a decision to follow the mandate encoded within its system: Protect the world from humans who would do it harm. In service of this goal, the program launches nuclear missiles, ignites a global war, kills billions of people and devastates humanity.
The series is a classic sci-fi story: Humans create a monster, and it winds up killing us in order to save itself. Now a similar scenario appears to be playing out in real life, only the antagonist who keeps putting us in harm’s way to protect itself is President Trump.
Like Skynet, the Trump administration has a crude operating system with a deeply embedded mandate — in its case, to “Make America Great Again.” The system references narrow worldviews and outdated military ideology and prizes speed over sound judgment. Rather than taking in a broad range of unbiased information and methodically analyzing it, Trump seems programmed to execute commands as quickly as possible without considering the implications of his actions.
Take his decision a few months ago to send 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles into a Syrian airbase. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offered the befuddling explanation that the strike didn’t represent any “change in our policy or posture,” and said that the strike demonstrated that “President Trump is willing to act.” But Trump’s impulsiveness had strategic and political consequences that appear not have been worked out in advance. All summer long, Syria has prevented international chemical weapons inspectors from entering Damascus, while North Korea has been fortifying Syria with supplies, according to a new U.N. report. Rather than weakening Syria’s position, Trump strengthened the partnership between two of America’s adversaries.
Similarly, the president’s ad-libbed “fire and fury” remarks about North Korea might have seemed refreshingly direct and patriotic to some, but they created a situation in which Kim Jong Un could either respond with might and authority or else lose face with his people. If Trump were capable of taking in cultural data, he might have come to the more logical conclusion that saying nothing — and tweeting nothing — was the better tactical move. Instead, he set into motion an escalation that could have been avoided. North Korea has been launching missiles ever since — most recently into the airspace over Japan.
Although Skynet was programmed to make decisions, it couldn’t learn how to interpret new kinds of data, especially if the information broke any of its established rules. So it is with our president, who operates with a retrograde understanding of modern warfare.
Trump reveres the late Gen. George S. Patton and speaks obsessively about past wars — about bright missiles and American boots on the ground. His preoccupation with the past has blurred his vision of contemporary and future warfare, which is less about hardware and humans and much more about software and algorithms.
We are in the throes of a radical departure from the last 100 years of industrial warfare. Today, for instance, the most advanced military planes in the world belong to the U.S., and what makes them so potent is the computer system powering the helmet worn by the pilot. The software runs a sophisticated augmented reality display that allows pilots to see through the fuselage of the aircraft. It automatically labels objects within view, zooms in and analyzes anything within a 360-degree radius, tracks nearby wingmen and continuously looks for external threats.
To maintain our military strength, the U.S. needs to fund basic research into artificial intelligence and champion long-term strategic planning between agencies. Instead, many in the Trump administration seem intent on dismissing technology. Trump himself doesn’t even seem to understand it.
Trump may be human rather than machine, but he is without question a monster of our own making, and his command-line interface is the modern media. The head of CNN International, Tony Maddox, is only the latest media executive to point out that Trump is “good for business,” as Maddox put it at the recent Edinburgh International Television Festival. When we amplify Trump’s tweets and put him on television, we ensure that the system keeps running.
But unfortunately, unlike in the “Terminator” movies, there are no time travelers coming to save us.
Amy Webb is the author of “The Signals Are Talking: Why Today’s Fringe Is Tomorrow’s Mainstream” and an adjunct professor of strategic foresight at the New York University Stern School of Business.