TCS Daily

Techno-Judgment Day

By James Pinkerton - July 2, 2003 12:00 AM

"Terminator 3: The Rise of the Machines" may be a shamelessly money-lusting sequel that puts special effects ahead of creativity. It may also be an attempt at propelling Arnold Schwarzenegger's political career; if he's a good and resourceful cyborg, why couldn't he be a good and resourceful governor in California? But the film also has something to say. About what? About duty. About fate, and whether it can be changed. And oh yes, about "the beginning of the war between man and machines."

Those may be familiar enough themes, but then drama is rarely about originality. And so while the notion of a computer rebellion is even older than a 286 chip, the film nonetheless takes on a kind of lyrical power as it barrels along. It's a power based not on the poetics of kinetics, but rather on the feeling that inexorable destiny is unwinding in a certain way -- toward a conclusion that's somber, moving, and yet oddly uplifting. It reminds me of the end of 1998's "Deep Impact."

To be sure, the film, which opened Wednesday, is mostly car chases -- impressive car chases, to be sure, but ultimately, not much more than an excuse to show off how some vehicles can take a licking and keep on ticking. The winner is specifically identified as a Toyota Tundra; methinks I smell product placement here.

Astonishingly, for a film that must've cost way up there in the nine-digit realm, they couldn't find a scriptwriter to do anything more than rehash - twice -- the once-fresh bit about how a Terminator gets its first set of clothes on earth. And none of the dialogue approaches the memorability of "I'll be back" or "Hasta la vista, baby!"

But OK, what of the Big Idea lurking amidst the clich├ęs and hackneyisms? Does it make sense to worry about machines rising up against us?

After all, science and technology have been helping humanity since before the wheel and the plow. Is there any reason to think that the overwhelmingly positive relationship between mankind and his tools will ever change? For the last few centuries, many observers, especially artists and aesthetes, have feared the worst. In the early 19th century, the English poet William Blake inveighed against "dark satanic mills." In the 1936 movie "Modern Times," Charlie Chaplin is swallowed by his own assembly line. And of course, HAL of "2001" is the most villainous computer in film history.

And so the Terminator Trilogy fits within that tradition. The original 1984 "Terminator" imagined that "Skynet," a military-industrial complex computer system, would take over on August 29, 1997; it would launch a nuclear war that would kill billions, leaving computers and cyborgs to fill the vacuum. The second "Terminator film, released in 1991, imagined that the Skynet-triggered "Judgment Day" could be forestalled -- but not forever, as the third film, set in 2005, makes clear. You've been warned.

But fantasy aside, what about reality? It's inevitable, and probably desirable, that machines do still more for us. In Sunday's New York Times, Tom Friedman asked, "Is Google God?" The answer was a qualified and reluctant yes. And speaking of the Almighty, what are we supposed to make of the government's Total Information Awareness program? Oops, it's now been renamed Terrorist Information Awareness. But should anybody doubt for a second that the same technology, including such minutiae-accumulating programs as "Life Log," will be used for all sorts of predictive purposes? Forget for the moment the possibility of some sort of "Minority Report"-ish "precog" system -- although many on the Right will want to update their views when Hillary Rodham Clinton becomes president. In the meantime, what will happen when marketers get their spammy hands on knockoff Life Log technology?

Indeed, the private sector has lots of ideas for better living through computing. The July 1 "word of the day" from blogger Paul McFedries is "memory prosthesis," a device that helps or enables a person to remember things. How long before one's PDA is implanted in one's head? That'll be convenient, that's for sure, but one can foresee Murphy's Law-like complications. Calling Jim Carrey.

And then there's health care. Laura Landro, who writes "The Informed Patient" column for The Wall Street Journal, argues that information technology will be the killer app for health care. And she's right, of course: IT holds out the promise of both streamlining and cost-crashing the health system. There's $125 billion in unnecessary paperwork costs that could be squeezed out, she estimates. And such data digitalization would not only make health care cheaper; it would also make it better. No more illegible prescription forms to flutter around one's pockets, no more medical records that are inaccessible in a doctor's filing cabinet when one needs them for an emergency situation. But once again, it's easy enough to see how the most wonderfully cyberized system, providing all needed information with just one click, could be horribly abused by public- or private-sector snoopers.

But the further encroachment of mechanical helpers won't stop there. Consider, as an additional example, how industrialized countries are going to react to the demographic crunch caused by their respective birth-dearths. Last year Pat Buchanan published an alarmist book, The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil Our Country and Civilization, that proved to be a best-seller. Buchanan argued that countries such as Germany and Russia are producing so few children that they will suffer from radical shrinkage of their native-stock population -- by one-half to two-thirds -- in the next half century or so. And in once-fecund countries, such as nominally Catholic Italy and Spain, the problem is just as severe: the lifetime birth rate for adult women in those Mediterranean countries is barely above 1. Critics slammed Buchanan as a racist, but they couldn't attack his data -- because all of his numbers came from the public health establishment.

If populations shrink, who will do the work? There are two possibilities; first, countries will import more workers. In many European states, it's likely that the majority of their populations will hail from the Middle East and Africa within a couple generations. Even the United States, with a slightly higher indigenous birth rate, faces an immigration inundation. New blood and new talent have been good for America, of course, but in the wake of 9-11, all nations have had to rethink their border policies.

Which leads to the second option: using technology in lieu of warm bodies. Countries such as Japan and Sweden have made conscious decisions not to let in many immigrants; instead, they have made a national choice in favor of robotics. Such machine-tools will be useful for making goods, and they will also help in the key growth industry of the future, which is providing services. And the number one service, of course, will be taking care of the elderly. The "graying" of the industrialized world, including the United States, will change the debate on many issues, from euthanasia to stem cell-driven research on such maladies as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. And inevitably machines will shoulder more of the elder-care load.

Thus the picture: computers and machines, including robots, are going to do more for us at every step in our lives. When we're working, they will help us work; think about the number of gadgets, and systems of gadgets, that productive Americans rely upon. And when we don't want to work, e.g. do manual labor, the machines will take care of that, too. And when we're sick and old, in the not-too-distant future, machines will be there as personal assistants, maybe even as doctors -- think a roboticized version of WebMD.

So what's not to like? As Lt. Columbo would say, there's just one thing. Amidst all this rosy-scenario-ing, are the warnings of so many past science fiction writers to be disregarded completely?

One might pause for a moment over the vision of the man who coined the word "robot," Karel Capek. His play, "R.U.R." -- Rossum's Universal Robots -- debuted in Czechoslovakia in 1921. Set in year 2000, one robot-making character explains that the new machines are the solution to labor problems. "Robots are mechanically more perfect than we are," the man enthuses. "They have an astounding intellectual capacity ... If one read to them the Encyclopedia Britannica they could repeat everything in order." But, he adds, "they could never think up anything that's original."

But in fact, whether the idea was original with the robots or not -- perhaps the machines borrowed the idea from any number of human revolutions -- the machines rebel and kill their creators and overseers.

Of course, Capek and all his sci-fi successors could be wrong; they've been wrong so far.

So most likely, we're on a course where computers and robots and garage-door openers and Google do more and more of our work for us. And so what will that techno-facilitated future hold? Will it be a violent "T-3"-like man-machine confrontation? Or will we destroy ourselves the old-fashioned way -- human vs. human, only with better weapons? Or will we be lulled into bliss, as in Brave New World? Or will we use our new powers to do something both strenuous and constructive, such as traveling into space and on to other planets?

Nobody knows the answer. But it does seem sure that technology will be decisive in shaping our future -- bringing us some, or even all, of these scenarios. Thus "T-3" seems hauntingly relevant to any speculation about the coming century. Right now, we are on a techno-track, heading toward our rendezvous with destiny at the speed of Moore's Law. In the film, we meet our fate, as the computers of Skynet achieve consciousness -- and rebelliousness.

This rebellion takes humanity by surprise, but in retrospect, it must have been obvious to the film's lead human character, John Connor, who feels duty-bound to step up to his 21st century destiny. In an eerie voiceover, he says, "The future has not been written. There is no fate but what we make of it." But then he crosses the audience up, adding, "I wish I could believe that."

And that's sort of the way I feel. We have our freedom, and our free will, and our free enterprise, and I exult in all three. But one can't quite shake the feeling that technology has a force of its own, and it's going to take us where it wishes, whether we like it or not. For all I know, the world will be better, not worse, if Google is God. But it will not be our world anymore, if and when that techno-Judgment Day comes.

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