Our June 2009 issue features a slew of seriously sinister (in fact, downright deadly) robots that populate , the fourth and latest film in the fabulously successful series about killer robots under the control of Skynet, a distinctly nasty computer network. In this article, PM’s Erik Sofge introduces some of the machines that helped to create a cult…
True to their word, the Terminators are back. The TV series, , flighted on DStv a few months back, is a partial reinvention of the franchise that gave us one of our most treasured sci-fi clichs – the robotic insurgency.
In the Terminator timeline, the world is predestined to be plunged into nuclear winter by an artificially intelligent defence network called Skynet that decides – in a moment of binary brilliance – that the quickest path to peace is genocide. The self-aware machines win nearly every battle, nuking the planet to establish dominance, then picking off the survivors. But plucky, tenacious humans, led by the legendary John Connor, make an eventual comeback in the 2020s. Result: the unstoppable, time-travelling robot assassins (nicknamed Terminators) that tear through Southern California, trying to kill off the future leadership of the humans before the war has even started.
Each movie, followed by the TV series and now by , has given us at least one new type of Terminator, from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s hulking T-800 to increasingly complex and nanotech-inspired villains. As our techno-anxieties have evolved, so too have the Terminators. But are the robots getting tougher, or just harder to explain? Here’s a model-by-model breakdown of humanity’s greatest enemies and reprogrammed allies. How about the Harvester, the Hydrobot and the Moto-Terminator? Watch the movie, guys. Watch the movie.
The T-800, a grim-faced, sunglasses-at-night-wearing robot – or cyborg, for you purists – started it all in James Cameron’s 1984 film, . In the Terminator timeline, these combat cyborgs are the inheritors of the present-day military’s unmanned vehicle initiative. But when the film first came out, the T-800 was more of a sci-fi grim reaper, or, as Cameron put it: “Death rendered in steel.” As its gleaming skeleton was gradually revealed, the T-800 came to represent what seemed horribly inevitable in the early 1980s – the destruction of the world through out-of-control technology.
The T-800 series is designed to look and act like a human – albeit a massive, stone-faced bodybuilder with a thing for memorable one-liners. Consisting of a durable metal endoskeleton covered with functional human skin and blood, these infiltration models can blend into crowds, but can’t stand up to intense scrutiny. Animals instinctively hate Terminators, so dogs bark at them, which is presumably when the T-800s stop skulking and start firing. This bot series is also used by Skynet on the battlefield, sans flesh and blood, in a standard infantry role.
It isn’t the smartest of robots, but the T-800 can learn. Its neural network comes pre-loaded with cookie-cutter verbal interactions, and it can record and assimilate additional phrases that it hears, even mimicking a subject’s voice (though not his or her inflection). The T-800 can also learn to adapt, which can lead to seemingly genuine emotions. In , the reprogrammed T-800 tells a young John Connor, “Now I know why you cry”. But even in its most basic mode, this robot displays a clear spark of personality embodied in those infamous, awful one-liners – from an ominous, pre-rampage, “I’ll be back”, to the gloating, “Hasta la vista, baby”, the T-800 seems to take pride in its work.
How do you stop it?
In the future, T-800s are susceptible to future-era weapons such as laser rifles and pulse cannons. In the present, they’re almost impossible to damage. Their skin can be torn off with bullets, but the endoskeleton beneath is made of an ultra-strong, as-yet-undiscovered alloy. Without sci-fi armament, the only way to injure a T-800 is to improvise: hitting it with a vehicle, jamming a homemade bomb in its chest cavity or luring it under a hydraulic press.
The first Terminator movie featured the chilling image of a robot methodically gunning down the LAPD. In , Cameron’s new model spends most of its time in the guise, and patrol car, of a Los Angeles police officer. This formless monster is essentially liquid metal, able to reassemble itself at will, and for some reason, run really fast. And the T-1000 embodied a very specific fear of a very specific research field: nanotechnology.
To some extent, this was a natural extension of the first movie’s premise of self-replicating machines, which, given enough resources and momentum, no longer need their human creators. When was released in 1991, the apocalyptic potential for self-replicating nanomachines had just showed up on our collective radar. In his 1986 book, , Eric Drexler had warned of the grey goo scenario, in which nanomachines proliferate, mindlessly, at an exponential rate, overtaking the world and snuffing out biological life.
The T-1000’s threat was closer to a super-villain’s, but the larger threat of Skynet has echoes of grey goo, since the intelligent defence network wasn’t intended to be evil. Its overthrow of humanity is the simple, tragic result of too much logic and not enough compassion. Mainstream interest in – and anxiety over – nanomachines crested in the 1990s, but has dropped off sharply since, as nanotech now seems more likely to keep our clothes wrinkle-free than to turn on its well-intentioned creators.
Composed of a “mimetic poly-alloy”, the T-1000 is a one-of-a-kind prototype, a colony of nanoscale machines that can assemble and reassemble themselves at will. This lets it impersonate people, grow extra limbs, turn its hands into knives and morph into liquid ooze. It can’t pull off moving parts, so like the T-800, it has to either get close to its target, or use whatever weapons it can find.
Unlike the T-800, the T-1000 keeps its mouth shut. It never stops for a snappy comeback, never gloats and aside from the occasional mysterious cock of the head, never seems particularly evil. Depending on your perspective, this is either a more advanced form of AI than the T-800, or a more limited one. Is self-awareness of any use without empathy? Can you be intelligent without a psyche?
Its only glimmer of emotion comes when the T-1000 is hit with a grenade, dumping it into a pool of molten steel – first it seems surprised, then, as it disintegrates, the robot creates an Edvard Munch-worthy face of howling fear and agony. If the T-1000’s capacity to feel is limited to angst over its own destruction, that might be the most hellish kind of AI conceivable.
How do you stop it?
Small arms fire is almost useless, with most bullets harmlessly slipping into the T-1000’s amorphous body. Since it’s a prototype, it isn’t clear whether this model was ever hit with a 2020s-era weapon. So once again, both in the present and the future, it’s time to improvise. Shotguns knock it off balance. Explosions stun it, but not for long. The T-1000 is tougher than the T-800, since it can reassemble itself, even after being frozen with liquid nitrogen and shattered.
In the Special Edition of , the robot gets a little glitchy after thawing and regenerating, but there’s no telling how permanent this problem would have been, since molten steel is what ultimately finishes it off. As weaknesses go, molten steel is about as common, and hard to deploy, as kryptonite. In a world of unstoppable robots, this one seems particularly immortal.
Released in 2003, is the most recent film in the franchise (that is, before ), but not the most beloved. James Cameron, who had no involvement in the movie, gave it his blessing, commenting, ”
In one word: great”. But the box office returns weren’t as solid as with the previous films, and the reviews weren’t as kind. So any discussion of ‘s villainous new model, the T-X, comes with the requisite snickering from the nerd peanut gallery.
A combination of the skeletal T-800 and the mighty morphing T-1000, this Terminator is the first to bring future weapons back to the present. It also, for the most part, looks like a lady. Avoiding any lame fembot jokes, it’s worth pointing out that a feminine Terminator makes sense, both in the timeline (better to infiltrate enemy lines), and for today’s sex-fuelled media environment. The T-X also marks a shift in the franchise’s technophobic through line – the T-X is basically a comic-book villain.
But it is revealed that Skynet is actually a virus, and that its army is directly descended from present-day unmanned military vehicles. So while the T-X’s transforming arm cannon and nanotech skin seem closer to or , the movie’s “T-1” experimental autonomous air and ground vehicles (Air Force-built models just waiting to be subverted by a networked AI) are the more disturbing threat.
The T-X has both an endoskeleton – a smaller, feminine one – and a coating of mimetic poly-alloy, merging old-school evil robotics with more far-fetched nanotech. So it can impersonate humans as well as the T-1000, and it has an arm that can sprout additional devices, such as a drill and, more impressively, a plasma cannon. During , the cannon is damaged, and the T-X scrolls through a long list of potential replacements, eventually settling on a flamethrower.
Some of the other options are inside jokes, like the pulse rifle from , and something called the “Rumsfeld P81 Cauterizer”. But internal weaponry is the kind of feature every Terminator should have, whether it’s infiltrating a survivor camp or, as usual, trying to kill John Connor. Another major upgrade: remote operation of machines, including the human-reprogrammed T-850, by injecting them with nanobots.
The most tight-lipped Terminator to date, the T-X doesn’t make small talk, cut deals or say much of anything. Like the T-1000, it did let out an anguished screech during combat, but this model’s AI seems at least as efficient as its mimetic predecessor. And the ability to control other machines – such as less-developed robots – indicates some serious processing power. But the T-X appears to be in the same conundrum as the T-1000. Is detached intelligence more useful or more hobbling? Is it even a little tragic?
How do you stop it?
Offensively, the T-X is the most advanced of the Terminators, able to deploy both internal weaponry and, through remote control of other machines, swarm tactics. The usual flurry of borderline-slapstick improvisation slowed it down, and forced the T-X to detach its own legs after being pinned beneath a helicopter. It was then finished off by a suicide bomb – a T-850 stuck one of its fuel cells in the T-X’s mouth and detonated it, destroying both models.
By the third Terminator film, the humans were making a habit of sending robots to do their dirty work. Since the T-800 sent back to protect John Connor from the T-1000 did so well, the survivors began reprogramming as many Terminators as they could find. In a bleak twist, the T-850 that shows up to help John not only looks like the T-800 he befriended – and lost – in Terminator 2, but turns out to have killed John in the future. Heavy indeed, but technically speaking, this is essentially another old-fashioned Terminator, with a few small improvements.
This series is a minor upgrade from the T-800 – nothing worthy of, say, a keynote address. The T-850 has flaps in its skin, allowing for easier access to its endoskeleton for repair purposes. Its vision is still blood-red, its skin still comes off in great meaty chunks, and it still takes a beating. The main difference here is a new power source: two fuel cells that, when sufficiently damaged, detonate in catastrophic, backpack-nuke fashion.
Identical to the T-800’s neural network, the T-850 has the same performance-limiting and enhancing issues – clear, distinct emotions. These may have come in handy in when protecting John, allowing the robot to obliterate the otherwise unstoppable T-X by overloading its own fuel cell. Of course, this is debatable. Is a lack of self-preservation the ultimate form of morale, or par for the course for a machine? The AI never got in the way, but it’s hard to say whether it was a benefit. At the very least, the T-850’s ability to understand and adapt to human emotions might have made its fight and sacrifice more fulfilling. Don’t laugh – self-aware robots are people, too.
Dream sequences notwithstanding, the first Terminator we meet in the new Fox series is a T-888. After the apparent escalation in robot capabilities throughout the fi
The cyborg heroine of the new TV series is a coy enigma wrapped in an oddly flirtatious mystery. Her name is Cameron Phillips, and she’s the third Termina