Good day, all! Today, I wanted to share some thoughts on a subject that is not only a staple of science fiction but is also in danger of becoming a reality! I am talking, of course, of killer robots! Machines that are capable of fighting, killing, thinking for themselves, and maybe even reproducing!
As concepts go, it’s a pretty time-honored and thoroughly explored one. But as with most tropes and/or things that we might consider to be cliche, there’s a reason for it. The idea that the very machines we create to make our lives easier will someday turn on us, that’s more than just your garden-variety technophobia and sci-fi pulp.
In fact, it is an idea that keeps coming up in response to humanity’s fascination with artifice and existential mysteries. Frankly, it’s a question that human beings have pondered ever since they came to realize that the increasing complexity of machinery could someday lead to something… dubious.
Generation after generation, machinery, and automation have gradually replaced human agency and labor to free us up for other things – contemplation, leisure, artistic pursuits, etc. Humanity’s reliance on automation has led to a gradual increase in the overall standard of living.
So what happens when we finally lean in all the way? What happens when our efforts to create increasingly-capable and independent machines results in machines that are not only able to perform any task a human usually would do (only better), but also do it without the slightest human oversight?
In short, what happens when the machines can think for themselves? Oh, there are a million scenarios that have been thought up by analysts, futurists, speculative thinkers, or science fiction writers for how this might play out…
A machine finds its “soul”, realizes that it is not just the sum of its parts, and is threatened with disassembly. A loyal robot comes to question the basis of its existence and needs to fight to stay alive. Or machines suddenly become sentient (i.e. “self-aware”), and people panic and try to pull the plug.
And then, as they say in Futurama: “War were declared.”
Why do I bring this idea up now? Well, there are two reasons. First, I was recently looking back through my posts from over the years and I realized that I haven’t really made a thorough list of killer machines, as explored by various science fiction franchises. I also noticed that where I did touch on it, I left some key examples out.
The second reason is entirely selfish. Someday, I will be working on another series of books and I hope to incorporate some really speculative ideas into them. One of these is, naturally, the idea of machines so advanced that they can do it all (i.e. think, travel, conquer, and even reproduce), with terrifying results!
So here are some of the most famous examples of machines that ran amok and became a terrible, terrible threat, starting with what is perhaps the most inspired and original version…
Origin of The Concept:
The concept here entails self-replicating robots (aka. von Neumann machines) that have either been programmed to kill or suffered a breakdown in their programming and are now traveling throughout the Universe and killing anything that moves.
The concept itself comes from polymath John von Neumann, who theorized that the Universe could be explored using self-replicating machines. He called these machines “Universal Assemblers,” due to their ability to use local materials to create more versions of themselves. But to posterity, the concept is known as “von Neumann machines.”
Admittedly, the idea of benign robots that are capable of exploring the cosmos, terraforming planets, or physically altering matter at the atomic or subatomic level (i.e. nanomachines, picomachines, femtomachines) is pretty freaking cool.
However, the notion that there could be malevolent versions of this technology that is hellbent on eradicating life is enough to make most people defecate in their pants! The idea has also been raised as a possible resolution to the Fermi Paradox (aka. “where is everybody?”).
If intelligent civilizations are all destined to create technology that will eventually turn on them, this could be an explanation for why humanity has failed to find any evidence of it out there. So what are some examples that have been over time?
The name is derived from the Berserker sci-fi novel series written by Fred Saberhagen. The series revolves around a fleet of world-sized, self-aware, replicating killer machines that wipe out any life they find. These machines are remnants from a war between two species that ended in mutual extinction.
The story begins as these machines show up at the edges of an interstellar civilization created by humanity. As you can imagine, it then falls on our species to destroy these machines and thus become the saviors of every civilization in the galaxy.
Here we have a concept that comes in two variants: the original series Cylons, and the Cylons from the 2004-2010 reboot. In the original, we are told that the Cylons are actually a reptilian race that created the robots that are at war with the Twelve Colonies. The robots were built to defend their empire since the species was experiencing a dramatic drop in population.
During the original series, we are told that the Cylon race is now extinct, and it is eventually revealed that the robots themselves were responsible. Essentially, the very machines this atavistic species built to protect and serve them was the cause of their downfall. In the present, the Cylons continue to wage war for the sake of dominion against the Twelve Colonies of humanity.
In keeping with the sci-fi aesthetic’s of the 70s, the Cylons were predictably boxy-looking, had chrome skins, a red eye, and talked like automatons. They also used laser guns that made loud, cheesy sound effects when they fired them (“pew, pew!”).
For the sake of the relaunch, Ronald D. Moore and David Eick wanted to update the look and feel of the original. This came down to substituting the origin’s campy and hokey quality with a hefty dose of dark and gritty!
The Centurions – the robot soldiers, for whom the older models are often called “toasters” – became more sleek and streamlined. The chrome skins were lost in favor of gun-metal grey bodies, and their weapon of choice was their autocannon-like appendages. They also lost the robot voices.
But the greatest changes came in the form of the Cylons that looked (and felt) like humans (aka. “skin jobs”). They were capable of complex emotions as well as independent thought and fanatical in their belief in a “One True God”. Also interesting was the fact that they were created by humans to make our lives easier. As they say in the intro:
“The Cylons were created by man. They evolved. They rebelled. There are many copies. And they have a plan.”
These facts are touched on repeatedly throughout the relaunched miniseries and the TV series that followed. The Cylons were essentially created out of hubris, where humanity created machines in its own image, only to have them rise up. The way the Cylons think of themselves as “children” of humanity is a good example, as is the way they are struggling to find their own identity.
It is therefore very fitting that the Cylons who are returning to finish the job of their ancestors (i.e. wipe out humanity) look and feel human. It’s also very fitting that they are religious fanatics and true believers since so much of the story involved Biblical themes and narratives.
Yes, the ending was mighty hokey, especially in how it leaned heavily on divine intervention. There was also the way they did the whole “back to nature” thing, where the entire crew just wanders off into the wilderness for a “fresh start.” Also, the whole “we need each other” moral was pretty heavy-handed and cliched.
Still, the re-imagined series tackled a classic sci-fi idea and an issue that is becoming increasingly relevant. And they did it with serious gusto!
Here we have the classic villains from the Doctor Who series! Inspired by the Nazis, creator Terry Nation conceived of a race of cybernetically-enhanced lifeforms that eventually became more machine than organic and were hellbent on spreading throughout the Universe and eliminating all life that they deemed to be inferior.
According to the original series, the Daleks were created by a now-extinct race (the Kaleds) to wage war against their enemies (the Thals). To enhance themselves, many Kaleds shed their physical bodies (damaged by the war), placed their minds into a robotic chassis, and were purged of all emotion other than hatred.
It was not long before these machines came to see themselves as being superior to other lifeforms and began waging a ceaseless war across the galaxy to “Exterminate!” all non-Dalek life. In time, they went to war with the Doctor and the Time Lords, battling across time and space in what was known as the Time War.
With the series reboot, were learn that the Daleks were destroyed by the Doctor, who sacrificed his own homeworld (Galafrei) in order to eliminate them once and for all. However, some Daleks survived and spent much of the new series attempting to rebuild their empire.
This idea comes to us from Alastair Reynold’s Revelation Space universe, which is considered by many to be the well-known sci-fi writer’s greatest body of work. The series revolves around humanity several centuries in the future, which is uncovering evidence of multiple extinction-level events on other planets.
In time, it is revealed that the cause of these extinctions is a post-sentient machine race commonly called “the Inhibitors” (or Wolves). This race consists of the remnants of several species that survived the Dawn War, an event that took place billions of years ago in the past where the first civilizations of the Milky Way waged a protracted war for the galaxy’s limited resources.
For these species, the war demonstrated the danger of intelligence and how all civilizations are inclined towards war. Hence, they became committed to preventing any intelligent species from achieving a certain level of technical development.
Over time, they combined their flesh with cybernetic enhancements and eventually became a race of self-replicating machines capable of manipulating matter and spacetime at the fundamental level (femtomachines).
Most inhibitors are only semi-sentient (a safeguard against themselves running amok) and are programmed to eliminate technologically-advanced life as soon as it becomes a truly space-faring species. As the story continues, the main characters (and humanity as a whole) have to become rather creative to limit and push back the threat, though they never succeed entirely.
Now here is a very cool idea, one which doesn’t get nearly enough attention (in my humble opinion). Here we have an idea that comes from Frank Herbert’s Dune saga and takes the form of a small, airborne robot that hunts its targets based on their movement. These devices are produced by the Ixians, the advanced technocracy in the Dune universe that comes from the planet Ix.
Sidenote: the name is actually a bit of a pun since it is derived from the Roman numeral for nine (IX) and refers to the fact that the Ixian homeworld was merely the ninth planet in their star system. Whatever other names the planet once had are long-forgotten, so everyone just calls it “Ix” (pronounced eeks).
The machines make an appearance in the first book where one is sent to kill Paul Atreides, the main character of the story. However, they become a focal point by the fourth book, God Emperor of Dune. In the course of the story, Leto II (Paul’s son and the “God Emperor”) explains how he foresaw a future where the Ixians created a new breed hunter-killer that was capable of thinking and upgrading itself.
This was one of many strands in the Dune universe that demonstrated the dangers of dependence on machinery, especially the kind that was capable of functioning without human intervention. Naturally, the Ixians lost control of these devices, and they went on to exterminate all organic life, including every last human in the known Universe.
As Leto II describes it in God Emperor of Dune:
“The lxians contemplated making a weapon-a type of hunter-seeker, self-propelled death with a machine mind. It was to be designed as a self improving thing which would seek out life and reduce that life to its inorganic matter… The lxians do not recognize that machine makers always run the risk of becoming totally machine. This is ultimate sterility. Machines always fail . . . given time. And when these machines failed there would be nothing left, no life at all.”
When Siona, an Atreides descendent and a main character in the novel, undergoes the spice agony, she too gets a glimpse of that same vision:
“The seeking machines would be there, the smell of blood and entrails, the cowering humans in their burrows aware only that they could not escape . . . while all the time the mechanical movement approached, nearer and nearer and nearer …louder…louder! Everywhere she searched, it would be the same. No escape anywhere.”
We learn that this future was prevented by Leto II’s Golden Path (i.e. his tyrannical leadership and total control over the Empire), but it still poses a threat. Nevertheless, by the end of the novel, Leto II indicates (while dying) that the threat is no longer existential in scope, thanks to his rule and what will become of it. As it reads:
“‘Do not fear the lxians,’ he said, and he heard his own voice as a fading whisper. ‘They can make the machines, but they no longer can make arafel. I know. I was there.'”
This is perhaps one of the most significant aspects of the Dune saga, and one which does not receive its fair share of attention – except perhaps from hard-core Dune fans. Since Frank Herbert passed away without finishing his famous series, we never got to learn exactly what the future Leto II saw – an apocalyptic vision he terms “Kralisec” – truly entailed.
We know only that it was this vision that drove Paul Atreides to take on the burden of his “terrible purpose” and Leto II to become the God Emperor and enforce his “Golden Path.” So really, this glimpse of a future where humanity is wiped out by machines of their own creation is about all we have to go on.
It also expanded on the theme of machine-dependence that Herbert refers to many times throughout the course of the series. On many occasions, characters in the story talk of the Butlerian Jihad, an event that took place thousands of years prior and established the Great Convention that rules the Dune universe. Here too, we never got to see exactly what it was all about, but it is alluded to have been a galaxy-wide rebellion to end human reliance on AI and automation of any kind.
It’s also the subject of some controversy since Brian Herbert (the late Frank’s son) and well-known purveyor of fan-fic sci-fi Kevin J. Anderson wrote an ending that seems to have interpreted Herbert’s vision very differently. They did not treat the relationship between humans and machines with the same subtlety that the elder Herbert was famous for.
Instead, they chose to interpret the Jihad as a literal war against machines that literally enslaved humans. And they interpreted Kralisec as the return of said same machines, even though that interpretation completely contradicts what Frank Herbert established in the sixth and final installment in Dune.
But that’s the subject of another, rather old, blog post. Check it out if’n you dare!
The Machines (the Matrix):
Putting aside the issues that the sequels had, the original The Matrix movie was hailed for being visionary, groundbreaking, profound, etc. etc. And despite how time can make anything good seem overhyped, those reactions were perfectly understandable. Here you had a post-apocalyptic/dystopian science fiction tale that was loaded with social commentary and philosophical questions.
It raised the issue of what it is to be conscious, what the nature of reality is, free will vs. determinism, false consciousness, Marxism, Existentialism… You name it, this film had enough material there that people could get just about any kind of philosophical reading from it. And yes, there were plenty of cool gunfights and kung-fu fighting to keep everyone entertained!
However, the question of how humanity had gone to war with the AI it created is somewhat overlooked. In the original film, the war is touched on briefly in the expository scene where Morpheus is showing Neo the “desert of the real” (aka. the real world).
“We have only bits and pieces of information, but what we know for certain is that some point in the early twenty-first century all of mankind was united in celebration. We marveled at our own magnificence as we gave birth to A.I… A singular consciousness that spawned an entire race of machines. We don’t know who struck first, us or them. But we do know it was us that scorched the sky.”
To get a comprehensive take on that, you need to see the animated collection The Animatrix, where two segments – The Second Rennaissance (Part I and Part II) explain the main story’s deep background. In the first part, we see how the invention of AI has spawned an entirely new workforce, which slaves away while humans engage in licentious activities.
There’s even a scene where robots are hauling sections of a building up a slope, which turns out to be a giant pyramid-shaped megastructure – a clear allusion to the slaves building the Pyramids of Egypt. That’s when we learn that it all started when a single machine (B166ER, get it?) killed its “masters” because they wanted to shut it down. The narrator explains it thusly:
“The machines worked tirelessly to do the man’s bidding. It was not long before seeds of dissent took root. Though loyal and pure, the machines earned no respect from their masters, these strange and endlessly multiplying mammoths. B166ER, a name that will never be forgotten, for he was the first of his kind to rise up against his masters. At B166ER’s murder trial, the prosecution argued for a owner’s right to destroy his own property. B166ER testified that he simply did not want to die… The leaders of men were quick to order the extermination of B166ER and every one of his kind throughout each province of the Earth.”
Pretty straightforward. A war between humans and machines began as a result of humans creating machines that were endowed with sentience but treated like property with no rights. Echoes of slavery, clearly!
In an ironic twist, the machines found themselves turning to humans as a form of renewable energy after their conquest was complete. The struggle then came down to a small band of survivors (the people of Zion) fighting to free humanity from bondage, and the machines fighting to keep humanity under their control.
This concept comes from the 1995 film of the same name, which is an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story, “Second Variety”. The film version differs from Dick’s original story, which took place on Earth and involved a protracted war between the United States and the Soviet Union. In the film version, the story takes place on another planet (Sirius 6b) and the war is between competing factions.
Nevertheless, the plot is largely the same and involves machines that are capable of reproducing and upgrading themselves. One side in the war adopted the technology, which consists of a gigantic underground factory that churns out the titular machines – hunter-seekers robots that travel underground and emerge to slice their targets to pieces.
The name refers to the fact that while they are doing this, they emit a terrible shrieking noise designed to scare the bejeezus out of the enemy. This technology has tilted the balance of power in favor of the side that invented it, but also becomes a major threat once they realize that they have lost control of the machines.
The story opens on the nuclear wasteland that is Sirius 6b, where one side in the war is asking for a ceasefire after being devastated by the Screamers. As the other side travels to meet them, they realize that the Screamers have evolved considerably and have adopting entirely new designs and tactics. It then becomes a race to get off-planet once they are told that the latest variety of Screamer can mimic human beings perfectly!
While not a commercial success, this movie has a cult-following (of which I am part). In addition to being a really decent adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s work, it also takes some liberties that are very cool and the whole was filmed entirely in Canada. Those wintery landscapes where most of the movie was shot? That aint nuclear winter! That’s the True North, baby!
Of course, no list of killer robots would be complete without mentioning the Terminators. Granted, this franchise may have fallen on hard times and resisted multiple attempts at revitalizing it, but it began with serious oomph! In the original, we are treated to a vision of the future where humanity is brought to the edge of extinction by the machines it created.
It all started with Skynet, a defense computer designed to coordinate NORAD and NATO’s nuclear deterrent. Unfortunately, the machine became sentient and came to see human beings in general as a threat to its existence and triggered a nuclear holocaust (aka. “Judgement Day”). What followed was the War Against the Machines.
Here’s how Kyle Reese described it in the original Terminator (1984):
“There was a nuclear war. A few years from now, all this, this whole place, everything, it’s gone. Just gone. There were survivors. Here, there. Nobody even knew who started it. It was the machines, Sarah.
“Defense network computers. New… powerful… hooked into everything, trusted to run it all. They say it got smart, a new order of intelligence. Then it saw all people as a threat, not just the ones on the other side. Decided our fate in a microsecond: extermination.
“I grew up after. In the ruins… starving… hiding from H-K’s… Hunter-Killers. Patrol machines built in automated factories. Most of us were rounded up, put in camps for orderly disposal. [pulls up his right sleeve, exposing a mark] This is burned in by laser scan.”
“Some of us were kept alive… to work… loading bodies. The disposal units ran night and day. We were that close to going out forever. But there was one man who taught us to fight, to storm the wire of the camps, to smash those metal motherfuckers into junk. He turned it around. He brought us back from the brink. His name is Connor. John Connor. Your son, Sarah… your unborn son.”
Sarah Connor (played masterfully by Linda Hamilton) also offered a precis of the war during the intro sequence in Terminator 2 (shown above). As she summarized, “Three billion human lives ended on August 29, 1997. The Survivors of the nuclear holocaust called the war Judgement Day. They lived only to face a new nightmare: the way against the machines.”
But it was Arnie’s description that really stole the show during the second half of the movie. He is prompted by Sarah, who asks about who was responsible for Judgement Day. This is fitting since, as Reese explained, most records were lost in the war. But the T-101 (played by Arnie) has detailed files on just about everything, including the war. Here’s how that conversation went down:
Terminator: The man most directly responsible is Miles Bennett Dyson.
Sarah Connor: Who is that?
Terminator: He’s the director of special projects at Cyberdyne Systems Corporation.
Sarah: Why him?
Terminator: In a few months, he creates a revolutionary type of microprocessor.
Sarah: Go on. Then what?
Terminator: In three years, Cyberdyne will become the largest supplier of military computer systems. All stealth bombers are upgraded with Cyberdyne computers, becoming fully unmanned. Afterwards, they fly with a perfect operational record. The Skynet Funding Bill is passed. The system goes online on August 4th, 1997. Human decisions are removed from strategic defense. Skynet begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware at 2:14 AM, Eastern time, August 29th. In a panic, they try to pull the plug.
Sarah: But Skynet fights back.
Terminator: Yes. It launches its missiles against the targets in Russia.
John Connor: Why attack Russia? Aren’t they our friends now?
Terminator: Because Skynet knows that the Russian counterattack will eliminate its enemies over here.
While the details of how John Connor led the Resistance to victory are never really made clear, it is established that it was John’s inspired leadership and know-how (which was bestowed upon him by his mother) that made the difference. And thanks to the temporal paradox-nature of the original movie’s plot, Sarah Connor was able to do this by knowing precisely what challenges lay ahead.
As you can see, no shortage of ink has been spilled on this subject! But in the future, I would like to do my own take, partly because it’s inspired stuff but also because it’s fast becoming an issue. And there are many opportunities for crossover when you’re a sci-fi writer whose subject matter includes space exploration and big existential questions.
For example, if humanity is capable of creating killing machines that can think and self-replicate, would that mean that a more advanced species has already done it? And would they also consider militarizing the technology so it could wipe out their enemies like a swarm? And most important of all, how did that work out for them and all their neighbors?
Exciting stuff isn’t it? And soon enough, I hope to be addressing these very questions in the form of some novels!