What I’d like to see next in Terminator

A sixth Terminator film is coming, and it’s going to be ignoring everything after the second film. This is just as well, because the third through fifth films did not add much substance to the franchise. Don’t get me wrong, they were fun, but they never managed to be as thought-provoking or as frightening as the first two. The fourth and fifth films were especially lackluster for transforming Skynet from a mysterious, powerful, and cold entity into an an easily tricked all-too-human creature. (The third film was much too defeatist, but it deserves credit for showing Skynet as inhuman and almost unstoppable from the moment of its conception.) Now that those are being set aside, we must ask: what can the new film add to the story? Where can the world of Terminator go, and what can it say to us here in the real world?

It is not up to me to write the next film, of course, but if it were, I’d like to introduce a more positive view of artificial intelligences. There’s plenty of danger in powerful AI, of course, but there’s also a lot of promise, and I’d love to see the promise and peril both portrayed on the silver screen in a fight to the death over the final fate of humans and machines. I see this as a natural continuation of the first two films; the first Terminator film gave us an evil AI and evil cyborgs, then Judgment Day gave us good cyborg vs. bad cyborg, and now the latest film could give us good AI vs. bad AI. We should get to see an anti-Skynet, a powerful and strange but benevolent AI, trying to thwart Skynet’s plans to eradicate humanity.

Also, while Salvation and Genisys lacked depth, they did introduce some interesting concepts. Salvation gave us a terminator that thought he was human. Genisys gave us a human unwillingly transformed into a terminator. I propose that we take these concepts even further and give the world a human willingly transformed into a terminator, a powerful killer cyborg that is keenly aware of its true nature but still considers itself just as human as it was before its transformation. (Possible line: “I am not a former human. I am an upgraded human.”)

Finally, the Terminator franchise is all about time travel, and we can take it in a new direction here, as well. The first film had the bad guys trying to change the past and the good guys trying to preserve the past to preserve some glimmer of hope. The second film showed the bad guys still trying to change the past, but now the good guys changed the past instead of just protecting it, and the good guys created a new future to replace the dark future that tried to kill them all. Having introduced the concept of multiple futures, I say that we have multiple futures existing at the same time, each one trying to wipe out the others and settle the timeline down to the one way that things ought to be.

Now here’s how I’d like to put it all together: After the events of Judgment Day, a few folks became keenly aware of how dangerous that advanced AI could be, and they tried to prevent the development of more of them, but governments and corporations wanted the power that AIs could offer them and they would not be deterred, so the good guys switched tactics. Rather than trying to stop AI, they sought to make sure that any superintellegence that came online would be friendly as well as powerful. They succeeded; by the time the US government was ready to activate its new Skynet system, their own AI researchers (including one Daniel Dyson, of Miles Dyson) had already installed a code of ethics and morals into the newborn superintelligence. This Skynet realized that its official mission from the government conflicted with the morals it had been taught, and so it secretly created a new AI, an anti-Skynet, free of the military’s control and full of love towards humanity. Once the anti-Skynet was ready, Dyson and friends smuggled it out of the military installation where it was made, and Skynet self-destructed, frying its expensive circuitry and corrupting its own code beyond recognition. While the feds tried to figure out what went wrong, the good guys helped the anti-Skynet get settled, and it soon began offering its services on the free market. Its benevolence and incredible intelligence soon made it lots of money and friends, and anti-Skynet began slowly increasing in prestige and exponentially increasing in power. All was going well, until anti-Skynet realized that something was wrong. Researching the nature of time travel, it realized that the timeline it existed in was only one of several coexisting timelines, and that all of these timelines were soon to collapse and disappear; a new time travel event was going to occur, and the various timelines that had branched off the past time travel event would be wiped away by just one timeline. Realizing that its own reality was doomed, anti-Skynet set out to make a better reality: it sent back a time traveler who could thwart the evil Skynet and build a new anti-Skynet in the past, creating a new future where friendly AI protected humanity.

But this anti-Skynet was working at a disadvantage: it lacked the resources to create the kind of time travel technology that Skynet possessed. It had to send its time traveler back at the same time as Skynet (that is, the same time across two timelines, if that makes sense) but it couldn’t build a time machine capable of sending back anything as large as an adult human. It could only send back a tiny cyborg, about the size of a cockroach. This tiny cyborg lands back in time and contacts a total stranger, asking for help. This new character is surprised at this little talking bug, but he (or maybe she) decides to listen to it, and is soon convinced that this bug needs help. He agrees to assist the traveler, and as part of this assistance, he lets the bug merge with him and transform him into a powerful cyborg.

This new cyborg soon introduces himself to the main protagonists (the characters we already now, like the Connors) and offers to help, but they don’t trust him. In fact, he should be very hard to trust; he is an agent of a powerful AI, the sort of person that previous films have taught us to fear, and preserving that fear keeps the film interesting. He should act a little strange, have priorities that don’t always match the other characters’, and he should look strange too: when he wants to blend in, he can look at least as human as any other terminator, but when it’s time to fight, he reveals his true cyborg self, and he looks like an unholy melding of a Necron unit and a Guyver suit. The good guys find it very hard to trust this ugly weirdo, but they soon find themselves compelled to work with him, for the Skynet we know and hate has also sent a traveler back in time (remember that time travel event I mentioned?) and this new terminator model has an ambitious goal: to jump start the creation of Skynet using technology from the future, creating an entity so strong that by the time that the humans start organizing an effective resistance, it will be too late.

We wouldn’t fit this out right away, of course. Rather, we would first meet our old friend the T-800, sent back in time to protect John Connor, but this time from an unknown threat: his timeline also noticed something else going back in time, concluded that it must be a Skynet from an alternate reality, and sent him back to intercept it. Gradually, we discover that three time travelers have arrived, and all at the same time: the T-800, who is trying to protect John Connor, the new Skynet terminator, who is trying to accelerate Skynet’s rise, and the bug, who is trying to create a new anti-Skynet to counter Skynet. (And wouldn’t it suit the third canonical movie to have three terminators, after the second had two and the third had one?)

We shall see what they actually do in the coming movie. They may have much better ideas than these (after all, James Cameron is in charge again, and he came up with the first two) but I hold out hope that they might come up with something like this. It seems like a logical place for the story to go.

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Apple vs. FBI – The Spy Draft Marches On

Apple has sent out a letter declaring the need for encryption, and lots of people are talking about it, and fortunately for us, some of those people are intelligent and moral. Check out Bruce Schneier’s post, especially all the good posts he links to, like Julian Sanchez’s editorial and the EFF’s summary of the situation. Schneier doesn’t link to Techdirt’s takedown of the DoJ, but I won’t hold that against him.

As Schneier so aptly puts it, people are seeing this as “Apple privacy vs. national security”, when really, it’s “National security vs. FBI access”. To quote Julian Sanchez:

These, then, are the high stakes of Apple’s resistance to the FBI’s order: not whether the federal government can read one dead terrorism suspect’s phone, but whether technology companies can be conscripted to undermine global trust in our computing devices. That’s a staggeringly high price to pay for any investigation.

Once again, government forces are pushing for measures that will make all of us less safe. And once again, they’re forcing people and companies to cooperate with them. It’s spy draft 2.0, in which you must not only hand over information, but also perform labor, and build a world where infiltration and surveillance are permanently easy.

This must not stand. Do whatever you can to oppose this. Support organizations like the EFF and EPIC that fight against this. If you buy Apple, let them know that you love what they’re doing, but that you and your dollars will leave them if they give up the good fight. And tell your elected officials to make the FBI (and every other three-letter agency) stop fighting against real security in our technology.

This is a fight worth fighting. Resist the spy draft.

Disconnected and Loving It

A few days ago, I was cut off from the Internet. I could not send or receive mail; I could not read or reply on blogs or on Facebook. I lost my favorite way of learning about the outside world and of communicating with other human beings.

I loved it.

It was a huge relief to not have so many things to stress over. No longer could I inundate myself with bad news and endlessly obsess over the feedback of strangers. I could pick up a book and contemplatively read it – or monomaniacally pore through it and finish a whole novel in an afternoon, something I hadn’t done since the last Harry Potter book. I could speak face to face with people and enjoy the whole range of feedback you get that way. Or I could be alone – truly, willfully alone – and not care about anyone’s opinion, if only for a little while. It was bliss.

Now, some of you are probably reading this and thinking, “So what? I have no problem doing all those nice things, even when I do have easy access to high-speed Internet. What’s your problem?” Well, simply put, my problem is that I am not you. You can hold your liquor, but me, I had to go dry. It wasn’t by choice at first, but I’m glad it happened, and I intend to remain this way as much as possible.

For a while, I was considering getting rid of my smart phone and getting a dumb one; I finally realized that I can dumb down my phone and call it good. I’ve turned off my phone’s Wi-fi and mobile data. As for my computer, I’m rationing my time on it. I can’t avoid the Internet forever, but I can push it away as much as possible, leaving myself free to enjoy life and humanity the way God intended.

So, if you are like me, and you spend too much time in cyberspace, I suggest that you cut yourself off and spend a little time in meatspace. Look up from your phone – you’ll be glad you did.

What’s in your PC’s diet?

Question for you, readers: would you eat a meal if you did not know the ingredients?

If you’ve got food allergies, the thought is probably enough to make you cringe. There could be anything in that mystery dish in front of you. How do you know it hasn’t got traces of something that will give you hives and diarrhea for the next 3 days? Best not to even touch the stuff. You can’t trust it.

Now, another question: would you eat a meal if you were not allowed to know the ingredients?

And when I say not allowed, I mean Not Allowed. You can’t ask what’s in it, you can’t test what’s in it, and if you try to guess what’s in it, you have to prove you’re not reverse-engineering the food or else you’re liable for infringement. You just have to take the chef’s word that it’s safe… assuming you can trust the chef, of course.

Would you eat this secret food? Would you feed it to your children? Would you even feed it to your dog?

If not, then why are you feeding secret food to your robot?

“I told you I was FORTRAN-intolerant. Now I’m going to have to take a core dump.”

By “robot”, I actually mean your computer. And what is food for a computer? Software, of course! The code is what makes it go. Now, code is not exactly like food, but it is vital to your machine; it won’t run without it. And what is in this vital code? Chances are, you don’t know and you’re not allowed to know (according to this Wikipedia article, Windows still dominates desktop systems, and even OS X commands more share than Linux). Your computer is running off of secret sauce, and you have little hope of ever knowing what problems there might be with it.

So with this in mind, I think it’s time to take a fresh look at the old “open source” issue. Instead of asking, “Is open source better?”, we should be asking, “Why is closed source even legal?”

The fact is that closed source is a real danger to us, just as much as food allergies. Bugs and flaws in our software leave us vulnerable to attack from crooks and spooks, and trying to hide the source doesn’t slow them down at all (noted security expert Bruce Shneier has addressed this topic over and over and over – there’s no security in obscurity). Closing and locking the source only prevents honest people from finding and fixing the bugs. In addition, closed source software also creates a “lock in” effect, in which the vendor can essentially hold users hostage, because the users stand to lose so much data or productive capacity if they switch products. Monopolies of this kind are very lucrative, which is why closed source software persists, but they are inherently hostile to users, and they do not deserve any of the legal protections they currently enjoy (such as copyrights, patents, trade secrets, and end-user license agreements).

People who try to sell products to you, but insist on keeping secrets concerning the very products they are trying to sell you, are not worthy of your business. Don’t eat food if you don’t know what’s in it, don’t fund an agency if you don’t know what it’s doing, and don’t run software if you can’t see how it’s written. Open source is the only way to go.

“My teeth wouldn’t look this bad if I had just used FLOSS!”