Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Colossus, WOPR, and Skynet

The three names in the title all have something in common. They are all names of intelligent computer systems that were given complete control of the United States military arsenal. Well, in the movies that is, and in each case it proved to be a bad idea. On the contrary, it always proved to be a great idea for the plot of a sci-fi thriller. The fear of what might happen if the human race comes to rely too heavily on machines has been a recurring theme in science fiction all the way from Metropolis to I, Robot. But with the dawn of nuclear ballistic missiles during the Cold War Era, the possibility that man could destroy the entire world at the press of a button became a reality. So which is more risky: Allowing humans, prone to rashness and corruption, to decide the fate of the world, or relinquishing that power, and all its consequences, to a logical, yet just as unpredictable, computer? It is easy to understand the pros and cons of both of those alternatives.

Not too long ago, I discovered a somewhat forgotten little film from 1970 called Colossus: The Forbin Project. It gives a good picture of what an AI super computer would look like to someone who lived prior to the dawn of the personal computer. Despite developing uncanny abilities to perform monumental speech and video recognition tasks, the system communicates primarily via slow teletype ticker output, either on paper, data terminal, or a large NASDAQ like text scroller, at least until someone hooks up a speech generator. But lets back up a bit. This system is supposed to take over the U.S. nuclear arsenal and is meant to run autonomously. It is a huge computer by even 1970 standards, taking up several long halls which are sealed up behind a maximum security concrete and steel fortress with internal radiation fields, etc. There is no way to get in, because that is the best way to ensure no one can break in via an inside job. Say goodbye to security clearances right? It has its own self-contained nuclear power source and can monitor all types of communication channels from the outside world. It is not hidden, as any attempt to bomb it would be detected and pre-empted. Yes, they included ballistic missile interception even before the Reagan era. The president, who in fact resembles J.F.K. from the audience's recent memory, announces to the country that they have handed over the arms race to a veritably perfect decision maker.

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One of the most memorable scenes for me was immediately after the cameras go off, Colossus begins repeatedly displaying the message "WARNING: THERE IS ANOTHER SYSTEM". It was so off the wall that it stumped me just as much as the characters in the film, until the explanation came. Those dirty Russians had been secretly developing their own version of the perfect AI weapon system called Guardian, and it was on line too. Colossus asks for a com link to Guardian so it can know more, which naturally raises some security concerns, but with precautions in place they decide to allow it. Colossus begins setting up a common language between the two systems and they begin to exchange information, ultimately deciding to work together to take over the world. Ok, maybe I jumped ahead there, but the fact is that the first half of the film contains some believability, but it becomes more and more ridiculous as things progress. Not only does the computer learn faster than they had ever anticipated, but it begins using its control of the missile arsenal to blackmail everyone into doing its bidding. It's thirst for power and obstinate behavior is just too human to make any sense, but the message of the film manages not to get lost.

One of the most striking aspects of The Forbin Project is its ending, which leaves the computer systems in control and the humans without any hope. This was only two years after the successful Planet of the Apes with its famous dark ending, so I'm sure Hollywood followed suit here when they ended the film with Dr. Forbin clenching his fist and cursing at Colossus. A few other notable mentions is the very interesting soundtrack which maintains a sense of urgency even when nothing is happening, a cool performance by Eric Braeden, and of course, getting to see Marion Ross (Mrs. Cunningham from Happy Days) in the role of a serious computer lab assistant. It's a pretty good watch. An original trailer is below:

The next big film to handle this topic was very different. This time, it was a fun family film with a happy ending. WarGames, starring Matt Broderick and Ally Sheedy, came out in 1983, right smack dab in the midst of the home computer revolution. In Forbin Project, everyone in the computer room was an adult, because at that time computers were owned and operated by businesses and governments. By the early 80's, the concept of the "computer whiz kid" entered the pop culture. In fact, 1983 also saw the start of a TV series about a group of computer hackers called simply "Whiz Kids". In WarGames, Broderick plays the hacker who gets into the DOD computer system, WOPR (War Operation Plan Response), which now controls the U.S. nuclear arsenals. He manages to accidentally trick the system into thinking a nuclear attack is imminent and the rest of the film revolves around trying to prevent World War III from happening. That's a pretty wild premise on which to hang an entire story, but it works because it is a well written script that is well directed, and the characters are all so colorful too. WOPR is a much more rational computer than Colossus, and the message in this film is that even a computer can learn enough to eventually understand the futility of a nuclear war. My favorite quote is the one that everyone remembers at the end. After comparing nuclear war strategies to the game of tic-tac-toe, the computer finally declares "Interesting game, the only winning move is not to play".

Of course, after that, the Terminator series took over and ran well into the 90's with its more Colossus-like system called Skynet. It too became power hungry the day it went live and never looked back. With robot armies and time travel, I think the message gets a little lost. But that is all the subject for another day, or should I say, for judgment day (sorry).


  1. The Forbin Project was a good film, especially in its time. But Hollywood didn't order the bleak ending, they just followed the book. This is actually a trilogy and a rather good one at that. Almost up to Asimov levels.

  2. Kevin - Thanks for the information that I did not take the time to look up myself. I checked out the book plot at Wikipedia here: I'm amazed at how closely Hollywood followed the book (except for the USNA thing). I'll stand by my comment on the ending in at least one respect. It says in the book Forbin asks Colussus to kill him, whereas the movie takes the more Heston route. And perhaps in another era, Hollywood would not have left the ending intact to begin with. I've also seen rumors of a remake so I guess we may find that theory tested soon. Thanks for contributing!

  3. On the subject of Wargames, I used to be an AF Nuke Launch Officer. At the beginning, there is a scene of two officers coordinating a nuke launch. I have to say that that scene is very accurate.