The 'Terminator' technology that's (almost) here

From cyborgs to Skynet, we're a lot closer to machine-ruled dystopia than you might think

The ‘Terminator’ technology that’s (almost) here
Paramount Pictures

Robot revolution

The "Terminator" series has been among the most successful franchises at introducing iconic sci-fi images and concepts to the culture at large: The unstoppable superhuman robot; the computer network gone psychotic (Skynet!); the bizarro liquid metal thing.

The latest installment in the series, "Terminator Genisys," updates the franchise's key concepts with decidedly 21st-century complications. At its core, the "Terminator" story is profoundly technophobic -- a kind of IT worst-case-scenario, writ insanely large. The machines have risen up against humanity and Very Bad Things are happening.

The best science fiction isn't really about the future. It's about what fascinates and frightens us in the here and now. It’s in that spirit that we take a look at the technologies the "Terminator" franchise has introduced to see how close they are to reality. The robot revolution may not be here yet, so far as we know, but we may wish to remain alert as a species. Emerging technology suggests that if things actually do go sideways, the "Terminator" scenario is set about 15 minutes into the future.

Skynet
Paramount Pictures

Skynet

A primer for newbies: In the extremely complicated mythology of the "Terminator" universe, Skynet is the worldwide computer network that achieves sentience, decides humanity is a threat, and instigates a nuclear war to wipe out us pesky carbon-based lifeforms. Skynet is essentially a collective artificial intelligence, networked into every computer system on the planet -- including military systems.

When the first "Terminator" film came out in 1984, artificial intelligence was a relatively novel idea in mainstream pop culture. Nowadays, concerns about AI are so prevalent that even Stephen Hawking is warning about the threat. Artificial intelligences such as IBM's Watson have progressed to the point that they're doing medical research and even creating art. Last year, reports surfaced that an AI even passed the famed Turing Test, designed to identify true artificial intelligence.

That's the AI dilemma. As for the global infiltration, bear in mind that the Internet itself, technically speaking, is a worldwide computer network. We need only scan the cyber security headlines each day to see how asymmetrical war can be waged in the digital realm.

Genisys
Paramount Pictures

Genisys

In the new "Terminator" film, the threat of Skynet as a global AI is rebooted with yet another time-travel plotline, and Judgment Day is bumped up from 1984 to 2017. Through mind-bending temporal paradoxes too confusing to get into, our heroes travel to near-future San Francisco and attempt to stop the uploading of a new worldwide operating system called Genisys.

Several plot points in the film suggest that Genisys is based on our real-world concerns about the so-called IoT (Internet of things), in which virtually everything -- our appliances, clothing, and homes -- will be networked. IoT security concerns are a very real present-day worry: The Federal Trade Commission recently issued a detailed report on the subject, and you can check out our own look at the problem: "Welcome to the smart home ... of horror!"

Cyberdyne
Cyberdyne Inc.

Cyberdyne

In the "Terminator" universe, Skynet and Genisys are both developed by a villainous corporation that goes by the name of Cyberdyne. The new movie depicts Cyberdyne not as a simple robotics company, but as an all-encompassing digital technology giant -- headquartered in the Bay Area -- with tentacles in hardware, software, and everything in between. (It doesn't rhyme with Google, but it may as well.)

Skynet's strategy to global ubiquity, circa 2017? Our ever-present and interconnected screens and mobile devices. "This is the world now," says one Cyberdyne executive in the film, as the camera pans over people staring at their phones. "Plugged in, online, all the time." The new film suggests that the machines won't need to invade our homes, because we've already invited them in.

Here's another real-world twist you may not be aware of: There's an actual company called Cyberdyne, headquartered in Tsukuba, Japan. The company's specialty? Robotics, naturally. They're the makers of the HAL robotic exoskeleton, pictured above.

Cyborgs
Paramount Pictures

Cyborgs

One of the key story hooks in "Terminator Genisys," the fifth feature film in the series, is that Arnold Schwarzenegger returns -- and ends up fighting himself. When our heroes' various time-travel journeys overlap, Arnold circa 2017 takes on Arnold circa 1984, by way of digital trickery that took the effects department a full year to create.

Schwarzenegger's character remains an old-school 'bot, relatively speaking -- a bipedal mechanical robot with humanoid design. In the real world, are we anywhere close to such a creation? Pretty close, actually. The recently concluded DARPA Robotics Challenge featured 25 different humanoid robots performing various complex tasks, including using power tools, manipulating objects, climbing stairs, and autonomously driving a vehicle. DARPA, significantly, is the U.S. military's research and development agency. Check out this genuinely freaky team gallery to get a sense of where we are.

Androids
Toshiba

Androids

Robot technology is extremely advanced in the world of "Terminator Genisys," and the story hinges on encounters where robots resemble and sometimes actively impersonate human beings. The estimable Mr. Schwarzenegger is now 67 years old, and in one of the film's many, many expository scenes, it's explained that the older Terminator's synthetic flesh has aged organically because it was designed to function like living human tissue. It actually gets more confusing, but this movie has the kind of plot where too much thinking is not recommended.

For real-world instances of lifelike human robots, we must return again to Japan, where such projects are something of an emerging national tradition. The Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at Osaka University is world-renowned for its humanoid robots designed to mimic our species in speech, movement, and expression. Larger corporate entities are getting into the replicant business as well. At this year's Consumer Electronics Show, engineers from Toshiba introduced their newest creation -- ChihiraAico, pictured above. One of several models in development, ChihiraAico is an eerily lifelike communications 'bot made to resemble a 30-something Japanese hostess. Dozens of actuators manipulate textured synthetic flesh to approximate smiling, blinking, and even crying. She can play piano, too.

Liquid Metal
Paramount Pictures

Liquid metal

Introduced in the franchise's second film, "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," the idea of a liquid metal robot has become one of the series' signature visual elements. Technical details are, as usual, left deliberately vague. But previous films have referred to the use of nanotechnology to create a mimetic poly-alloy that can move, morph, and reassemble itself on the atomic level. It would be a spoiler to disclose too much, but "Genisys" further updates the concept by introducing elements of biotechnology, in which man-machine fusion is taken to yet another level.

Far-future science fiction, right? Uh-oh. In a study released a few months back, researchers from Tsinghua University in Beijing unveiled a self-powered liquid metal that can move on its own and even squeeze itself into complex shapes. The metal -- technically an alloy of gallium, indium, and tin -- moves around by "eating" flakes of aluminum and using the resulting electrical current and chemical byproducts for locomotion. The study is part of a long-term effort to create robots that are nonrigid and can be reshaped on the fly. We are not making any of this up.

Terminator Vision
Paramount Pictures

Terminator vision

Another enduring visual element from the films is the famous point-of-view shot from behind the Terminator's eyes. These are the sequences where Schwarzenegger sizes up a room, identifies his victims with advanced targeting systems, then spouts off some impossibly lame one-liner. It's a little exhausting, actually, but what can you do? Robots!

There is plenty of real-world science at play in these scenes, including familiar technologies like augmented reality, facial recognition software, and HUD (heads-up display) systems. And they're only getting better and/or weirder. Recently, Google has been deploying its proprietary pattern and facial recognition algorithms across multiple platforms. At a Silicon Valley event in February, scientists from DARPA (those guys again!) introduced their "cortical modem" concept, which would implant a Terminator-like HUD directly in your visual cortex.

Holograms
Paramount Pictures

Holograms

Toward the end of "Terminator Genisys," we get a peek at the newly imagined, 2017 version of Skynet -- in more ways than one. Again, it's tricky to describe without spoilers, but let's say Skynet has become a fully formed character, young and smart and growing like the dickens. In the final showdown with our heroes, the AI projects itself around Cyberdyne HQ as a stand-alone, free-floating hologram.

The 3D hologram projected into thin air has been a staple of science-fiction films going back to 1977 (at least), when Princess Leia told Obi-Wan Kenobi that he was, indeed, her only hope. But the reality is that free-floating holograms require optics technology and raw computing power we don't have yet. Several interesting approximations are up and running, however. A Canadian company is currently developing a pyramid-shaped tabletop display called Holus, pictured above, which projects holograms by combining high technology with an old stage-magic illusion. Predictably, Japan is on top of this one too -- it's pretty much cornered the market for holographic pop stars.

More!
Paramount Pictures

More!

Like so many other science fiction stories, "Terminator Genisys" presents far-future concepts that appear at first glance to be fantastic and impossible. But hold your gaze a little longer and you'll see they're often fast-forwarded versions of technology and societal issues already in play. It's a time-honored tradition in the genre: This is how we tell ourselves, culturally, what we're interested in -- or worried about.

If you see "Terminator Genisys," keep an eye peeled for even more examples of sci-fi weirdness with real-world roots: laser weapons, force fields, magnetic railguns, cybernetic implants, and maybe even time travel.

The future, clearly, is now.