The Terminator and our fear of Big Data

Science-fiction has shown us the power of data, and we are all afraid of the future


From Blade Runner to 2001: A Space Odyssey to the Terminator, science fiction stories have predicted a future in which our reliance on technology has created a dystopian society where humans have lost or compromised their free will, or sit on the edge of total apocalypse…..Yet our society continues to move steadily towards a future in which data plays a greater and greater role and people are entrusting computers to make more and more decisions.

Is this fear of technology warranted, or do robots and humans living harmoniously just make for bad box office sales?

James Cameron’s 1984 flick the Terminator, is often too easily cast off as an over-the-top(but entertaining) sci-fi expose of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s excessive power and ability to deliver hilarious one-liners in mediocre English. But its commentary on big data might make it one of the most relevant and even prophetic movies of our times. However, this movie also serves to further the weighted dichotomy between man (good) and machine (evil) and to propagate a fear of data science, and even technology in general. This may create resistance in some circles to exploring the potential positive uses of Big Data in our society, but perhaps more harmfully, it creates a paradigm in which engagement with this very real topic is relegated to a realm of science fiction and fantasy. Meaningful discussion surrounding the future of big data and society is hard to come by, and rarely addressed by anyone outside the industry.

The Terminator posits a future in which robots have become intelligent to the point where they are self-aware and declare war on their humans masters. It becomes a battle of emotion and science, and one man’s ability to triumph through his passion, and his realization that love (not data) is the most powerful force in the universe. The irony of the Terminator movies is that it was the Skynet Corporation’s commitment to improving and protecting society by investing in the creation of military defense technology, that allowed the machines to become so smart they began creating and following their own orders. In ‘the moment of awareness’ the machines became self aware and initiate a nuclear holocaust that all but eliminates their creators, and certainly liberates them from human control.

C23742-34, President Reagan having a photo tak...
C23742-34, President Reagan having a photo taken with Arnold Schwarzenegger at the Republican National Convention in Dallas, Texas. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a similar story occurs in a much more isolated situation and on a more micro-level. On a mission to Jupiter a spaceship’s computer system, Hal, trusted to monitor and protect the astronauts aboard, disobeys human orders and makes decisions that ultimately result in the loss of human life (oversimplified, yeah, but you get the point).

Skynet and Hal are both ‘evil’ manifestations of Big Data — or rather warnings against the evils of reliance on machines. Both these computer systems choose self-preservationist actions that go against human orders, result in human deaths and most of all remove the agency of humans from their own lives. The people are rendered powerless when the systems they entrusted their data to, choose to take control. And this is what people fear the most — the loss of their ability to control their own destinies.

It is largely acknowledged in both popular culture as well as philosophy, that what sets us apart from animals and machines, what makes humans human, is our capacity for free will — that it is our ability to make decisions, and to make them on more than just the data we perceive or instincts we feel, but to also take into account emotion, compassion, empathy, and sympathy that make us special.

Cover of "The Terminator [Blu-ray]"
Cover of The Terminator [Blu-ray]
In this sense big data poses a threat to our very essence of humanness. But on the other hand, humanity has always struggled with its ability to control its free will – for the capacity for freewill also allows us to make mistakes or even commit evil. Big data, however, can help reduce this margin of error. Computer’s can analyze amounts of data beyond the capacity of any human, and thus also make decisions with greater scope, precision, and historical basis and also create greater predictions for future events and problems that may occur as a result of decisions made today.

It seems this fear of intelligent machines, of people losing their own agency, is inherent in our pop culture, and perhaps is also instinctual- an essential part of our humanness. People (rarely) are willing to entrust their entire lives, governments or military to robots, yet in reality we are in many ways doing just that. Skynet and Hal are no longer far fetched ideas, but realistic, possibilities. People still view this potential technological takeover as a far off thing though, as a sci-fi or futuristic/fantastic concept. And this might be James Cameron and Stanley Kubrick’s greatest detraction from the topic- that they created these ideas for us in a far off place, in a fantasy that exists only and necessarily in the future. But we lay on the edge of that future now. It is not longer science fiction, but science fact. This IS the era of big data — computers are making decisions about us everyday, about what we see, who we connect with, what information we interact with, what medicines we take, where we drive, what media we are exposed to, and they will do so more and more.

The average person does not know how much of a role big data already plays in their daily life.

This articles does not contain some grandiose vision for how big data should be used, or a solution to any particular problem. This is simply about my realization of how my views on big data have been unwittingly shaped. I see our world moving closer and closer to one in which computers are entrusted to make decisions, and our reliance on data only increases — a world in which the existence of Skynet is not far off. Yet, I feel rationally compelled to refuse to believe that there will ever be a moment of awareness, and so my two notions of a future with bag data remain disconnected.

The questions stand: how can we use big data to our advantage, and at what point does it pose a threat to our notion of our own self existence, or to the safety of our society? To what level can it reduce human error and increase the efficiency and safety of our world? And perhaps most importantly of all: who gets to make these judgments?

Perhaps we will be able to marry our fundamental need for control and free will with the type of big data that saves people’s lives, enriches experiences, and creates conveniences, or perhaps we are destined to fulfill the prophecies we created for ourselves and will eventually live in a world where we are enemies with the machines we created.

Either way we will create this outcome. So let’s at least put the fantasy aside and start a real discussion about what big data means for us today, and what it will mean in the not-so-distant future.


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I live in China, I create awesome customer experiences for #Cinafides, and I rock n’ roll

Published December 5, 2013