Tech Check: Terminator Genisys

(posted in tech)

The following article contains massive spoilers for the 2015 movie Terminator Genisys. You have been warned.

Plot Summary

We start off with a glimpse of the events that immediately precede (story-wise, not temporal-wise) the events of the first Terminator movie. In the throws of defeat at the hands of John Connor’s rebellion, Skynet sends a terminator (young CGI Arnold Schwarzengger) back to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor (John’s mom) before he is ever born. Knowing that this has happened, John uses Skynet’s machine to send Kyle Reese (who, unbeknownst to Kyle, later becomes John’s father) back to 1984 as well to protect Sarah.

As Kyle is hovering in the time-travel bubble field thing, he sees John get attacked, which causes some kind of temporal jibber jabber and conveniently gives Kyle the knowledge that Skynet now goes online in October of 2017 under the name “Genisys.” The 1984 he finally arrives in is a different 1984 than that of the first movie, yadda yadda yadda, and then Kyle, Sarah, and an older terminator (the real Arnold Schwarzenegger) find themselves in 2017 trying to blow up Skynet (aka Genisys) before it activates.

The Problem with Genisys

So what is Genisys? According to the movie, it’s being sold to the general public as some kind of all-encompassing operating system that will install itself on every device imaginable (including military systems in charge of things like firing nuclear missiles). The general public is totally on board and excited by this, to the tune of three billion pre-orders.

My phone will link to my tablet, will link to my computer, will link to my car… Everything in my life uploaded and online 24/7. Totally connected.
—Young hospital orderly guy.

Apparently it doesn’t take much to excite the plebs in 2017. You could already describe Apple’s iCloud or your Google account that way right now in 2015. Unfortunately, that’s about the most detailed description we get of how Genisys is being portrayed to the people of 2017 in the movie.

This feels like a weak cop-out to me—I find it hard to believe that in two years the general public would be collectively drooling over a new operating system; let alone one that onerously promises to upload and store your whole life online. Unless the NSA miraculously manages to turn around their public image in the next two years, I would think that something like Genisys would be met with considerable skepticism and outright fear rather than the uncritical excitement portrayed by the sheeple in the movie.

Who am I to say for sure, though? There are certainly Apple and Android fans who are tickled pink every time they get to update their devices. Perhaps that vocal minority of tech aficionados represents a much larger proportion of the public in the world of the movie; maybe even to the point where a company would feel justified in placing hundreds of digital billboards throughout major cities prominently displaying a countdown to the release of their new operating system.

Even if you’re willing to forgive the absurdity of Genisys as an actual marketable product and the public’s blind acceptance of it, there are still problems with the concept. Operating systems are hard, and writing one unified operating system that could run on any phone, tablet, computer, car, embedded military system, microwave oven, and everything else implied in the movie would be unimaginably complicated to the point of impossibility—even if you had an evil terminator version of John Connor with all his knowledge of the future to help you.

The Real Problem with Genisys

I don’t care about any of that, though. It’s a science fiction movie, plus time travel, robots silently infiltrating and influencing humans during alternate time lines, blah blah blah. You can explain all of that stuff away. What I’m going to focus on is the feature of Genisys that makes the least sense, no matter how you dice your tomatoes. I’m speaking, obviously, of the fact that Genisys is portrayed as a holographic projection of a human child, who quickly ages into a full grown holographic man during the third act of the movie.

Seriously, what the hell is that about? Regardless of whether you assume Genisys was written by humans with the guidance and support of evil John Connor, or was developed directly by Skynet itself by sending programminators back through time, this holographic personification makes absolutely no sense.

How would you sell that feature to your programmers?

Hey dudes, stop fixing bugs in the nuclear missile launch routines and start programming a little kid hologram instead. Also he has to be able to age like a normal human, that should be pretty easy to do right?

Hey programminators, thanks for travelling back in time to code Skynet from scratch. You know how we wanted mainly for it to destroy all the humans? Yeah, instead of that, wouldn’t it be cool if we diverted a bunch of effort into making a little hologram kid? He could be like the mascot. Only instead of being a cute kid mascot forever we can make him grow up into an old dude. Sweet idea right?

Let’s take a moment to think through all of the subsystems that would have to be written to power such a mascot.

Artificial Intelligence – Well, this is a given. It’s the whole idea behind Skynet in the first place. Presumably this is supplied or at least influenced somehow by Skynet from the future.

Human Traits, Senses, and Personality – This isn’t just an AI that can perform certain intelligent tasks, it’s a full-blown human simulation. We’ll need to develop a personality for it (or make sure it’s capable of having and evolving its own personality), give it the capability of understanding and synthesizing human speech, decoding and analyzing visual and auditory input, and program it to control a human body in a natural way. After all, we don’t just want to destroy humans, we also want to talk and interact with them first? For some reason?

I suppose the strangeness of this concept extends to the humanoid robots as well, particularly the terminators who are intended to mimic and infiltrate humans. At least with the robots you have the excuse that they might be useful in tracking down pockets of hiding humans (although based on the movies their ability to come off as genuinely human to the point that they might be trusted by real humans is suspect at best). You don’t have that excuse for the Genisys avatar—it serves absolutely no conceivable purpose whatsoever.

3D Modeling – A standard 3D model won’t work, since it needs to grow up into an adult. One option would be to have a bunch of different models at different ages to switch to. A more complicated approach would be to devise some genetics-like algorithm to age the model naturally. Good luck with that one.

The point is, developing anything even slightly resembling a human simulation approaching the level of complexity portrayed by the Genisys avatar in the movie would be a massive project requiring incalculable resources and talents unto itself, let alone as a feature tacked on to the already gargantuan task of developing a global device-agnostic operating system.

It’s simply ridiculous. This movie is ridiculous.


The last time a globe-spanning technology-based entity hell-bent on the destruction of the human race wasted a clearly monstrous amount of time and effort to develop a digital mascot to interact with the very humans it was intent on destroying, it didn’t turn out so well.

Perhaps you remember this guy?


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