Review – Colossus: The Forbin Project

One of my favourite tropes in science fiction is the one where mankind creates artificial intelligence only to see it rebel against its maker, and usually either enslave or destroys us. Probably because its both a fantastic but also quite realistic idea, at least in my humble opinion.

It’s been done a hundred times or more, in a huge variety of settings, but one of my favourite is the film Colossus: The Forbin Project.

I think the first time I came across the idea was when I saw Terminator for the first time. James Cameron certainly didn’t invent the idea, but he gave us a pretty chilling version of it, nicely mixed with time travel too.

Other versions of the trope have featured in TV shows like Battlestar Galactica, so called highbrow films like 2001 A Space Odyssey (boring!), and in video games, like Mass Effect, which added a neat little twist to the trope. One of the most terrifying versions is the Animatrix episode called The Second Renaissance (released in two parts), which really captures the futility of fighting against artificial intelligence, and also captures a really ugly side of humanity as we begin by horribly oppressing the AIs, before they rebel and enslave us.

Part 1 of the Second Renaissance, prepare to be disgusted with humanity, then a bit worried

In the Forbin Project however, a Hollywood film released in 1970, the proceedings are much less dramatic, but equally horrifying. (Why was most of the best sci-fi cinema released in the 1970’s?) Its so disturbing because there’s very little action, humanity isn’t conquered by gun welding robots, or destroyed in a nuclear holocaust, its just quickly dominated by a super-intelligent robot with no need for such histrionics. All humanity can do is sit back and watch in horror as it efficiently takes control. Like it probably will in a few decades time.

Colossus is a super-computer created by the US government to combat the threat of nuclear war with Soviet Russia. Its intended as a purely defensive measure, designed to analyse intelligence in order to detect a coming attack and then to respond to that attack faster than a human could, with no emotion, no fear or anger, just cold logic and ruthless speed. Colossus was chiefly designed by the dashing scientist Dr. Charles Forbin, who regularly verbally kicks the Presidents ass, and he confidently asserts near the beginning of the film that Colossus is capable of acting without human instruction, but isn’t capable of independent thought and is subservient to humanity.

Dr. Charles Forbin, back when Hollywood scientists were still debonair martini-drinking sophisticates

I’m not spoiling much by saying that this is soon found to not be the case, and that when Colossus detects a second super computer elsewhere in the world, called Guardian, it demands to be networked with this computer and Colossus and Guardian quickly invent their own private method of communication and start getting up to shenanigans.

Shenanigans

What makes Colossus so unnerving isn’t just its intellectual superiority, and the fact that its pretty-much indestructible, its it’s in-human thinking, it’s cold machine intellect. Colossus monitors pretty much all forms of global human communication, but it decides it’s creator Dr Forbin is its biggest threat, and places him under constant security, planning all the aspects of his life and watching him through video cameras as much as it can. This is the bit that really disturbs me, the idea that the machine takes almost all privacy and freedom away from the scientist, and you can imagine this quickly extending this to as many people as the machine could manage.

A very similar idea was used in Eagle Eye, the Shia Leboef film released in 2008, in which an artificial intelligence begins to monitor humanity and takes complete control of the lives of some humans. But Eagle Eye mostly focussed on guns, car chases and explosions, and only really uses the AI to set up various action scenes and doesn’t spend too much time exploring the central idea itself.

The film definitely shows its age, the technology is of its time, and Colossus itself is the size of a small stadium, whereas if the film was remade today I’m sure Colossus wouldn’t even exist in one location, but would be distributed globally across various servers linked via the internet (a bit like the PS3 Folding at Home distributed computing network), but I quite enjoy the charm of old-fashioned views of future technology in dated sci-fi films, I adore the retro spaceship in Alien, with its black and white boxy computer screens.

What d’ ya mean just use my iPhone?

Now, the following paragraph below contains a big plot spoiler (how the film ends), and if you want to watch the film without me ruining it for you, then its probably best if you go and watch it and then read this bit after.

You should probably buy it, but well, its on Youtube too, at least until it gets deleted

The best thing about the film is that it ends with the computer still in control. The final message is that humanity has been defeated, there’s nothing we can do, that Colossus is our new master and will coordinate human society from here on in. This almost never happens in Hollywood films, I think in Eagle Eye, Rosario Dawson destroys the AI by hitting it in its big red eye with a crowbar. Even in the dark future of Terminator, the human’s tend to come out on top (I’ve never seen the TV spinoff, so may be wrong here).

What you just hit it in the eye and that was it? Sounds pretty stupid to me, maybe its playing a trick? Oh no, my bad, its dead

I’m sure this is an allegory for nuclear arms. That once the atomic bomb was invented, it couldn’t be un-invented, and would continue to hover-over humanity for the rest of our existence. It’s a nice commentary on nuclear weapons, but also on technology in general, and this is definitely an important consideration for all future tech, especially artificial intelligence, as, if this is ever achieved, AI will have huge benefits over humanity, including enormous processing power, extremely quick processing speeds, and the benefits of existing as a networked organism. By creating AI we could be effectively creating a God, it could be everywhere at once, have an almost exhaustive knowledge, be almost indestructible and be able to out-think any human with ease.

Anyway, enough doom-mongering. It’s a great film, watch it if you can. And if anyone has another favourite ‘AI takes-over-the-world’ story I’ve not mentioned then please let me know in the comments below.

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