Skynet 0.5: The Deadhand


“Skynet”. The incredible, horrifying, and very unique idea that the mind of director and screenwriter James Cameron gave us. A self-aware and sentient supercomputer put in charge of strategic nuclear defense by the US Air Force in his fictitious Terminator film franchise. Most of you didn’t need that of course. Nearly everyone in the US at least is familiar with it.

What you may not have been aware of is that a form of it actually exists. For most of the 1980s, the CIA had suspected that the Soviet Union was crazy enough to build something like it. Now I don’t mean a supercomputer capable of self-awareness or consciousness. That kind of AI doesn’t exist. But through the information provided by a double agent inside the Kremlin, we became aware that, indeed, the Soviets did build something that, in the event that the entire Soviet government were “decapitated”, would have the ability to independently, on its own authority, launch a massive nuclear counter-attack on all of NATO.

Under what conditions would it do this? Well, according to the double agent, and everything else we knew, radiation, seismic, and other types of sensors were being monitored around Moscow and a few other strategic locations by this computer. When certain conditions were met, it would trigger an automatic response to launch on pre-set targets. They call it the “Deadhand.”

At one point we even thought we knew where it was. But that location turned out to be useless for long-range radio communication. Does the Russian Federation still have this? Most likely. What are it’s current target sets? Probably the same as they’ve always been. Maybe not. Now the real question. Do WE have something like it? If history has taught us anything, it’s that we’ve usually been one step ahead of the Russians. And that when it comes to Mutually Assured Destruction, we’re just as psychotic as everyone else.

Where would we keep such a system? Probably in the last place anyone would expect. That’s sort of the point. You most definitely don’t want it to be attacked. Say that Washington DC, and the Pentagon are both hit with nuclear weapons during the State of the Union address. That would potentially kill everyone in the line of succession to the presidency at once. The military isn’t authorized to independently launch nuclear weapons. They were for a time, but not anymore. That’s reserved for the civilian leadership. I suppose if the shit hit the fan that badly, without the civilian launch codes, whoever attacked us wins. Without counter-attack. I wouldn’t doubt that we’ve got our own “Deadhand.” Probably inside a mountain in Wyoming or something.

This, to me, is deeply troubling. A computer, I don’t care how advanced, never should have the ability to independently release the most devastating weapons known to man. Just imagine if it was, or is, connected to the Internet. You give up that power to a machine, well, James Cameron already showed you the possible result. I don’t know exactly when self-awareness will come to computers, but when it does, and it’s only a matter of time, would you want that in charge of the release of nuclear weapons?


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