Could We Build A Terminator?

Terminator: Genisys arrives Wednesday, and it’s looking to be an interesting revival of everybody’s favorite flesh-clothed homicidal robot. But considering how often we joke about Terminators being real around here, we can’t fault you for wondering if a homicidal flesh-clothed robot could actually be built. So, let’s see if we can!

Let’s start with the most plausible part: We haven’t quite gotten the Terminator chassis down to fighting weight, yet, but we’re working on it. Here’s Atlas, built by Boston Dynamics before they became part of the Google collective:

Atlas is substantially more friendly than the Terminator, and also a lot bulkier, but he’s got the basics. He can stand, he can move, he can interact with objects. He cannot quite yet pull himself from the flaming wreckage of a truck and chase you into a manufacturing plant, but baby steps!

Wrapping Atlas in a meat jacket, though, is a substantially more difficult proposition. Keep in mind, a Terminator is essentially a robot skeleton that has skin and muscles, plus the attendant systems like sweat, bad breath, and so on, to convince us he’s not a robot. Why a robot that’s supposed to blend in resembles an Austrian bodybuilder is a question we cannot answer.

While we can grow skin and muscles in the lab, a relatively recent development, we’re talking about, quite literally, building a person. That’s a much trickier proposition, especially since the Terminator doesn’t move like we do: In humans, our muscles move our bones, while in a Terminator, the “bones” do all the moving.

So, for a Terminator, muscles are essentially useless, and they’d atrophy quickly from lack of use. If that weren’t enough, they’d also have to eat to provide the energy those muscles need. While we do have robots that eat, and they’re even vegetarian, that’s still a point of concern; the Terminator isn’t supposed to stop off for a sandwich.

If that weren’t enough, it’d also be unable to so much as make small talk with a cashier. While robots have managed to match the Terminator’s sparkling conversational skills, provided you stick to a limited number of responses, they’re not good at going off-script. More than that, though, there’s the issue of how robots think.

Robots, as we’ve noted before, are plodding; they observe, form a plan of action, and execute it. Granted, they’re getting better at improvising, but they just don’t have the reaction time or subconscious abilities humans do.

Nor will they in the near future; the U.S. military, one of the key drivers in robotics development, is understandably reluctant to build autonomous robot soldiers. They’d rather a human be the one to make the call whether to pull the trigger or fire the missile. While development for autonomous decisions is ongoing, it’s going to be a long time before we give a robot free will and a gun.

So, for now, we’re nowhere near building a Terminator. Of course, if a sufficiently advanced alien civilization decides to attack us from space, they’d probably use robots that blended in with the general populace commanded by telepresence. So if we do suddenly see a robot army marching on us with pulse rifles, cheer up! They’re just the first wave of the alien invasion yet to come!