DARPA's 1980s Vision for Skynet-Like AI

By Wesley Fenlon

DARPA spent a decade trying to develop military artificial intelligence before deciding the technology just wasn't ready.

Are you ready to read five chilling words? Here we go: DARPA wanted to build Skynet. DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, regularly produces some of the most advanced, coolest, and creepiest technological advancements. And back in the 1980s, they spent over $1 billion on a program called SCI, or the Strategic Computing Initiative. According to Gizmodo's Paleofuture blog, that program sounds an awful lot like The Terminator's Skynet.

Of course, DARPA wasn't scheming to build a sentient AI that would wipe out humanity. And they didn't have the technology or plans to build Terminators, either. But they were ambitious. A quote from a 1983 presentation to congress, outlining the SCI, suggests "Instead of fielding simple guided missiles or remotely piloted vehicles, we might launch completely autonomous land, sea, and air vehicles capable of complex, far-ranging reconnaissance and attack missions. The possibilities are quite startling, and suggest that new generation computing could fundamentally change the nature of future conflicts."

Paleofuture elaborates. "The system was supposed to create a world where autonomous vehicles not only provide intelligence on any enemy worldwide, but could strike with deadly precision from land, sea, and air. It was to be a global network that connected every aspect of the U.S. military's technological capabilities—capabilities that depended on new, impossibly fast computers.

"Most importantly, it was supposed to understand, all without human prompting."

"But the network wasn't supposed to process information in a cold, matter-of-fact way. No, this new system was supposed to see, hear, act, and react. Most importantly, it was supposed to understand, all without human prompting."

Economic competition with Japan, which was rapidly developing advanced computer technology, pushed DARPA forward. So did the arms race with the Soviet Union. Competition with Japan's computer development pushed DARPA forward.

In 1984, Martin Marietta (now one half of Lockheed Martin) won $10.6 million from DARPA in a bid to build an ALV, or autonomous land vehicle. It looks exactly like what you'd expect an autonomous, computer-driven vehicle built in 1985 to look like:

Vision systems weren't as advanced in the 1980s as they are today, and the ALV struggled with different types of terrain, tracking the road, and so on. The ALV program was canceled in 1987, despite considerable improvements.

The system that really evokes Skynet is the Battle Management System, a proposed AI that would "make inferences about enemy and own force order-of-battle which explicitly include uncertainty, generate strike options, carry out simulations for evaluating these options, generate the [operations plan], and produce explanations." It would tie into a voice recognition system and use computer intelligence to help oversee battles. And the Skynettiest connection of all is potential integration SCI had with another 1980s technodream: SDI, aka the space-based nuclear missile defense system, aka Ronald Reagan's Star Wars.

Read the rest of Paleofuture's piece for the end of SCI and how some of its ideas live on today in technology like Google's driverless cars.