How science-fiction tropes shape military AI

“Pop culture has this huge power to shape peoples’ thinking,” - Timnit Gebru

“Pop culture has this huge power to shape peoples’ thinking,” says Timnit Gebru, a leading AI researcher working on the implications of bias in artificial intelligence. Science-fiction movies, TV shows, and literature have conjured images of all-knowing robots acting for good or for ill, and these pop-culture representations have influenced public perceptions of intelligent machines.

The Terminator series of films and other media, for example, began with a sci-fi film about a humanoid killing machine sent back in time by a hostile artificial-intelligence network of the future. For almost 40 years, it has helped shape public perceptions about artificial intelligence gone astray.

But it is not only the general public whose perceptions of AI are influenced by pop culture. The US defense bureaucracy also plugs into these stories. References to pop culture can function as “rhetorical repertoires” that defense officials use to explain the stakes, risks, and military uses of AI. By envisioning AI-enabled war as a world of Terminators, these repertoires may mask the more practical ways AI will broadly shape conflict and security in the near term—including what some may consider “mundane” applications of AI in data processing, analysis, and decision support.

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