It is 2029. Los Angeles is a post-apocalyptic hellscape. The freeway is littered with burnt-out cars, the land with human skulls. As we watch, a robot soldier steps onto one of those skulls, crushing it to dust.
This is the opening scene of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the highest grossing film of 1991. As well as being technically ground-breaking—the movie pioneered the use of computer graphics in cinema—Terminator made a profound impact on our cultural understanding of artificial intelligence. The premise of the series is that a super-intelligent computer system has become self-aware and, concluding that humanity is a threat to it, has decided to wipe us out, by first precipitating a war between the superpowers and then deploying military robots (“terminators”) to deal with the survivors of the ensuing nuclear holocaust.
The rapid growth of systems such as Chat-GPT in recent times has led to concerns that a fictional future like this one might become fact. Of the three godfathers of AI—developers Yoshua Bengio, Geoffrey Hinton, and Yan LeCun—two have lent credence to these fantasies. Bengio has characterized the technology as an “existential risk”; Hinton has warned that it could “threaten humanity.” (LeCun, however, has dismissed such concerns as “preposterous.”)