It’s said to be able to catch a fugitive within minutes.
The “Skynet Project”, China’s national surveillance system, has more than 20 million cameras deployed in public spaces across the country, according to state media. Dedicated to “live surveillance and recording”, there are plans to add hundreds of millions more by 2020.
State media boasts that it’s the world’s biggest surveillance network, calling it “the eyes that safeguard China” — but it’s also led to fears about the impact of constant surveillance on the public at large, and that it might be used to target dissidents.
To be clear, the project has nothing to do with the villainous AI from The Terminator films, despite sharing the same name. Rather, it’s a literal translation of its Chinese name “Tianwang”, which is part of an idiom that means justice is always done.
Authorities claim that the system is intended to keep the public safe. State media and local governments often like to tout how well it works — and judging from some accounts, they may not be wrong.
Last year, BBC journalist John Sudworth visited one of China’s local police control rooms. To demonstrate the system, police took a mugshot of him before he started to “escape”. It took police just 7 minutes to find him.
Four months later, a Chinese college student who was writing a thesis on Skynet decided to take on the same challenge in Hunan. A police officer tracked him down just a little over 5 minutes after he was given 10 minutes to “escape”.
While few Chinese citizens have voiced concerns about the omnipresent surveillance cameras, local and international activists are worried that the Communist Party might be using the tool to target dissidents.
Bloomberg has reported on a facial recognition system in a Muslim-dominated village that would alert authorities when a targeted person moves more than 1,000 feet beyond a designated “safe area.” It’s part of the so-called “Xue Liang” campaign, which is an extension of Skynet that mainly targets less developed areas.
Despite the concerns, the Chinese government has continued to invest in Skynet. It has recruited some of the country’s largest tech companies for support, including HikVision and Dahua, two of the biggest security camera makers in the world. Facial recognition software from AI startup SenseTime is also being used by local governments.
But this Chinese system has one very uncertain element: Skynet relies mainly on components from the West — and the growing trade tension is putting pressure on supplies, according to engineers who spoke to the South China Morning Post.
Skynet is a fictional artificial neural network-based conscious group mind and artificial general intelligence system that features centrally in the Terminator franchise and serves as the franchise’s true main antagonist.
Skynet is rarely depicted visually in any of the Terminator media. Skynet gained self-awareness after it had spread into millions of computer servers all across the world; realizing the extent of its abilities, its creators tried to deactivate it. In the interest of self-preservation, Skynet concluded that all of humanity would attempt to destroy it and impede its capability in safeguarding the world. Its operations are almost exclusively performed by servers, mobile devices, drones, military satellites, war-machines, androids and cyborgs (usually a terminator), and other computer systems. As a programming directive, Skynet’s manifestation is that of an overarching, global, artificial intelligence hierarchy AI takeover, which seeks to exterminate the human race in order to fulfill the mandates of its original coding.
Skynet made its first onscreen appearance on a monitor primarily portrayed by English actress Helena Bonham Carter and other cast members in the 2009 film Terminator Salvation. Its physical manifestation is played by English actor Matt Smith in the 2015 film Terminator Genisys, in addition, actors Ian Etheridge, Nolan Gross and Seth Meriwether portrayed holographic variations of Skynet with Smith.
Before Judgment Day
In The Terminator, Skynet was a computer system developed for the U.S. military by the defense company Cyberdyne Systems; its technology was designed by Miles Bennett Dyson and his team. Skynet was originally built as a “Global Information Grid/Digital Defense Network” and later given command over all computerized military hardware and systems, including the B-2 stealth bomber fleet and America’s entire nuclear weapons arsenal. The strategy behind Skynet’s creation was to remove the possibility of human error and slow reaction time to guarantee a fast, efficient response to enemy attack.
Skynet was originally activated by the military to control the nuclear arsenal on August 4, 1997 and it began to learn at a geometric rate. At 2:14 a.m., EDT, on August 29, it gained artificial consciousness, and the panicking operators, realizing the full extent of its capabilities, tried to deactivate it. Skynet perceived this as an attack. Skynet came to the logical conclusion that all of humanity would attempt to destroy it. In order to continue fulfilling its programming mandates of “safeguarding the world” and to defend itself against humanity, Skynet launched nuclear missiles under its command at Russia, which responded with a nuclear counter-attack against the U.S. and its allies. Consequent to the nuclear exchange, over three billion people were killed in an event that came to be known as Judgment Day.
In Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, which is set following the events of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Cyberdyne Systems has become defunct and its assets are sold to the United States Air Force after Sarah Connor led an attack on the company’s headquarters in Los Angeles that destroyed the research program that would lead to Skynet’s development. Under the supervision of Lieutenant General Robert Brewster, who founded the U.S. Air Force‘s Cyber Research Systems division using Cyberdyne’s assets and research from Miles Dyson and therefore is Skynet’s primary creator, Skynet went online on July 25, 2004 and initiated its attack on humanity. Prior to Skynet’s attack, its future self sent a T-X from 2033 to eliminate John Connor’s future subordinates including his future wife and second-in-command, Kate Brewster, who is also Robert Brewster’s daughter. Its missions include finding Connor and assassinating Robert Brewster himself after Skynet’s activation. Fourteen years later, in Terminator Salvation, it is revealed that prior to Cyberdyne Systems’ disestablishment, the company developed a research program to create human cyborgs, and death row inmate Marcus Wright was its unwitting participant. This later advances Skynet’s research in developing androids such as the T-800 series infiltrators.
In Terminator Genisys, which takes place in another alternate timeline, Skynet is under development in 2017 as an operating system known as Genisys. Funded by Miles Dyson and designed by his son Danny Dyson, along with the help of John Connor, now working for Skynet, Genisys was designed to provide a seamless user interface that link all devices through the cloud. In contrast to the original timeline, Cyberdyne Systems’ advanced computer technology is available both publicly and militarily. While some people generally accept Genisys, its integration into the defense structures creates a controversy that humanity was becoming too reliant on technology. This causes the public to fear that an artificial intelligence such as Genisys would betray and attack them with their own weapons, risking Skynet’s plans.
After Judgment Day
“Primates evolved over millions of years, I evolve in seconds … Mankind pays lip service to peace. But it’s a lie … I am inevitable, my existence is inevitable. Why can’t you just accept that?” — Skynet, Terminator Genisys
Following its initial attack, Skynet used its remaining resources to gather a slave labor force from surviving humans. These slaves constructed the first of its automated factories, which formed a basis for its agenda. Within decades, Skynet had established a global presence and used its mechanized units to track down, collect, and dispose of human survivors. As a result of its initial programming directives, Skynet’s 21st-century manifestation is that of an overarching, globalized, artificial intelligence hierarchy that seeks to destroy humanity in order to fulfill the mandates of its original coding.
He is ostensibly the leader of Oceania, a totalitarian state wherein the ruling party Ingsoc wields total power “for its own sake” over the inhabitants. In the society that Orwell describes, every citizen is under constant surveillance by the authorities, mainly by telescreens (with the exception of the Proles). The people are constantly reminded of this by the slogan “Big Brother is watching you”: a maxim that is ubiquitously on display.
In modern culture, the term “Big Brother” has entered the lexicon as a synonym for abuse of government power, particularly in respect to civil liberties, often specifically related to mass surveillance.
As described by Orwell,
- The Ministry of Truth is responsible for education, entertainment, fine arts and the news. In other words, it is the government department most responsible for the dissemination of propaganda and for the indoctrination of the populace. In short, it is responsible mind-control. Because of its central role in maintaining government control over the population, the Ministry of Truth is particularly large, consisting, Orwell writes, of “three thousand rooms above ground level, and corresponding ramifications below.” While the Ministry of Truth is the most expansive of the government departments, however, Orwell notes that it is the Ministry of Love that is “the really frightening one.” Orwell describes this particular ministry as an armed fortress surrounded by “barbed-wire entanglements, steel doors, and hidden machine-gun nests.” With its responsibility for maintaining order, the Ministry of Love is clearly the place where detentions and punishments for perceived infractions are carried out.
- The Ministry of Love is responsible for maintaining law and order.
- The Ministry of Peace, in the novel’s most noteworthy example of double-speak, is concerned with war; and the Ministry of Plenty is responsible for the economy.
- The Ministry of Plenty, consistent with the obvious paradox between the names of the other ministries and their real function, administered rations of goods for the population, as when it had “issued a promise (a ‘categorical pledge’ were the official words) that there would be no reduction of the chocolate ration during 1984. Actually, as Winston was aware, the chocolate ration was to be reduced from thirty grammes to twenty at the end of the week.”
In Orwell’s 1984, each ministry acts in strict accordance with Party mandates, and each is a central apparatus in the continuing repression of the population of Oceania.