I am really sorry about this. I mean it. You see, I just didn’t know. It was only after I’d done the notes for this month’s film that I heard from a friend that there were people out there hoping I’d pick some great comedies to write about during the long winter months. Oops. Maybe those people should skip this column. If you’re slipping into a mild seasonal depression, reading about a film that moves from crisis to defeat might be unhealthy. Then again, Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970) does have Gordon Pinsent as the President of the U.S. And looking at Sixties’ hairdos would brighten up anyone’s day.
The Sixties was a great time for paranoia, both in life and in the arts. Between the Vietnam War and the skullduggery & thuggery of the Cold War there was no question that any fears one had about conspiracies against humanity were justified. Those years produced two of the greatest artistic expressions of paranoia: Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964). Colossus (1970) isn’t in that league, but coming as it did at the tail end of the decade it was a wonderfully depressing footnote. Yes! it told us with grim enthusiasm, there may be worse alternatives than living with the threat of nuclear Armageddon. Gosh! we’re so darned creative we can invent something that’ll make sure we never have the opportunity to be stupid again.
Dr. Charles Forbin (Eric Braedon) is a computer specialist working for one of those secret government agencies that somehow manages to get billions of dollars in funding without officially existing. His brainchild, literally, is a supercomputer named Colossus.
Forbin doesn’t trust human beings. Better that America’s nuclear arsenal be under the dispassionate control of a machine than under the twitching trigger fingers of the generals and politicians who pay him. He does have a point. Forbin’s not mad, he’s just overly optimistic:
“Colossus’ decisions are superior to any we humans can make, for it can process more knowledge than is remotely possible for the greatest genius that ever lived. And even more important, it knows no emotion—no fear, no hate, no envy. It cannot act in a sudden fit of temper—cannot act at all so long as there is no threat.”
Yeah, right. Define “threat.” No fear, no hate, no envy…. no conscience. Haven’t any of these people read Frankenstein?
To give credit where credit’s due, Forbin’s invention turns out to be even better than he thinks it is. Its learning curve is steeper Isaac Asimov’s. Colossus is even more convincing in the 1990’s, when a world chess grandmaster such as Kasparov nearly has to share his title with something that comes in a large box. What’s becoming clearer is that we may never recognize the moment when (if it ever happens) a computer moves from manipulation of digits to structuring of thoughts.
Even worse than the fact that Forbin hands the whole enchilada over to Colossus is that his Soviet counterpart has done the same with a machine called Guardian. Colossus, wired into the world communications and energy net, discovers its counterpart immediately. Communications are initiated. Their respective human designers watch in awe as the two computers run through (and beyond) the entire evolution of human thought in a matter of hours. Aw shucks, it’s kind of like having manufactured Einstein or Mozart. Someone wisecracks that the next step after personalization of the machines is deification, and everyone has a good chuckle.
The laughter disappears when Colossus and Guardian launch preemptive nuclear strikes against their supposed masters. Really big oops. It finally sinks into Forbin’s self-satisfied brain that he’s committed Dr. Frankenstein’s greatest sin: Never build anything you can’t unplug.
By this time, unfortunately, Colossus has Forbin under house arrest and is telling him he’s using too much vermouth in his martini. Now that’s omnipotence. Cardinal scientific sin number two: Never give nuclear weapons to anything smart enough to tell you how to mix a martini.
But wait just a cotton-pickin’ minute here. We’re talking about human beings in a life and death struggle for survival. Dinosaurs may have had brains the size of walnuts; we don’t. Can humanity really be outsmarted by a souped-up adding machine with delusions of grandeur? Would Hollywood ever release a movie where all the good guys get shmucked? You betcha! Remember that in a world where Rod Serling could produce The Twilight Zone, and Chris Carter can get the X-Files on the air, anything is possible.
As the winter snows creep relentlessly down our Kootenay mountainsides (hey, I warned you not to read this column) I’d like to close with Colossus’ touchingly pathetic picture of Colorado tourists admiring the supercomputer’s mountain stronghold, for a brief moment blissfully ignorant of their new masters’ existence. While at the same moment, in California, Forbin is listening to a short lecture from his new boss:
‘This is the voice of World Control. Obey me and live. Disobey me and die. The object in creating me was to eliminate war—this objective has been obtained. War is wasteful. Man is his own worst enemy. I will restrain man. You will come to obey me with a fervor based on the most enduring trait in man: self-interest. Elimination of famine, overpopulation, disease—the human millennium will be a fact. Freedom is an illusion. All you will lose is pride. You will come to regard me not only with respect and awe, but with love.”
Another film to which I no longer have easy access. It’s available in a new Blu-Ray version from Amazon, so I’ll be putting in an order. I definitely need another look.
Unfortunately, my science fiction reading over the last couple of decades has been pretty slim, so I can’t suggest anything new in the way of stories/novels about rogue AI’s. There must be some great ones out there. If anybody reads this and can help me out, it would be greatly appreciated. In the meantime, I’ll pull out a couple of my still-unread The Year’s Best Science Fiction anthologies off the shelf. Editor Gardner Dozois always packs in some doozies.