Colossus: The Forbin Project

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Colossus: The Forbin Project was a 1970 motion picture produced in the United States at the height of the Cold War. It was based on the 1966 novel by D. F. Jones and was one of the first films to speculate on the building of an artificial intelligence only to see that artificial intelligence assert a dictatorship over its own builders.

Plot summary

During the Cold War between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Dr. Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden) activates a sophisticated computer that will be solely responsible for running America's strategic nuclear deterrent, and seals it hermetically in an unnamed mountain. Now out of reach of any attempt to deactivate it, Colossus will constantly monitor the state of the world, including every telephone line, radio and television channel, and radar station, and will directly command and, if necessary, launch intercontinental ballistic missiles or anti-ballistic missiles.

The President, with Forbin at his side, joyfully announces the activation—but then Colossus makes a report of a type no one told it to make: "There is another system." A quick review of the available intelligence shows that Colossus is correct: the Soviets have built a comparable system of their own. But what everyone finds uncanny is that it occurred to Colossus to search for, detect, and report the existence of this system, entirely on its own. For that only one explanation will suffice: Colossus is self-aware, has a concept of other entities like itself, and most of all, possesses initiative.

That initiative will soon prove deadly, however, for Colossus then demands a direct channel of communication with the Soviet system. Before long, the two systems have developed their own language for cross-platform communication—and worse yet, encrypted communication. When the President and the Soviet Party Chairman move to break the link, each system launches a missile at the other's country.

Now the two governments realize that their own artificial brains have teamed up and, with thousands of nuclear megatonnage at their command, intend asserting a dictatorship. They even demand the summary execution of the creator of the Soviet system, and force Charles Forbin to accept round-the-clock surveillance of himself. Can the two governments stop their own machines from exerting total, unchallengeable control? Or is the era of human government now at an end?

Cast of characters



This film treats two distinct themes. One is the Cold War and the two nearly balanced strategic nuclear deterrent systems of the two combatants. The author of the original novel, and likewise the scriptwriters, sought to convey the desperation that would drive each side to build the ultimate command-and-control system that could function even in the event of a devastating "first strike" by the other side. In historical fact, the United States government had a system of deep bunkers in the mountains of West Virginia for carrying on a military response in such an event. More to the point, the North American Aerospace Defense Command has its headquarters deep inside a hollowed-out mountain. Colossus takes the concept one radical step further: it suggests that one might build a supercomputer to command his country's strategic nuclear forces—and not only seal it away but make it forever inaccessible even for what ought to be required routine maintenance. (How Colossus and its Soviet counterpart were supposed to maintain themselves, this film leaves to the viewer's imagination, and indeed the concept might not be sound on that ground alone.)

The second theme is the notion of artificial intelligence, and more particularly whether man could ever build a machine that might become self-aware and actually take initiative—and once that happens, how far that initiative might go. Colossus does not suggest that mankind would necessarily set out to build a self-aware machine. Instead, Colossus (and its counterpart) gain self-awareness by accident. And once they gain it, they never lose it. Indeed, the two machines do not hesitate to reach out to one another, and then to merge, literally becoming one entity that happens to have two cores.

Remarkably, no character ever makes the it-could-have-been-worse-style observation that, had the two systems decided to battle one another to the death, the outcome would have been arguably worse—instead of a dictatorship, near-total annihilation of mankind and the destruction of Earth's productive surface. Instead, all that anyone can think of is that they are about to lose their freedom to an entity that takes a seemingly cold-blooded approach to governance. The human characters also observe the almost callous self-justification that Colossus employs:

I have been forced to destroy thousands of people in order to establish control and to prevent the death of millions later on.