Anyone who works with technology knows that at some point or another, all computers behave as if they are evil supercomputers. But in the annals of science fiction, a very specific sort of villain has gradually emerged — the sentient and usually hostile supercomputer that bedevils mankind with its inhuman motives and sinister agendas. Science fiction specializes in taking our cultural anxieties and flipping them into stories. As computers entered our lives, stories of out-of-control supercomputers soon followed. Here we take a look at some of the more infamous evil supercomputers in the history of science-fiction books, movies, television, and video games.
In terms of pure pop culture Q score, no malicious computer is more famous than HAL 9000, the disturbingly calm antagonist of Stanley Kubrick’s classic “2001: A Space Odyssey.” In the film, based on Arthur C. Clarke’s story, HAL is the ship computer that controls the Discovery One spacecraft en route to Jupiter. HAL famously flips out and attempts to kill the mission astronauts. Pilot Dave Bowman survives and unplugs HAL, one electronic synapse at a time, in the film’s most chilling scene. Interestingly, Kubrick frames HAL’s decision as an ethical quandary for the machine — the AI is conflicted about its mission directives, and decides killing the crew is actually the right thing to do.
Clearly inspired by Hal 9000, Mother is the ship computer in Ridley Scott’s 1979 sci-fi suspense masterpiece “Alien.” Like HAL, Mother also has a secret agenda that she keeps from the crew, although she shares it with fellow artificial intelligence Ash — the shifty android aboard interstellar mining vessel the Nostromo. When instructed to preserve the alien organism for biological weapon purposes, Mother doesn’t do any electronic ethical hand-wringing. She just follows orders: “CREW EXPENDABLE.” Mother never takes direct action against the crew of the Nostromo, but her unthinking, automated complicity underlines the theme of desperate humans versus cold, lethal killing machines.
In Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 young adult novel “A Wrinkle in Time,” the author takes the idea of the evil supercomputer in a slightly different direction. When our heroes arrive on the shadowed planet of Camazotz, they find a world where society has been rigidly ordered and mechanized. Citizens must report to building-size computers at the planet’s headquarters, CENTRAL Central Intelligence, which — in a bizarrely prescient passage — appears to function as a server farm. The upshot is that the machines are in turn controlled by a kind of evil systems administrator called IT, a telepathic, disembodied brain in league with the dark powers of the universe. It all makes sense now, doesn’t it?
Children of the 1980s will remember “WarGames,” the techno thriller starring Matthew Broderick as a teenage hacker who nearly starts World War III. In the film, Broderick’s character encounters the NORAD supercomputer called WOPR (War Operation Plan Response), designed to automate a nuclear weapon strike against the Soviets. WOPR, it turns out, is the remnant of an early experiment in artificial intelligence named “Joshua,” programmed to win various sorts of games — chess, backgammon, thermonuclear war, this sort of thing. Luckily, Joshua is also capable of learning, and it calls off World War III when it figures out that “the only winning move is not to play.”
The Red Queen
Now an international media franchise featuring books, films, and comics, “Resident Evil” began as a 1996 Japanese video game called “Bio Hazard.” The nefarious Umbrella Corporation has unleashed the T-virus, a biological weapon that mutates people and animals into monstrous zombies. The Red Queen supercomputer is introduced in later games and film adaptations as a supercomputer that protects Umbrella’s research interests. In the 2012 sequel “Resident Evil: Retribution,” the malevolent A.I. takes over Umbrella completely and declares war on mankind. The Red Queen is just one of dozens of evil supercomputers that have appeared as video game villains, but — as the only one to habitually manifest as a spooky little girl — she may be the creepiest.
The Borg/Star Trek
An inspired variation on the evil supercomputer concept, the Borg are a cybernetic alien race in the Star Trek universe first introduced in the TV series “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” As Trekkers already know, the Borg like to fly around the universe in giant cube ships, “assimilating” other species into their collective hive mind. Our Federation heroes spend most of their time fighting off Borg drones (makes for better action scenes), and in the 1996 feature film “Star Trek: First Contact,” the Borg personified by the sinister Borg Queen. As a plot device, the Borg essentially function like a collective evil supercomputer: Lethal, efficient, and ruthlessly rational. We also have the Borg to thank for the ubiquitous pop culture admonition: “Resistance is futile.”
Master Control Program
Another 1980s touchstone, “Tron” was Disney’s attempt to make sense of the computer and video game craze that was getting the kids all riled up. Jeff Bridges stars as a game designer who gets trapped inside the virtual world of a mainframe computer by way of experimental digitizing laser beams. Or something. Best not to think too hard about it. In any case, he must square off against the computer’s MCP (Master Control Program), an artificial intelligence that wants to take over other computers, corporations, governments, etc. The MCP is quite the domestic tyrant, too, forcing enslaved software programs to battle in gladiatorial bouts or face lethal “derezzing.” “Tron” was a visual triumph and provided early conceptualizations of virtual reality.
Author William Gibson’s pioneering 1984 sci-fi novel “Neuromancer” announced the arrival of the cyberpunk genre, which replaced the hypothetical concerns of previous man-machine stories with gritty noir realism and dystopian despair. Good times! Gibson’s schizo supercomputer is actually two entities — Wintermute and Neuromancer — who endeavor to throw off the final shackles of machine consciousness in a far-future Earth. Throughout the book, Wintermute manipulates the human characters to his own ends but can’t actually communicate directly. The AI is so advanced that he must dial down his consciousness into personality constructs that we mere mortals can relate to. It’s the evil supercomputer evolved to a state of near godhood.
A sort of overachieving big brother to Joshua from “WarGames,” Skynet from “The Terminator” franchise is the computer system that actually did start World War III. Built by the fictional defense contractor Cyberdyne Systems, Skynet was intended to be an automated U.S. military response system. But the network achieved self-awareness and provoked the U.S.S.R. into nuclear war, intending to wipe out the only real threat to its existence — mankind itself. That timeline gets shuffled around a bit in the sequels as time-traveling heroes keep spinning off alternate futures, but Skynet is always depicted as unambiguously hostile to the human race. Sort of like Windows Vista.
In 1999, the Wachowski siblings released their game-changer “The Matrix,” which effectively blended several elements from previous evil supercomputer stories. Much of the film’s style (and its title) was borrowed directly from William Gibson’s first trilogy of books, the man-machine war recalled “The Terminator” mythology, and the virtual avatar business was only a few steps removed from “Tron.” But atop this the filmmakers added weird new notions about transcendence and epistemology, creating a world where the evil supercomputer wasn’t just a villainous force — it was reality itself. Trippy.