A Soviet Film Predicted Our Robot Apocalypse—In 1977
‘Polygon’ was practically banned for subversion
Forty years ago, Soviet Union produced a breakthrough short animation film that anticipated many of the most heated debates our military, policy and scientific establishments are having today.
Polygon begins on a remote ocean island, where a military crew is finishing preparations for what looks like a firing range — cutting down palm trees, leveling sand, kicking out the natives.
A tall, bearded man clad in white approves the construction from the crew that tell him that the next closest island is five kilometers away, and the land they are on is far away from major shipping lanes and airways.
The next shot depicts the man in white standing next to what looks like a tank or a self-propelled howitzer. As soon he puts his hand on the armor plating, the viewers are treated to a flashback — a younger version of the character watches as his son runs toward him from the family house.
He picks up the boy and playfully tosses him. Mid-air, the boy transforms into a soldier parachuting down with a gun. Bullets rip the parachute to shreds. Now the man is back in the present on the island. “Tomorrow, the committee arrives,” he says ominously.
Russian president Vladimir Putin has called for “effective development of military autonomous robotic complexes.” Although behind the curve in building and fielding such systems compared to the United States, Israel, NATO countries or even China, Russia is undertaking a major effort to build unmanned combat ground systems.
Polygon predicted this … in 1977. Classified as “adult viewing” owing to its controversial content, the film was seldom shown to Soviet audiences. The main character — “the professor,” everyone calls him — has built an A.I.-driven tank.
The tank reacts to the desire to destroy it, the “hatred impulse,” by catching biological currents — the thoughts and intentions of the enemy — and quickly reacting to them. “In that sense, the enemy essentially controls the tank’s movements without realizing it,” the professor explains as the military committee watches the robotic tank dodge incoming artillery and missile fire.
But the truly devious side of the machine is its offensive mode, the professor admits. He flips a switch on the tank’s side panel, briefly exposing the viewer to complex electronics that eavesdrop on the committee members as they discuss the weather and beer.
The tank needs “a fear impulse,” the professor explains. “The enemy, fearing his destruction, will communicate to the machine its weak points and vulnerabilities, prompting the tank to launch advance attack.”
The debate over whether man can — or should — cede decision-making to autonomous systems has been going on for some time. Future wars may not allow meaningful human control over fast-acting drones that could populate the battlefield.
As “Polygon” continues, the professor keeps seeing flashbacks to his son’s death in “the colonies” during a conflict the military officers keep alluding to. “This is war,” the senior officer says nonchalantly. “And in war there are casualties.”
“Yes,” the professor replies, “this is war. You like to fight? You like my new weapon? You will test it on yourselves. Try not to think of danger — the tank will read your thoughts. I have nothing to fear — I have no one left on this earth.”
The tank is on “fear” mode. It takes out the terrified committee members one by one. One officer tries to control his thoughts and almost survives. Ultimately, his fear overpowers his control.
The professor walks up to the dying senior officer, who pleads for help. The professor hands the officer the medal that his son won posthumously.
In the final flashback sequence, the professor tells his son that he has taken revenge for his death — but fear and uncertainty have crept into his mind, as well. Back in the present, the tank senses the professor’s terror. The film ends with island’s native children playing on top of a tank buried in the sand.