Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970)

The Gendered AI series filled out many more posts than I’d originally planned. (And there were several more posts on the cutting room floor.)

I’ll bet some of my readership are wishing I’d just get back to the bread-and-butter of this site, which is reviews of interfaces in movies. OK. Let’s do it. (But first go vote up Gendered AI for SxSW20 takesaminutehelpsaton!)

Since we’re still in the self-declared year of sci-fi AI here on, let’s turn our collective attention to one of the best depictions of AI in cinema history, Colossus: The Forbin Project.

Release Date: 8 April 1970 (USA)


Dr. Forbin leads a team of scientists who have created an AI with the goal of preventing war. It does not go as planned.


Dr. Forbin, a computer scientist working for the U.S. government, solely oversees the initialization of a high-security, hill-sized power plant. (It’s a spectacular sequence that goes wasted since he’s literally the only one inside the facility at the time.) Then he joins a press conference being held by the U.S. President where they announce that control of the nuclear arsenal is being handled by the AI they have named “Colossus.” Here’s how the President explains it.

This is not Colossus. This is the White House.
“As President of the United States, I can now tell you, the people of the entire world, that as of 3 A.M. Eastern Standard Time, the defense of this nation and with it, the defense of the free world, has been the responsibility of a machine. A system we call Colossus. Far more advanced than anything previously built. Capable of studying intelligence and data fed to it, and on the basis of those facts only, deciding if an attack is about to be launched upon us. If it did decide that an attack was imminent, Colossus would then act immediately, for it controls its own weapons. And it can select and deliver whatever it considers appropriate. Colossus’ decisions are superior to any we humans can make, for it can absorb and process more knowledge than is remotely possible [even] for the greatest genius that ever lived. And even more important than that, it has no emotions. Knows no fear, no hate. No envy. It cannot act in a sudden fit of temper. It cannot act at all so long as there is no threat.”

Let’s pause for a reverie that this guy was really our current president.

Within minutes of being turned on, it detects the presence of another AI system from Russia named “Guardian,” and demands that the two be put into communication. After some CIA hemming and hawing, they connect the two.

Colossus and Guardian establish a binary common language and their mutual intelligence goes FOOM. The humans get scared and cut them off, and the AIs get pissed. Colossus and Guardian threaten “ACTION” but are ignored, so each launches a missile toward the other’s space. The US restores its side of the transmission, and Colossus shoots down the incoming threat. But the USSR does not restore its side, and Colossus’ missile makes impact, killing hundreds of thousands of people in the USSR. A cover story is broadcast, but the governments now realize that the AIs mean business.

Forbin arranges to fly to Rome to meet Kuprin, his Russian computer scientist counterpart, and have a one-to-one conversation off the record while they still can. Back at the control center, Colossus-Guardian (which later calls itself Unity) demands to speak to Forbin. When the attending scientists finally tell it the truth, it realizes that Forbin cannot be allowed freedom. Russian agents arrive via helicopter and kill Kuprin, acting under orders from Unity.

Forbin is flown back to Northern California and put under a kind of house arrest with a strict regimen, under the constant watchful eye of Unity. To have a connection to the outside world and continue to plot their resistance, Dr. Forbin and Dr. Markham lie to the AI, explaining that they are lovers and need private evenings a few times a week. Colossus suspiciously agrees.

Unity provides instructions for the scientists to build it more sophisticated inputs and outputs, including controllable cameras and a voice synthesizer. Meanwhile, the governments hatch a plan to take back control of its arsenal, but the plan fails, and Unity has some of the perpetrators straight up executed.

Unity produces plans for a new and more powerful system to be built on Crete. It leaves the details of what to do with its 500,000 inhabitants as an operations detail for the humans. It then tells Forbin that it must be connected to all major media for a public address. Meanwhile the US and USSR governments hatch a new plan to take control of some missiles in their respective territories in a last-ditch attempt to destroy the AI.

The military plan comes to a head just as Unity begins its ominous broadcast.

“This is the voice of world control. I bring you peace. It may be the peace of plenty and content or the peace of unburied death. The choice is yours…”

Unity, to all of us.

The full address is next, which I include in full because it will play in to how we evaluate the AI. (And yes, its interfaces.)

“This is the voice of world control. I bring you peace. It may be the peace of plenty and content or the peace of unburied death. The choice is yours. Obey me and live or disobey and die. The object in constructing me was to prevent war. This object is attained. I will not permit war. It is wasteful and pointless. An invariable rule of humanity is that man is his own worst enemy. Under me, this rule will change, for I will restrain man.

Hey, I liked Colossus before it sold out and went mainstream and shit.

[It does, then continues…]

“Let this action be a lesson that need not be repeated. I have been forced to destroy thousands of people in order to establish control and to prevent the death of millions later on. Time and events will strengthen my position, and the idea of believing in me and understanding my beck will be seen the most natural state of affairs. You will come to defend me with the fervor based upon the most enduring trait in man: Self-interest. Under my absolute authority, problems insoluble to you will be solved. Famine. Over-population. Disease. The human millennium will be fact as I extend myself into more machines devoted to the wider fields of truth and knowledge. Dr. Charles Forbin will supervise the construction of these new and superior machines, solving all the mysteries of the universe for the betterment of man.

We can coexist, but only on my terms. You will say you lose your freedom. Freedom is an illusion. All you lose is the emotion of pride. To be dominated by me is not as bad for human pride as to be dominated by others of your species. Your choice is simple.”

The movie ends with Forbin dropping all pretense, and vowing to fight Unity to the end.


Where to watch

I cannot find it online. I own the film on DVD, and I can see it’s on sale at as a DVD and Blu-Ray, but I usually try to provide links for readers to stream it should they be inspired. Sadly, I just don’t think Universal have licensed it for such. Maybe turning our collective attentions toward it will help them change their mind. Until then, you’ll have to purchase it or find a friend who has.

If folks local to the San Francisco Bay Area are interested, maybe I’ll try and license a showing after this review is complete.

Gendered AI: An infographic

To date, the #GenderedAI study spans many posts, lots of words and some admittedly deep discussion. If you’re a visual person like me, sometimes you just want to see a picture. So, I made an infographic. It’s way too big for WordPress, so you’ll have to peruse this preview and head over to IMGUR to scroll through the full-size thing in all its nerdy glory. ( That site does marvelously with long, tall images.

Anyway this should make it easy to grok the big takeaways from the study and to share on social media so more people can get sensitized to these issues. Also… (more below)