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The Science Behind the Film The Terminator

Updated: Oct 5, 2022

By Jamie Li

October 3, 2022


[Source: Action Elite]

The Terminator is a classic film where a robot assassin travels to the past to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor, who flees with Kyle Reese. The movie is a hallmark of science fiction, but how accurate is the science?

A physicist, Sean Carrol talks about the science in the franchise, saying it’s “a horrible mess, really, which is very, very common in time travel movies” (Pearl). However, the time travel in the first film is not entirely ludicrous; the fact that Skynet believes they can alter the past is not a flawed idea. Carrol states, “The idea that there are branching timelines, where slightly different things happen is very realistic as far as physics is concerned” (Pearl). It is possible to have multiple timelines, one where the Terminator succeeds and kills John Connor and one where he lives. Although the base idea for time travel is realistic, the fact that the Terminator disappears and reappears in the past is incorrect. Spacetime, a concept coined by Einstein, is about how space and time are together in four dimensions. Moving backward in time means that someone must move in a way that their path curves to a point behind them, in the past. To travel in the past, the Terminator would have to fly around in a spaceship or something similar, which is much less visually appealing. It is understandable why the filmmakers took some shortcuts in science to improve the flow of the story.

Knowing that time travel in The Terminator is imperfect but somewhat accurate, how about the science behind the cyborg? While AI has advanced since the first Terminator arrived in theaters, the independent AI displayed in the movie is still not a reality. AI can surpass human abilities in many areas, such as finding shoplifters, driving cars in crowded cities, and understanding CT scans. PwC envisions that “up to 30% of jobs could be automated” by the mid-2030s (Pospisil). Furthermore, CBS News predicts that 40% of the world’s workers could be replaced by machines within 15-25 years (Pospisil). Estimates for when artificial intelligence exceeds human intelligence vary from 15 years in the future to a century. In addition, scholars such as Nick Bostrom believe that AI will not be motivated by the same emotional desire to obtain power that often drives people, but AI will use power to acquire its goals. Taking control of the world would give AI more resources to accomplish its goals and derail others from stopping AI’s plans. Regardless, AI is still far from replicating the critical thinking skills of humans to complete complex or subtle actions. Additionally, AI falls short in creativity, perception, and social intelligence. AI must be regulated, but for now, it does not pose a meaningful threat.

Are cyborgs like the Terminator going to travel back in time and kill people? Hard to say, but for the time being, AI is not nearly advanced enough, and no one has time traveled yet. Maybe one day in the future, but for now, we’ll have science fiction films and movies to imagine the possibilities.


Bostrom, N. The Superintelligent Will: Motivation and Instrumental Rationality in Advanced

Artificial Agents. Minds & Machines 22, 71–85 (2012).

Eoin. “The Terminator (1984) Review.” The Action Elite, 26 Oct. 2020,

Pearl, Mike. “We Asked a Theoretical Physicist How Time Travel in the Terminator Movies

Works.” VICE, VICE, 1 July 2015,


Pospisil, Troy. “Robots Aren't Taking Over The World (Yet) — Artificial Plus Human

Intelligence Is Still The Best Combo.” Forbes, Forbes Magazine, 14 Apr. 2022,


Sacks, Ethan. “'Terminator' at 35: How Ai and the Militarization of Tech Has Evolved.”, NBCUniversal News Group, 2 Nov. 2019,


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