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Wargames: 40 years ago, this movie predicted the rise of ChatGPT and Bing Chat [Update]

Wargames the 1983 movie that showed an AI chatbot in aciton
Source: MGM Studios

Update - June 3, 2023 - I wrote this look back at Wargames earlier this year as a way to explore how the movie might have been an early look at generative AI chatbots and how they could get out of control. With Wargames' 40th anniversary since it premiered in movie theaters happening today, here's that original article to check out once again.

I've been fascinated by the many, many reports of people's text conversations with Microsoft's new Bing Chat. Lots of them show the chatbot AI going off the rails. Microsoft clearly wanted to put a stop to this kind of activity by putting some strict limits on the amount of daily conversations with Bing, although I'm wondering how long it will take before someone figures out a way around the limits.

In thinking about Bing Chat, and the rise of chatbot AI in general with the introduction of ChatGPT in late 2022, my mind wandered back in time to 1983, when I first saw a certain movie in the theaters (yes, I'm old); Wargames.

The MGM film was a huge box office and critical hit at that time, and it became notable for being one of the first films to deal with the rise of personal computing in the 1980s, along with introducing the concept of hacking computer systems. Indeed, President Ronald Reagan was said to have seen the movie, and after discussions with lawmakers and advisers, the government started putting in place rules for computer security.

In the movie, Matthew Broderick's teenage hacker David Lightman thinks he's hacking into a computer game publisher. In fact, he's managed to connect to the new NORAD supercomputer, WOPR. Unknown to both David and NORAD at the time, the WOPR has a crude chatbot AI interface that's accessed with the backdoor password: Joshua. That sounds a lot like Microsoft's Bing and its internal code name: Sydney.

David chats with "Joshua" with his keyboard. Joshua thinks David is the AI's original creator, Stephen Falken. David is asked by the AI the famous line, "Shall we play a game?" David had already discovered "Joshua's" list of games like chess, checkers, and, oh yeah, Global Thermonuclear War. To be fair, "Joshua" tries at first to get David to play chess, but of course, David wants to play Global Thermonuclear War.

This triggers the plot for the rest of the movie, as "Joshua", inside the WOPR, starts showing the NORAD personnel Soviet military movements that are not real. NORAD, of course, doesn't realize that the WOPR has "Joshua" inside it and believes what's on their screens is real Soviet military activity. If you haven't seen Wargames, I won't spoil the rest for you, but it's a really solid thriller that still holds up 40 years later (There was a direct-to-DVD sequel made in 2008, Wargames: The Dead Code, but you can safely skip that).

Rewatching the original Wargames, I was struck at how David's interactions with "Joshua" were much like how Bing and other chatbot AI connect with their users via text messages decades later. Of course, Bing Chat isn't connected to NORAD (at least, we don't think it is). However, the movie does bring up some of the very real dangers AI could create for humanity as it continues to improve and evolve.

There's a lot of good AI could do for us. But we have definitely seen tons of movies and TV shows where artificial intelligences can go off the rails in a way that the Bing chatbot AI did in a very limited scale, from Joshua to HAL-9000 to Skynet and more. Hopefully, Microsoft and OpenAI can learn from the fictional lessons of the past, so that when a person wants to play Global Thermonuclear War with Bing Chat, it won't really start World War III.

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