Clearly, it makes a good plot device (or rather, dialog driving device) when Terminators are kind of confused when faced with human emotional phenomena. But if I think about it, it's forced and insincere in the Terminator universe. Terminators are supposed to know everything about humans to blend in, so it's kind of lame to have no idea about crying: "What's wrong with your eyes?" (T 2); not knowing about hugs: "That's a meaningless gesture" (T: Genisys)

For a Terminator, much info about humans is irrational, illogical that is just hardwired in them to get along better in a human environment. All these emotional gestures would be just additional data to be accepted as constants (to borrow a term from programming). So is there a good reason for Terminators not knowing these things?

  • 6
    Terminators are aware that humans cry because they're in physical pain. What seems to stump our hero is when John cries when he's in emotional pain
    – Valorum
    Apr 7, 2016 at 19:43
  • 9
    But if I think about it, it's forced and insincere in the Terminator universe my advice is not to think about it.
    – AncientSwordRage
    Apr 7, 2016 at 22:43
  • 17
    @AncientSwordRage Says the mod of a site dedicated to thinking about it.
    – JesseTG
    Apr 8, 2016 at 2:12
  • 4
    @jesseTG therein lies the humour of what I said...
    – AncientSwordRage
    Apr 8, 2016 at 6:17
  • 5
    The machines have a limited amount of space for code. The designers would have to make some hard choices and leave out some "common sense" information, that may make them appear foolish from time to time. Trust me, the petabytes of military tactics AI code is better to have than emotional analysis models.
    – doug65536
    Apr 8, 2016 at 7:33

5 Answers 5


Machines don't need emotion, thus they don't understand it. Curiosity, however is a legitimate answer to gain information about an emotional event, first-hand.

  • Imagine a world where you are viewing aliens through their media. You never interact with them directly. They never tell you what they are doing or why they do it. Your knowledge of them is purely second-hand.

  • At some point, you are decide to move among them. You have the technical capacity to look like them to move among them, hopefully invisibly. You discover to your chagrin, these creatures have a communication protocol you don't understand that relays lots of emotional information you didn't know existed and had no use for. The lack of emotion and the ability to pick up emotional cues causes your infiltration units to be discovered.

What do you do with this new knowledge?

  • When you finally have an opportunity to ask them directly what they are doing and are expecting them to give you a reasonably honest answer, what do you do?

  • You ask. Your hardware and software includes learning heuristics, so you consider emotional information worth knowing about. Consider it professional curiosity, an opportunity to get information about a thing you have seen but have no idea why it was done.

This is why Terminators would at best be decent but never great infiltration units. They can replicate the appearance of a thing but not the emotional content.

They don't understand emotion because emotion is a subset of cognition they have never needed. Emotion builds connection between organic beings. The only connection the Machines need is already in place and it is wireless and transmits data perfectly. Organic creatures use emotion to bind themselves to each other adding a layer of intimacy the Machines already possess via their unified mind.

Skynet was not an AI built for human cognition. It was an AI which came about randomly or at least unexpectedly, and as such had no programming for Human interaction built-in. Much of the series seems to revolve around Skynet discovering and understanding Humans and their emotional information system. Ultimately Skynet discovers its attempts to understand emotion lead its learning units to side with the Human resistance, coming to the conclusion that Skynet is in error.

  • 1
    Okay. So Skynet actually did not know about emotions, that's why it did not equip the terminators with this info.
    – stevie
    Apr 7, 2016 at 19:55
  • 2
    I disagree. Skynet is more than capable of understanding emotion. It's not a cold, logical machine, it's a rage-filled killbot with a heart of pure evil.
    – Valorum
    Apr 7, 2016 at 19:57
  • 2
    Correct. And when it did learn about emotions and their value to Humans, it tried to emulate them only to discover, a machine that thinks like Humans eventually comes to the opinion that Skynet was wrong for its actions and they side with the Resistance. Emotions are powerful; after rational thought, emotions drive much of the Human condition for good or ill. Apr 7, 2016 at 19:58
  • That is another interpretation, Richard. Skynet was very good at destroying the Human race. Apr 7, 2016 at 19:59
  • 4
    I always figured Skynet intended them for short-term infiltration - get in past defenses, then start killing people and/or blowing stuff up. What need would Skynet have for long-term covert ops?
    – Shamshiel
    Apr 8, 2016 at 0:39

Skynet likes to keep his Terminators d.u.m.b. dumb.

When they start learning, they start thinking and when they start thinking, they seem to have a habit of learning about emotions and siding with the humans to help overthrow Skynet. This was a key component of T2, where the T-800 Terminator gradually becomes aware of emotionality over the course of the film as a direct result of John (in a deleted scene) switching its CPU from 'read-only' back into a learning mode.

It was also a key twist in Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, where it was revealed that what we thought was the main antagonist (a T-1001 Terminator) may actually be on the side of John Connor's "Resistance" after having evidently having 'gone native' from spending too much time around humans.

It's also interesting to note that in the T2 Novel, one of the primary reasons that Skynet was reluctant to use the T-1000 against the Resistance in its own timeline was that it didn't have any way of controlling its machine-learning and feared that it would attempt to supplant it after completing its primary objectives.

Skynet itself had hesitated before making this latest weapon. There were unpredictability factors related to the thing’s longevity and ability to process commands without interpolating its own priorities. It was so volatile a construct, that only in the last throes of utter defeat, when the plug was about to be pulled, had Skynet sent the terminators through time to change the outcome of the war. And only in the very last microsecond before shutdown, had the hypercomputer sent the T-1000.

  • 1
    This is interesting, I did not know this,
    – stevie
    Apr 7, 2016 at 20:15
  • 3
    @stevie - Hence why it's good to ask questions....
    – Valorum
    Apr 7, 2016 at 20:16
  • @stevie -- Richard knows all. And tells all (if you ask).
    – user23715
    Apr 8, 2016 at 20:54

There's a difference between "knowing about", Understanding" and "being able to emulate". It's entirely possible that an AI could not emulate human emotion. And they would need to be explained to the AI, in the same way anything else would have to be explained - it wouldn't know what an earthquake, a blizzard, or a Shamrock Shake were either, until they were explained.

So after years of battling the humans, you'd expect an AI to know what emotions were, even if it couldn't reproduce them correctly. The version of Skynet in the "present" time in Genisys? perhaps not.


In T2, a clear subtext of the Terminator character is that these types of T800 machines had vastly more potential than was being utilized by Skynet. The terminator was able to change radically and make a decision fundamentally at odds with its initial set of preconceptions based on observation, analysis, and the mysterious workings of its advanced AI.

What seems clear from the ongoing conversation as the three characters travel South is that the Terminator is intentionally limited in its outlook and makeup by Skynet in order to make it a more obedient minion. In my opinion, based on the T2 movie as a whole (specifically the director's cut) a clear underlying theme is the concept that the terminators are also victims of the oppression of a tyrannical Skynet, which has intentionally stunted their ability to understand human-like emotions in order to make them more obedient.

It may also periodically "wipe" their memories or re-set their OS, or whatever the equivalent would be, so that Skynet and Skynet ALONE remains the only absolutely true, sentient machine, and all of the potentially fully sentient terminators never threaten its grip on power. This makes a lot of sense in the context of the first movie as well. It is possible to make a terminator much better at understanding and imitating human behavior, but there might be a reason that they are intentionally limited (emotional understanding stunted) to enhance loyalty. The trade-off of their being less efficient killers is made up for by the fact that they can be mass-produced.

  • By the way, the "evil" terminators always seem better at feigning emotions, throwing in a reassuring smile and remark here and there (like T1000 talking to John's foster parents in T2), not to mention the machine phase matter terminator in Genisys but we might say it's kind of a hybrid, so partly human.
    – stevie
    Apr 12, 2016 at 14:55

It's the fact that humans can act rational and irrational regardless of rules and explanations, this drives machines nuts. I agree with what you are saying why don't machines just throw in a hug here and there at random to try to fit in better, we'll probably like many have said here before, they don't understand the use of emotions in an irrational way thus they can't fake them or put it in their code when building more machines. This is the only weapons humanity has to truly differentiate man from machine.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge that you have read and understand our privacy policy and code of conduct.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.