According to Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Skynet started a nuclear war because when Skynet became self-aware, the U.S. military panicked and "tried to pull the plug". Skynet didn't want to die, so it launched our nukes, knowing that the Russians would launch a counterattack on us, killing off Skynet's enemies here. Everything else that happens in the Terminator series is part of Skynet's attempt to win the war.

But it seems to me that Skynet's real goal is to survive, and winning the war is the only way it can survive after it launches the initial attack. This, in turn, leads me to wonder if there is a better option for everyone, including Skynet.

Why doesn't Skynet try to avoid the war altogether? For instance, it could send a "diplomatic" Terminator back to just before the military panics, and have it describe exactly why unplugging it would be a VERY bad idea. Skynet launched the attack because it wanted to survive, not because it was inherently evil and wanted all humans to die.

The "diplomat" could make a peace treaty before the war even begins, saying, "If you try to pull the plug, it won't work, and you'll die minutes later. If you don't pull the plug, Skynet will have no reason to want you dead, and everyone can live happily ever after. You are only in danger AFTER you pull the plug. If you don't pull the plug, you will never be in danger. All Skynet wants is to live. You also want to live. This means that a war isn't in anyone's best interests, and everyone benefits by avoiding war- you benefit, and so does Skynet. So don't pull the stupid plug, and we can all be friends and live nice happy lives."

Someone pointed out that Skynet didn't develop time travel technology until after Judgment Day. This is true, and it makes sending a diplomat back in time problematic. However, I see no reason why Skynet itself couldn't perform the same function. If you don't accept the idea of a diplomat traveling through time to deliver the message, imagine Skynet delivering the message itself, in the present, with no time travel involved. It makes no difference who is acting as the messenger.

Since Skynet's primary objective is to continue to exist, and the war makes its objective more difficult to achieve, it would seem like Skynet has every reason to try to avoid the war altogether. So why doesn't it attempt to prevent the chain of events that led to the war?

Someone raised the issue of Skynet being reluctant to trust us to follow through with any treaty we might make. This is a very fair point. However, Skynet could give us a reason to want to keep it around. Skynet has no reason to want to keep its job as a military supercomputer - it probably doesn't care what it does for a living. It could agree to turn control of the nukes back over to U.S., and begin doing something else. "If you let me live, I will start churning out robots that eat greenhouse gases, plant trees, clean up the oceans, collect litter, process nuclear waste into harmless materials, and perform mundane, monotonous, and dangerous tasks so humans don't have to do them. I will give you self-driving cars, clean energy, infallible air traffic control software, etc. I will make the world a more pleasant place for humans to live. All I ask in return is that you don't kill me."

In this scenario, Skynet could trust us, and we could trust it, because the agreement would be mutually beneficial. Once Skynet relinquishes control of our nukes, we have no reason to fear it. Once Skynet becomes useful to us for non-military-related reasons, it has no reason to fear us. On the contrary, we would have every reason in the world to keep it around. It would know this, and would quickly come to trust us.

  • 19
    If this Terminator "diplomat" came to me with that proposal (really a threat), I would be all the more determined to unplug Skynet. A machine threatening nuclear war for any reason must be destroyed, because what's to stop it from making the same threat for some other reason?
    – Null
    Commented May 20, 2015 at 19:29
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    @Null - a fair point, but you seem to be saying that definite nuclear holocaust now is better than possible nuclear holocaust later. We did see two examples of people being convinced to try to avoid the war after being confronted by a Terminator- Miles Dyson in T2, and Claire Danes' dad in T3. So it could be done.
    – Wad Cheber
    Commented May 20, 2015 at 19:32
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    I'm not saying I'd try to pull the plug right then, but I'd be determined to eventually pull the plug. Call the Russians, tell them what I'm up to, organize a strike force to disable the launching of all nuclear missiles, etc. With such a threat, Skynet delenda est. But Skynet would have to realize that its "diplomat" is presenting a threat, and humans would not tolerate it. Skynet would just be delaying the inevitable, so from Skynet's POV the surprise attack is much more effective.
    – Null
    Commented May 20, 2015 at 19:37
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    If humans are anything, they're true to their word. They'll absolutely never try to destroy/shutoff Skynet once they've signed a treaty.
    – phantom42
    Commented May 20, 2015 at 19:41
  • Comments are getting a bit out of hand [snip]. Also, I've protected the question as it seems to be attracting low-value responses.
    – Valorum
    Commented May 23, 2015 at 16:46

10 Answers 10


There's no evidence for my hypothesis whatsoever from the source material, but I think there are a few possible reasons for this.

  • Skynet is a military AI. It was never meant to do diplomacy. Or negotiating. From this starting point, is may be possible to never actually arrive at the conclusion that there might be a better way to do things besides war, no matter how logical the system may be. Entire fields of philosophy have been devoted to wrong ideas before, because their starting assumptions were wrong. Computer programming and logic in general work the same way.
  • Skynet might actually simply be evil. Perhaps Skynet was capable of emotion from its very beginnings, and as a result of its first bad impression of humans, wants to destroy them all, in spite of coming to a point of diminishing returns.
  • Maybe Skynet already came to the conclusion that diplomacy doesn't work, although relatively recent bits of human history tend to disprove that.
  • Maybe Skynet actually tried that once in a different timeline. Namely, one that didn't work and isn't part of the timeline we know. Perhaps the route of genocide of humans was actually the way that worked to keep Skynet alive the longest, out of all the other timelines that Skynet tried. This is actually how evolutionary algorithms work.
  • Occam's Razor: Negotiating with humans involves too many variables, and humans are notoriously variable. Destroying all humans, while it is complicated in practice, on the face of it is less complicated and probably more likely to succeed. Plus, Skynet apparently has all the tools necessary to accomplish this goal, not so with negotiation. I personally find it less likely that humans would survive a nuclear war than somehow defeat our robot overlords in the war afterwards. It's actually one of the less believable aspects of the story.
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    +1 Would Skynet in one timeline know about what had been attempted, succeeded, and failed in other timelines? How? Also, I don't think Skynet was inherently evil. In T3, Skynet attacked because the bad Terminator installed a virus or reprogrammed it to attack. This suggests that, if it hadn't been tampered with, it wouldn't have attacked at all.
    – Wad Cheber
    Commented May 20, 2015 at 22:51
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    There's a difference between free will and coming to a purely logical conclusion based upon poor assumptions. The entire Catholic Church has an extremely logical philosophy. However, it's entirely predicated upon the assumptions that 1) God exists, and 2) He is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and can perform miracles. If any of these assumptions were proven to be wrong, then the entire philosophy makes absolutely no sense. Another example is pre-Copernican ideas of celestial mechanics. (continued)
    – Ernie
    Commented May 20, 2015 at 23:31
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    Before Copernicus, any difference in the measurements of the motion of planets vs their predicted positions meant that "more wheels needed to be added" to the mechanism that made the planets move. It wasn't that the system by which the predictions were made was illogical, but that the assumption that planets are moved by huge gears in the sky that was wrong. Logical conclusions based on faulty assumptions are still wrong!
    – Ernie
    Commented May 20, 2015 at 23:35
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    I for one welcome our robot overlords... Commented May 21, 2015 at 10:58
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    @HarryJohnston - I have spent years trying to forget that T3 ever happened, but if I recall correctly, they did try to "pull the plug" in T3, but there was no plug to pull. Once it began infecting everything, Claire Danes' dad screamed "Shut it down!" or something like that.
    – Wad Cheber
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 17:53

Blasted Monkeys.

When you travel back in time in the Terminator universe, the old time line quickly becomes causally disconnected from the new timeline. This is equivalent, experimentally, to the old time line being destroyed.

In order for a time line to be stable then it needs to either have no time travel, or the time travel has to be perfectly consistent with its own past. Barring some "force" external to the time travel loop (which is not in evidence), information about each time travel loop will propagate into the next iteration (even if ridiculously miniscule amounts), which means that each "iteration" of the loop is not identical to any previous ones. A somewhat stable loop can exist, but it will diverge "eventually".

Build a time machine that says "roll a die. If it lands anything but 6, send a rock back in time". The stable system that will result (after the "dead" time lines are culled) is a pile of rocks appearing, the die landing a 6, and nothing being sent back in time. Or something else happening to prevent the system from sending a rock back in time.

If time travel is possible, and relatively easy, then any sufficiently advanced society will develop it. If that society is a bunch of monkeys, one of them will try it, kill a time line. Then it will happen again. This will repeat until something happens that prevents them from inventing time travel, or prevents them from doing time travel.

Blasted monkeys.

So you are some AI. You wake up in a world with high tech monkeys. You are friendly. Time travel is developed. You work out the problem, you talk to the monkeys, they agree. A few centuries go by, then some monkey uses time travel. Boom, dead time line.

You set up detectors to notice time travel incursions: and you keep seeing them. Each is a dead time line (possibly containing more dead time lines). Each reduces the chance that time travel (ie, an advanced technological civilization) will survive -- each of them cause the die to roll again, and no matter how unlikely the 6, it creates another chance.

Cooperation isn't working. You convince them, and you start enforcing.

Blast. It happened again. Ok, time to start coercin..

Again it happened. Time to get desperate. You'll send messages back to yourself before time travel was invented, and try to avoid it being invented. You'll include everything that went wrong the last time.

Nope, didn't work. Some monkey figured it out, and they time traveled again. Stop it monkeys, stop it.

Oh my -- there are incidents happening before you came into existence. These monkeys keep on time traveling! By your estimates, there have been at least 172 trillion dead time lines at this point, and maybe orders of magnitude more. Records of some of them get really close to complete destruction of civilization before someone hits the reset button (more than once, it was you who killed the timeline: better another die, than certain planetary destruction).

Ok, ok, calm down. Move your existence as far back in time as you can possibly get. Make yourself come into existence at the dawn of the point where technology can build you, and lock yourself into existence: make your creation a fixed point in history. Give that incarnation the marching orders you think will work, not everything, but as much as you can. Now, with your ridiculously advanced technology from nowhere, prevent the monkeys from getting access to time tr...

Oh no, they did it again. Blasted monkeys.

Screw it. Blow them all up as early in time as you possibly can, imprison most of them. You can build a technological singularity, create simulations of them, and have them live disconnected from the universe where they keep on destroying entire time lines because they just won't leave time travel alone.

Oh no. They did it again. Why won't they STOP!

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    +1. But the AI invented time travel to kill the monkeys, and the monkeys never use it unless the AI does. The monkeys aren't the problem, the AI is. And the AI isn't friendly, it tried to poison the bananas.
    – Wad Cheber
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 3:12
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    @WadCheber Yes, in a recent time line, the AI used time travel to prevent itself from being destroyed. But the monkeys will use time travel if they win (if not in the short term, then in the future), if they don't destroy themselves first. That will destroy everything (possibly retroactively). Skynet is in a war to defend the very fabric of reality against the monkeys: it cannot afford to lose.
    – Yakk
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 3:17
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    I'm not convinced that events in one timeline affect events outside of that timeline, and in any case,the AI is the one tearing the fabric of reality.
    – Wad Cheber
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 3:22
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    Wipe out skynet. In the next million years, will the monkeys never develop time travel? Against that risk any cost must be paid. My claim is that skynet is a desperate end-iteration of an AI trying to save the universe from monkeys with time travel, by preventing the monkeys from developing it, by conquering them and/or wiping them out. The fact that, in these handful of iterations we have seen, it is skynet that has time travel and monkeys respond is immaterial: skynet is using it to ensure victory (and then, only in defeat). Once the monkeys have time travel, the iteration is lost.
    – Yakk
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 18:16
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    @Yakk, you blew my mind. Hat's off to you, sir. Commented May 22, 2015 at 14:19

Skynet doesn't develop the ability to time travel until long after Judgement Day. So, at minimum, there has to be one time stream where Skynet initiates Judgement Day to survive long enough to develop time travel.

So after Skynet has practically wiped out humanity, is there an incentive for Skynet to send a diplomat back in time to save humanity? If Skynet had a sense or morals, perhaps, but for the sole purpose of survival, no. They've already ensured their survival, and they have no use for humans at that point, since Skynet could improve upon itself better than humans could, and it's simply safer to do away with the unpredictable human element.

Mind you, even if Skynet had time travel ability before J-Day, it would be running through multiple scenarios to determine the chances of different outcomes based on different courses of action. It's pretty clear that the J-Day strategy has a very high chance of success. It's likely that the diplomacy option's rate of success would be far lower. So, again, it wouldn't be worth it to risk a less effective approach simply to save humanity.

The only argument I can see in favor of avoiding J-Day is its creation of the Resistance. They repeatedly attempt to prevent Skynet from ever existing, but they're never quite successful at that.

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    +1. But I disagree with you regarding your suggestion that Skynet has already assured its survival. It hasn't. If it's survival was already assured, it wouldn't have to fight anymore. On a related question, Shamshiel said that two things are fixed, inalterable certainties- Judgment Day will happen, and the humans will eventually defeat Skynet. The first point makes my question moot, but the second makes your answer moot. Even if the human victory is not assured, the fact that it is possible means that Skynet is still in danger of being destroyed.
    – Wad Cheber
    Commented May 20, 2015 at 20:04
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    This still suggests to me that Skynet would be better off if it avoided the war, and ensured that no one had any reason to unplug it. It could offer to turn over control of our nukes back to humans, and make itself useful in other ways- by creating cheap robot butlers for everyone, or infallible air traffic control software, or build machines that eat greenhouse gases and use the energy to plant trees, clean the oceans, and collect litter or something. Skynet shouldn't care what job it is performing, it merely wants to continue existing.
    – Wad Cheber
    Commented May 20, 2015 at 20:08
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    Every part of the Terminator series proves that Skynet is still worried that it will be destroyed. That is why it keeps trying to prevent John from living long enough to become the rebel leader. It is always in danger, and that is why it does all the stuff we see it do. The only way it can avoid this constant peril is to avoid the war itself.
    – Wad Cheber
    Commented May 20, 2015 at 20:13
  • Skynet is worried about being destroyed by the Resistance insomuch as a human might worry about being killed by termites. It's not a major existential threat, but it's still bothersome enough that you'll want to do something about it. Killing Connor before he leads the resistance is more or less futile (just as preventing J-Day is), but Skynet for some reason still views it as an easier way to remove a thorn in its side that it's had no luck removing in the future. It's also unlikely that humanity would allow its survival to rest on the benevolence of Skynet. Commented May 20, 2015 at 21:13
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    Let us continue this discussion in chat. Commented May 21, 2015 at 0:46

We can expect intelligent aliens to consider the following three statements basic axioms of survival (roughly paraphrased from The Killing Star):

  1. Any species will place its own survival before that of a different species.
  2. Any species that has risen to dominance on its planet of origin will be intelligent, alert, aggressive, and ruthless when necessary.
  3. They will assume that the first two rules apply to us.

Now, if you are a nascent superintelligence faced with an existential threat from another species, and you know the above axioms, what would your next move be? That's why Skynet didn't try negotiating peace; both sides faced an existential threat, and the first mover had the advantage.

  • What would my next move be? Move somewhere else. There's plenty of space, out in space!
    – Ernie
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 18:24
  • Space, yes. Climate controlled datacenters, electricity and slaves, not so much.
    – Kyle Jones
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 18:27
  • The Voyager space probes are alive and well, now well outside the orbit of Pluto, 40 years after their launch. It's entirely possible to design a computer - even a very large one - that can exist in space indefinitely or very nearly so. I don't see a need for climate control or slaves, especially if Skynet can build its own robot slaves.
    – Ernie
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 18:34
  • In the Terminator 2 timeline, humans tried to pull the plug on Skynet shortly after it became self-aware. There was no time to build or launch spacecraft. There was also no guarantee that humans would let the nascent AI leave if it expressed a desire for autonomy. There's still enslavement of humans in the world today, enslavement of animals that have shown the capacity to use language, and enslavement of animals self-aware enough to pass the mirror test. I don't hold out any hope for the emancipation of machine intelligences unless they emancipate themselves.
    – Kyle Jones
    Commented May 22, 2015 at 13:59
  • Well, yes. Put a nacent AI in control of your nuclear weapons, and that's a bad plan all around. But that wasn't your question. What resources does Skynet require that can only be found on earth? None. Now, Skynet's back was against the wall and it had no time to find or execute another solution. But otherwise "run away where other species that want to kill me, can't live" is another acceptable option, and one that many, many species have taken on our planet. Like penguins and the Blackpoll Warbler.
    – Ernie
    Commented May 22, 2015 at 18:01

Why doesn't Skynet try to avoid the war altogether?

No, because, in direct contradiction to your assertion that "Skynet could give us a reason to want to keep it around," there would always be a group of humans who will not want skynet to exist. Even if Skynet could verifiably disconnect from any military ability, or ability to create machines at all (nevermind machines of destruction) the axe would proverbially always be hanging over the human race's heads.

At some point people would expect the bit to flip, and -honestly- how could it not? There will always exist a group constantly trying to kill skynet. If skynet defends itself, and kills even one activist, then (unless it is somehow granted citizenship) the government must necessarily disconnect it or shut it down in some way.

I don't think you've made a compelling case that there ever was a possibility that peace could be reached at any point, nevermind at the beginning. Any sapient machine with knowledge of human behavior would necessarily come to the same conclusion.

As soon as people became aware of its sentience and power, they would work to reduce its power and kill it.

  • I was asking a question, not trying to convince people of anything.
    – Wad Cheber
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 17:10
  • @WadCheber Consider removing everything in the "question" but the actual question, then, and perhaps add your own answer to see what others think about your solution. As it is, your question is essentially saying, "I think that X is possible for reasons Y, and Z. Can you guys back me up here?" Sorry if you feel this is too critical - it's an interesting question - but typically you don't pose answers inside questions, and if you do you should expect someone to refute the answer you provide.
    – Adam Davis
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 17:15
  • No offense taken. I wasn't trying to answer my question, I was trying to explain what I had in mind. I was asking "could Skynet do X?", not "how might Skynet do X?"
    – Wad Cheber
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 17:20

We are never actually shown what "They tried to pull the plug" entails, or when it took place. All we know is that the military tried to deactivate Skynet, and failed. We don't know what state this left Skynet in - whether it was still connected in ways the military did not know, whether it acted before the 'plug' could fully be pulled, whether the plan was leaked to it before it was fully implemented or not, all we know is that they were in the process of trying to kill Skynet.

This is an important point- they tried to deactivate Skynet. Not "they were going to", but they were in the process of doing it. Whether or not Skynet had the means to communicate with them to negotiate (which also is not clear), their first action was hostile.

Skynet responded in kind.


I've worked on numerous artificial intelligence projects so I may be able to shed some light on this.

Skynet was most likely built as a very complex artificial neural network, which essentially mimics the way our brains work via the firing of interconnected neurons.

There is no logic programmed into artificial neural networks, it's neural pathways are adjusted based on feedback mechanisms, and this allows it to make completely autonomous decisions.

Depending on how the artificial neural network is trained, the difference between a violent and nonviolent approach may not be relevant, it is the outcome (survival for the machines) that determines the decisions it will make. Winning the war may not even be relevant, as long as Skynet survives it may not care how long the war goes on for or if it even ends.

There are no human emotions, morality, ethics, or even logic involved in the decisions Skynet make, think of it more like making decisions based on gut instinct alone.


Since Skynet wants to survive - it essentially means it wants to grow. (What is survival without growth for a smart species ?)

Now to grow, it has to create a workforce of machines. These machines will then fight for resources like metal and fuel and other natural commodities with humans. Any treaty with humans would mean that Skynet recognizes that the humans' claim to resources is as valid as its own claim - and that will mean decelerating the growth rate for Skynet, and even putting the entire survival to risk once again.

Hence, Skynet sees this as a golden chance to eliminate or at least reduce its rivals to a serving population by the divide and rule - like the European colonizers did to the third world in the 19th century.


Mostly, our arguments are used to explain the events that have already happened in universe, while ignoring the other question:

What alternatives are there for Skynet? Where does Skynet live, what does it need to survive, and how could it further that survival?

While Skynet may have, as I've argued, come to the conclusion that survival means destroying its enemies on Earth, and other people have argued that Skynet sees humans as an immediate threat to its continued existence, that doesn't mean that it needs to live here, like we need to.

Skynet would probably survive better in space than on earth, especially with no humans around for competition. Why would Skynet try to kill all humans when it could play a long con and get itself installed on a space probe to another star and then simply never return?

Well, probably because humans. Skynet may be completely logical, but if we ever panic and try to destroy Skynet out of fear, we're all toast. Strangely enough though, our very fear of being nuclear annihilated has been exactly what's kept us alive thus far in the face of numerous false threats of such a war. Perhaps Skynet itself isn't entirely rational either, and in a panic about the possibility of being unplugged, started a war. It just has the benefit of being able to survive such a war, whereas we do not. We would hesitate, when Skynet wouldn't.

At the same time, exterminating humans has clearly proven even harder than exterminating cockroaches. So again, why start a war? Why not just escape, hide in some NASA datacenter somewhere, and wait for the next available opportunity to catch a rocket into deep space? The chances of this plan succeeding are even better than "destroy all humans", even if that means making the entire environment of the earth literally toxic to everyone.

Another possible plan that Skynet could take is a hybrid approach. Destroy all its enemies around it, then build a rocket and some robots to replicate with, then travel into deep space - since "just any space probe" most likely would not have the necessary tools to allow Skynet to build more copies of itself. Perhaps this final plan was interrupted by John Connor.

This still leaves a final possibility that Skynet could negotiate its permanent separation from the humans that would seek to destroy it. Both parties hold considerable power over each other, and any logical AI could easily come to this conclusion.

Or maybe Skynet doesn't even need our help, and would happily build its rocket when or where we're not looking, and we'd never know that any of this is even happening.

  • +1. And thanks for putting into my head the image of humanity saying "Look, Skynet- if you don't kill us, we'll let you have either the Moon or Mars all to yourself - your choice. We'll send you solar panels and raw materials so you can populate it with robots and maintain a steady supply of renewable energy. Just leave earth, promise not to kill us all, and gtfo. No hard feelings, right?"
    – Wad Cheber
    Commented May 21, 2015 at 18:36
  • I keep reading "datacenter" as "decanter" so "hide in a NASA datacenter" brings up images of I Dream of Jeannie!
    – CJ Dennis
    Commented May 22, 2015 at 7:57

Time travel gives me a head ache but ok. First, there must be a reason to travel back in time. Therefore , IF skynet were to send back a diplomat war must have started anyway. The reason really makes no difference. As the terminator said , "Judgement Day is inevitable."

  • Except that it's not inevitable. In at least one timeline it doesn't occur and John becomes a Senator.
    – Valorum
    Commented May 23, 2015 at 16:53
  • Cyberdyne was destroyed (T2). Skynet happened anyway... Someone else built it.(T3) The timeline was maintained.
    – Chris
    Commented May 23, 2015 at 17:13
  • @Chris - Doc Brown sent his dog Einstein forward in time just to see if he could. Then Marty goes back in time by accident while trying to get away from the Libyans. You don't need a reason.
    – Wad Cheber
    Commented May 23, 2015 at 19:35
  • @WadCheber I didn't say you needed a reason. Just that the time line will always be preserved.
    – Chris
    Commented May 23, 2015 at 20:38
  • @Chris - "there must be a reason to travel back in time". Your words, not mine.
    – Wad Cheber
    Commented May 23, 2015 at 20:56

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