Machine Guardians: The Terminator, AI narratives and US regulatory discourse on lethal autonomous weapons systems

Tom F.A. Watts, Ingvild Bode

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


References to the Terminator films are central to Western imaginaries of Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS). The puzzle of whether references to the Terminator franchise have featured in the United States’ international regulatory discourse on these technologies nevertheless remains underexplored. Bringing the growing study of AI narratives into greater dialogue with the IR literature on popular culture and world politics, this article unpacks the repository of different stories told about intelligent machines in the first two Terminator films. Through an interpretivist analysis of this material, we examine whether these AI narratives have featured in the US written contributions to the international regulatory debates on LAWS at the United Nations Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons in the period between 2014 and 2022. Our analysis highlights how hopeful stories about what we coin ‘machine guardians’ have circulated in these statements: LAWS development has been presented as a means of protecting humans from physical harm, enacting the commands of human decisionmakers, and using force with superhuman levels of accuracy. This suggests that, contrary to existing interpretations, the various stories told about intelligent machines in the Terminator franchise can be mobilised to both support and oppose the possible regulation of these technologies.
Original languageEnglish
JournalCooperation and Conflict
Early online date23 Sept 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 23 Sept 2023


  • The Terminator
  • AI narratives
  • popular culture
  • Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems

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