Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


How “STAR WARS” and the Japanese Artificial Intelligence (AI) Threat Led to the Internet

Posted on | November 2, 2010 | No Comments

This is abstracted from my manuscript on How IT Came to Rule the World and continues the examination of statecraft and its role on the development and impact of computerization and netcentric power.

The Internet was born out of two American paranoias: fear of Communist aggression and the fear of losing the US lead in computer technology to the Japanese. These fears intersected during Ronald Reagan’s administration in the early 1980s as the Cold War made a resurgence and US trade deficits reached unprecedented levels. These two series of parallel events, propelled by deep nationalistic fears and economic concerns, worked to create the Internet. This should not sound so strange, as it was the USSR’s Sputnik satellite launch in 1957 that sparked the Space Race and accelerated the development of microprocessors.

The announcement of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) or “Star Wars” as it became popularly known, mobilized important resources that funded a major step in the emergence of the Internet and its World Wide Web. In the early 1980s President Ronald Reagan, a self-professed “big picture guy”, addressed the country on national television introducing SDI as a future plan to protect the US and its Allies from attack by long-range nuclear missiles. The plan was to move away from the “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) policy and towards a “defensive shield” that would stop any incoming offensive attack with some combination of space-based lasers, killer satellites, and guided missiles.

The video below, despite the wrong spelling of the President’s name, captured the SDI announcement on March 23, 1983.

This new defense system would be highly complex and beyond the capabilities of human monitoring and coordination. It would need a computerized and automated type of “artificial intelligence” (AI) to patrol the ground and skies and react accordingly to any perceived threat. The Star Wars research agenda would soon reach into many parts of the US government and the academic research community to lead the development of AI and in the process give a major boost to the development of the Internet.

Although ARPA had been funding computer research since the late 1950s, it was given a major new monetary stimulus and focus by the Strategic Defense Initiative. ARPA had developed the data communications technology known as packet-switching during the late 1960s that is often marked as the beginning of the Internet. A few years later ARPA began to experiment with “internetworking” several computer networks. In particular, Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn wanted to connect a computer host at the University of Hawaii to computers at Stanford and BBN in Boston. They came up with the revolutionary internetworking technology and TCP/IP protocols that connected the ARPAnet with other networks. In 1981, the renamed DARPA (Defense) mandated the use of TCP/IP throughout the military’s ARPANET establishing the protocols as future standards.

Skynet and Starwars

But it was ARPA’s Strategic Computing Initiative (SCI, not SDI) in 1983, a $600 million project to capitalize on the history of AI that played a crucial role in moving the Internet towards its globally ubiquitous state. Although initially motivated by the Japanese advances in computer technology, it benefited from the Star Wars research agenda. With TCP/IP as its foundational integrative technology, a network utilizing both ARPANET and MILNET started to form. Money moved into computer centers and incentives helped facilitate the transition. SCP set out to “fulfill the promise of military artificial intelligence in autonomous weapons and battle management systems, putting cyborg theory into practice.”[1] No wonder James Cameron’s Terminator (1984) which featured the rise of a networked AI called Skynet, became such a hit the next year.

After his televised announcement, Reagan signed two National Security Council (NSC) directives (NSDD-85) and (NSSD 6-83) ordering a long-term research-and-development plan and a national security study directive asking the Department of Defense to develop a program to shape the ultimate plan to eliminate the threat of nuclear weapons. These directives set in motion several initiatives that began addressing the issues and problems that would be faced in such an endeavor. One of the most prominent was produced by the Defense Technologies Study Team, chaired by a former NASA director Dr. James C. Fletcher. They produced a seven-volume study suggesting the scientific possibility of such a system and laying out a five-year plan for its R&D. [2]

While much of the money was going to sensors, satellites and laser technology, The New York Times discovered that a lot of criticism within the military-industrial complex was being leveled at the state of computer software needed for such an endeavor. Problems with the space shuttle’s computers at the time had shown the difficulties in creating the operational software for managing complex machinery and the Star Wars vision required software coordination and precision that was much more difficult. The prospects for a global space-based defense shield seemed daunting to say the least.

While even the Fetcher Report had indicated that the software problems would be a difficult challenge, a new review started in late 1985 challenged the whole capability of the military and its contractors to produce such a complex array of integrated hardware and code. Many projects were forced to abandon their original expectations for a tightly controlled system of defense nodes and began to moving instead towards a more autonomous set of connected computer capabilities. While the military continued to be involved, the National Science Foundation (NSF) sought to become part of the solution by creating a network to connect supercomputers around the country to conduct research for the SDI complex.

Although Reagan’s SDI was pure simulacra, and continues to be a defense strategy in theory and not in practice, it was a vision with consequences. In this boost given to creating the technologies for a new national defense system, the foundation for the NSFNET, and thus the Internet was created. This funding provided a crucial catalyst in the continued standardization of Internet protocols and routing equipment as the NSF was determined to use the TCP/IP protocols.

The NSFNET was an important step in the transition of Internet from an obscure military network to a network of academic and research facilities and as I’ll demonstrate in my next post on this topic, a system of widespread social communication and e-commerce.

In my next post, I will take a closer look at the Japanese AI threat and the role of Al Gore in shaping the Internet, including his role in writing the High Performance Computing and Communications Act in 1991 that was signed by President Bush.


[1] Quote on the military putting cyborg theory into practice from The Closed World: Computers and the Politics of Discourse in Cold War America by Paul N. Edwards, page 275.

[2] I am indebted to Pulitzer Prize winner (Fire in the Lake) Frances FitzGerald’s Way Out There In the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War for more detailed information on SDI. The national security directives signed after the immediate post-SDI speech outlined a strategy of research-and-development from p. 243.

Citation APA (7th Edition)

Pennings, A.J. (2010, Nov 20). How “STAR WARS” and the Japanese Artificial Intelligence (AI) Threat Led to the Internet.




Anthony J. Pennings, PhD has been on the NYU faculty since 2001 teaching digital media, information systems management, and global communications.


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