War Robots & Artificial Intelligence in Horizon Zero Dawn

Aloy, protagonist of Horizon Zero Dawn. | Screenshot: Hollow Cake
Aloy on a wreck during sunrise | Screenshot: Hollow Cake (www.hollowcake.de)

Part 1 of 2 of the Horizon Zero Dawn blog series.



Horizon Zero Dawn is an action role-playing game by Guerilla Games, which was released in 2017 for the PlayStation 4 (2020 for PC) and received worldwide recognition and praise. Horizon Zero Dawn is approved (in Germany) for players aged 12 and above.

As a player, you control the protagonist Aloy, who lives in a post-apocalyptic world that is inhabited by animal-like machine creatures in addition to stone-age human races and animals. Aloy is an outcast with unknown origins. In the course of the game, you not only find out more about Aloy’s “mother”, but also uncover the exciting background story, which in my eyes is a major part of the game’s appeal, if not the real highlight.

In the course of this essay there will be spoilers of Horizon Zero Dawn‘s backstory and of events that occur in the course of the game. I therefore explicitly advise against reading this text if you have not yet played the game and do not know of the story and want to stay free of spoilers!

I would also like to point out that the descriptions of the content of the game as well as the background story are largely based on my own experiences playing the game, but in some places I also refer to the Horizon Zero Dawn Wiki, which contains much more detailed background information about the story and the world, and on which I also relied to present the content of the game correctly.

Prior Knowledge

How I managed to barely learn anything about the story in the last three years since the game’s release, and also missed the announcement trailer at E3 2015, I cannot say. For my experience of the game and its story, however, this should prove to be a stroke of luck.

Only a few brief scenes of a quest at the beginning of the game had previously come to my attention, when I set out to explore the world of Horizon Zero Dawn in early 2020. What I knew at the time was probably what most players knew when they played the game for the first time: something about the apocalypse is likely, and you fight robot dinosaurs with bows and arrows. Both are basically starting points that sound appealing to me personally – who wouldn’t want to fight robot dinosaurs with bow and arrows?

But above all, it is the scenario around machine creatures and the supposed apocalypse that make the game so exciting from a philosophical point of view and which ultimately convinced me to play it. For whenever it is about robots, artificial intelligences, wars, apocalypses and the like, essential philosophical questions and current thematic focuses of ethics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of technology, or, for example, interdisciplinary artificial intelligence research, to which philosophy also contributes, are not far away.

However, as is well known, pop culture has produced a multitude of different utopias, dystopias, apocalypses and the like, that thematize the (supposed) downfall of humankind or the fight against artificial intelligences in different ways – but all somehow similar. Which is why my expectations were somewhat dampened. The “robot dinosaurs” may add a nice change, but whether the opponents are Geth and Reapers, a Terminator, or, like in the case of Horizon Zero Dawn, machine animals, the battle between human and machine is nothing new. So where – was a question before I started the game – does this hype about the game come from?

Picturesque Sunrises and Fun Fights

One first reason can be stated immediately and easily: the game looks fantastic. When Aloy climbs onto the rusty remains of a crashed plane while the sun rises behind the next mountain range, you cannot help it but be amazed at how beautiful, how detailed, how atmospheric Horizon Zero Dawn – even more than three years after its initial release – sets the scene for its game world and how impressive video games can be. At times, you seem to feel reminded of similar moments in other video games, e.g. when you first entered the freezing Skyrim in The Elderscrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Softworks, USA, 2011) and saw the night sky above you, and thus you also connect – albeit perhaps subconsciously – your personal video game history with what you have just experienced.

A second reason also quickly becomes apparent. On the one hand, it arises from the fresh premise of fighting with bow and arrows against “robot dinosaurs” and on the other hand from the overall gameplay itself. Simply said, it is a lot of fun to take on the machines with traps, slingshots, bows and other “prehistoric”, “ancient” or “medieval” weapons in comparison to the machines, and to exploit the various weaknesses of the respective types of machines, to explore the game world, to climb high mountains and to discover secrets.

But that is not all, because Guerilla Games also succeeds in using tried and tested techniques and game elements in a sensible way, sometimes adding slight twists. While in the end you only climb – according to the infamous “Ubisoft formula” – on large radio towers, which after activation reveal new sections of the world map, it still feels less boring or repetitive, because the radio towers are in fact huge machines that make the earth shake with every step, definitely leaving its own impression and is the reason why it does not feel completely worn out.

Otherwise, the quality of the game is also made clear by the facts that the relationships between humans and machines are characterised solely by the fact that stealth, ranged combat, traps and ingenuity are the most important tools for being able to effectively defend oneself against the machines, because even when fighting against weaker machines, one can perish very quickly with only a few hits.

But enough about the impressive graphics and the fun gameplay. Let us now talk about the real highlight of the game: the background story.

Horizon Zero Dawn’s Somewhat Different “Robocalypse”

As was already mentioned in the beginning, Horizon Zero Dawn is not the first video game or medium to deal with an apocalypse caused by a conflict with machines, and it will certainly not be the last. Especially the recent scientific successes and the overall technological progress, which make partial aspects and technological developments known from science fiction, seem more feasible, certainly contribute to the fact that such stories are becoming more and more popular. But ever since the appearance of classics such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein or Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, a wide variety of conflicts regarding new or advanced technology have been thematized again and again.

A Not So Distant Future?

Horizon Zero Dawn is centred on precisely such a conflict, because just under 1000 years before the start of the game’s main story – in the year 2064 – a glitch occurs in some models of autonomous war robots of the war robot strike force set up by the fictitious Hartz-Timor investment group, which ensured that these models did not react to the shutdown command and instead went rogue, whereupon they began to reproduce themselves uncontrollably.[1] These war robots of the so-called Chariot line were developed by Faro Automated Solutions and were designed in such a way that, (1) they could not be hacked by other war robots, and (2) they were able to convert biomass into fuel and thus ensured that, on the one hand, they could continue to function even if they could not recharge their energy reserves in the normal way for a longer period of time, and, on the other hand, were able to replace destroyed units promptly by building new units on the field.[2]

In the run-up to this glitch, the creators of Horizon Zero Dawn build up a world for their background story that is on the brink of despair. Despite – or perhaps because of – great technological achievements, a global climate catastrophe is looming, as a result of automation unemployment is at a record high, politics is being increasingly undermined by independent companies and more and more war robots are being build, leading to more and more warlike conflicts.[3] Things that are not at all too unheard of in our real world.

Essential core elements for the world of Horizon Zero Dawn, as well as the background story – and thus the reasons why the plot of the game ultimately takes place – are the fight against the climate catastrophe, as well as the creation and use of artificial intelligences and machines, which are intended to support in this very fight against the climate catastrophe on the one hand, but also as autonomous weapon systems to fight wars over influence, power, and resources, like raw materials. These are points that are not too far removed from the reality that we ourselves might face rather sooner than later.

The discussion about a possible threat of record unemployment due to increasing automation and digitalisation, or the transformation of (working) society, has been conducted for some years now, primarily under the catchphrase Industry 4.0.[4] Whether we will really be exposed to mass unemployment and other drastic consequences of such automation, or whether there lies a significant opportunity for us in this automation, as for example John Danaher suggests,[5] remains to be seen, and is a different matter.

I rather want to focus on the two essential points mentioned above, which – at a time when a global pandemic is rampant, large parts of North America are facing unprecedented record heat, while elsewhere storms are raging and heavy rains are submerging whole swathes of land, and even the ocean is burning –[6] do not seem as far-fetched as they perhaps better should.

This also applies to the use of autonomously acting robots, and weapon systems, of which the latter are often referred to as lethal autonomous weapon systems. These are already used to a limited extent in armed conflicts and wars in the form of mine defusing systems or as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) such as drones. Strictly speaking, however, these are not yet fully autonomous systems, but only semi-autonomous systems at best. What is meant by this is that these systems are still mostly controlled by humans (in the loop) or at least the command for a launch and the launch itself are carried out, or are at least monitored, by a human, so that an intervention is possible (on the loop).[7] Only when a human operator no longer has any influence on the decisions and actions of the system (out of the loop) would it be regarded as an autonomous system. In fact, however, even on the loop systems tend to be considered as autonomous systems, since they are in principle capable to act or operate independently.[8] This is one of the reasons why, as philosopher Catrin Misselhorn notes, autonomous weapon systems are among the most fiercely debated applications of machine ethics, especially when their purpose is to kill humans.[9]

In an open letter signed by a large number of renowned researchers and experts in the fields of robotics, artificial intelligence research and philosophy, the Future of Life Institute points out the dangers of lethal autonomous weapon systems and explicitly speaks up against the development and use of such technology.[10]

On the other hand, there are also proponents, like Ronald Arkin, who see many positive features in the development of such systems and who argue that the use of autonomous weapon systems makes wars or armed conflicts more humane, that autonomous weapon systems are better soldiers, because they always act morally, or because they can react better and faster – just to list a few of the arguments in favour of such systems.[11]

When P. W. Singer, in his book “Wired For War”, talks about robots like the PackBot from the company iRobot or the Talon from Foster-Miller – both systems designed for defusing explosive devices or for reconnaissance – and their capabilities, or the SWORDS (Special Weapons Observation Reconnaissance Detection System), also from Foster-Miller, which is the first armed robot on battlefields and can be equipped with a machine gun or grenade launcher, among other things (as of 2009),[12] then one is immediately reminded, not without reason, of the aforementioned company-controlled war robots in Horizon Zero Dawn, which could possibly emerge through further technologicall progress in our real world. However, it must be clearly stated that weapon systems like the Chariot line in Horizon Zero Dawn do not exist (yet), and probably will not do so in the foreseeable future.

The Unusual Apocalypse of Horizon Zero Dawn

But let’s get back to the background story of Horizon Zero Dawn, and therefore back to the reason why it is the real highlight of the game. While first-time players will probably know that some kind of an apocalypse occurred at some point of time, which apparently sent humans back to the Stone Age, the true extent of the old conflict is shrouded in mystery at first and will only be revealed to players as the game progresses: humans did not simply lose the battle against the renegade war robots known as the Faro Plague or felt compelled to use nuclear weapons, which could also explain the return to Stone Age life.
Rather, the robots’ abilities – converting biomass into fuel and protecting against external shutdown – ensured that all life, including all plants, animals, microorganisms – in fact the entire biosphere – on earth was destroyed, leaving the planet as a dead rock full of machines.

Horizon Zero Dawn thus tells of an apocalypse, and with a consistency, that is not told all too often in science-fiction, and is thus quite capable of surprising the players, I suppose. Especially, if you did not know of the above-mentioned trailer and otherwise remained free of information about the background story of Horizon Zero Dawn in the run-up to playing the game.

The Technological Singularity

It is, however, a scenario that is discussed more frequently among researchers, especially in the debate about the so-called technological singularity. The technological singularity is usually used to describe a process – or alternatively a specific point in time – which is primarily associated with enormous technological progress and profound effects on human life.[13] An intelligence explosion as well as a speed explosion, or a combination of these two, are often seen as the main drivers of such a technological singularity.[14]

The Intelligence Explosion

An intelligence explosion is an exponential increase in intelligence, most often assumed to be triggered by the creation of artificial intelligences that are more intelligent than the most intelligent human being, which are creating even more intelligent machines, which in turn create even more intelligent machines, and so on. I. J. Good described this process as early as 1965:

“Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activites of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activites, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion’, and the intelligence of man would be left far behind.”[15]

The Speed Explosion

The speed explosion, on the other hand, usually refers to an exponential growth in the calculation or processing speed of machines, especially computers, which is also accompanied by great technological progress.[16] Similar to the intelligence explosion, where ever more intelligent machines or computers are being created, here, ever faster machines or computers are being created, so that the time intervals between the creation of fast computers or machines are constantly reduced. Eliezer Yudkowsky describes this aptly:

“A group of human-equivalent computers spends 2 years to double computer speeds. Then they spend another 2 subjective years, or 1 year in human terms, to double it again. Then they spend another 2 subjective years, or six months, to double it again. After four years total, the computing power goes to infinity [sic!].”[17]

If one combines both explosions, one obtains – that is the assumption – a process in which, within every interval, very intelligent machines create machines that are far more intelligent than they themselves were, and at ever shorter intervals, so that these artificial intelligences clearly exceed human intelligence after only a short time.

The Consequences of a Technological Singularity

The consequences and effects of a technological singularity are oftentimes even more controversial than the ways in which such a singularity could be achieved. On the one hand, it is said that it can bring enormous benefits, for example the cure of all known diseases, the cleansing of the earth from pollution or an end to poverty.

In Horizon Zero Dawn, parts of this view are reflected in the fact that the people of the old world increasingly used artificial intelligences to reverse the damage of pollution. Also in relation to the terraforming project that the artificial intelligence GAIA is leading after the destruction of all life, machines are specifically used to make the earth habitable again, and to reverse the damage of the Faro Plague.

But, the positive consequences of a technological singularity are contrasted by those who see it as an arms race with waring machines or even the end of human existence, because, this is one example, the striving of the artificial intelligences, that have arisen, to constantly improve themselves or to create even more intelligent machines, leads them to subjugate humans or to regard them, just like everything else that exists on earth, as resources that must be mined so that they can fulfil their goal of improvement.

Such a thesis of an existential threat to human life on earth is raised by Nick Bostrom in his 2014 book “Superintelligence”. There he raises the point that an artificial intelligence could compete with us humans for the same resources and raw materials, or even see us humans as exploitable resources.[18] Combined with the possibility that a corresponding artificial intelligence would be much more intelligent and powerful than us humans, it becomes clear that this could lead to the rapid annihilation of human beings, Bostrom says.[19]

Another example appears in the form of so-called Von-Neumann-probes. Here, similar principles of self-reproduction are taken up elsewhere in scientific research, for example by Robert A. Freitas, Frank J. Tipler or Carl Sagan and William Newman,[20] as well as in other science fiction stories.

A Conclusion to Part 1

That both the arms race with war robots and the destruction of humanity are the focus of the story as well as the background history of Horizon Zero Dawn can be established relatively quickly. Guerilla Games seem to have taken existing debates and current research into account or were inspired by them when they created their video game.

The background story of Horizon Zero Dawn is therefore not only brilliant because it dares to go different ways, and tries to tell the tale of an unusual apocalypse story, but also because it always tries to remain credible and is obviously oriented towards current debates and theories, and also creates a future that is not all too far-fetched – even though the video game world Guerilla Games created is dominated by giant machine creatures and you, playing one of the human inhabitants, are fighting back with bow and arrows, or you are hunting them down.

Although Horizon Zero Dawn does take a few liberties here and there, and Guerilla Games do not explain every technological achievement in detail, this hardly affects the quality of the story and of the video game itself. From a philosophical – or another academic – point of view, however, it definitely would have been exciting to see how one or the other technological achievement in the world of Horizon Zero Dawn was achieved or how it functions. But this is just a small drop of bitterness that does not detract from the quality of the video game at all.

A Brief Preview of Part 2

In this regard, in part 2, I will look at two other aspects where the creators of the video game seem to have taken their inspiration from current research and which also contribute to making Horizon Zero Dawn such a great video game. More specifically, I will talk about the appearance and behaviour of the machine creatures, and briefly discuss human-robot-interaction and related research, as well as the current state of the art. Secondly, I take a closer look at the artificial intelligence GAIA, and I will briefly explain what makes it so special. I will also list some of the problems we face in relation to autonomous machines and ethical issues associated with it.

Literature and Internet Sources

[1] Cf. “Machine”. https://horizon.fandom.com/wiki/Machine. Last accessed: 31.08.2021.

[2] Cf. “Machine”. https://horizon.fandom.com/wiki/Machine. Last accessed: 31.08.2021.

[3] Cf. “Old Ones”. https://horizon.fandom.com/wiki/Old_Ones. Last accessed: 31.08.2021.

[4] See for example Weber, E. (2015). Industrie 4.0 – Wirkungen auf Wirtschaft und Arbeitsmarkt. Wirtschaftsdienst 95 (11). Springer. Also see Hirsch-Kreinsen, H., Ittermann, P., Falkenberg, J. (Eds.) (2018). Digitalisierung Industrieller Arbeit: Die Vision Industrie 4.0 und ihre sozialen Herausforderungen. 2., aktualisierte und erweiterte Auflage. Nomos.

[5] Cf. Danaher, J. (2019). Automation and Utopia: Human Flourishing in a World Without Work. Harvard University Press.

[6] Cf. Dewan, Angela (2021). “Unprecedented heat, hundreds dead and a town destroyed. Climate change is frying the Northern Hemisphere”. https://edition.cnn.com/2021/07/04/world/canada-us-heatwave-northern-hemisphere-climate-change-cmd-intl/index.html. and cf. “See massive ‘eye of fire’ burn in Gulf of Mexico”. https://edition.cnn.com/videos/world/2021/07/03/mexico-gas-leak-pipeline-eye-of-fire-vpx.cnn, and cf. Susanka, Sandra (2021). “Schweres Unwetter über Baden-Württemberg”. https://www.zdf.de/nachrichten/zdf-morgenmagazin/schweres-unwetter-in-baden-wuerttemberg-100.html. All last accessed: 31.08.2021.

[7] Cf. Misselhorn, C. (2018). Grundfragen der Maschinenethik. Reclam, pp. 157-158.

[8] Cf. Misselhorn, 2018, p. 158.

[9] Cf. Misselhorn, 2018, p. 155.

[10] Cf. Future of Life Institute. Autonomous Weapons: An Open Letter From AI & Robotics Researchers. https://futureoflife.org/open-letter-autonomous-weapons/. Last accessed: 31.08.2021. Misselhorn, for example, also points to this open letter.

[11] See for example Arkin, R. C. (2009). Governing Lethal Behaviour in Autonomous Robots, CRC Press. For a good overview of the debate, see Leveringhaus, A. (2016). Ethics and Autonomous Weapons. Palgrave Macmillan.

[12] Cf. Singer, P. W. (2010). Wired For War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the Twenty-first Century. Penguin Books, pp. 21-31.

[13] Cf. Kurzweil, R. (2013): Menschheit 2.0: Die Singularität naht. (M. Rötzschke. Trans.). Lola Books. p. 7ff and cf. Vinge, V. (1993). The Coming Technological Singularity: How To Survive in the Post-Human era. Whole Earth Review, Winter, p. 5. http://de.feedbooks.com/book/2011/the-coming-technologicalsingularity. Last accessed 31.08.2021.

[14] Cf. Hutter, M. (2016). Can Intelligence Explode? In U. Awret (Ed.), The Singularity: Could artificial intelligence really outthink us (and would we want to)? Imprint Academic, p. 196.

[15] Good, I. J. (1965). Speculations Concerning the First Ultraintelligent Machine. Advances in Computers 6, p. 33.

[16] Cf. Chalmers, D. J. (2016). The Singularity: A Philosophical Analysis. In U. Awret (Ed.), The Singularity: Could artificial intelligence really out-think us (and would we want it to)? Imprint Academic, pp. 11-12.

[17] Yudkowsky, E. (2001). Staring into the Singularity. http://yudkowsky.net/obsolete/singularity.html. Last accessed: 25.04.2018.

[18] Cf. Bostrom, N. (2014). Superintelligenz: Szenarien einer kommenden Revolution (J.-E. Strasser, Trans.). Suhrkamp, p. 165.

[19] Cf. Bostrom, 2014, p. 165.

[20] Cf. Freitas, R. A. Jr. (1980). A Self-Reproducing Interstellar Probe. Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 33. And cf. Tipler, F. J. (1981). Extraterrestrial Beings Do Not Exist. Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 21 (267). And cf. Sagan, C. & Newman, W. (1983). The Solipsist Approach to Extraterrestrial Intelligence. Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society 24 (113).

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