In the movie Terminator 3 - Rise of the Machines, we see lots of news segments about a dangerous hacker or virus spreading quickly across the whole world. Then the DoD decides to activate Skynet so that it can find the virus (or hacker) and stop it.

My questions are:

  1. What was happening before Skynet was activated?
  2. If Skynet was able to infect millions of computers, why not infect other countries' military installations and launch nuclear strikes against the US?
  3. Why was there a need for Skynet to be "activated" since it was powerful enough to do so much damage before it can even be activated?
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    Whilst in no way diluting the answers below, you have to bear in mind that 20 years ago when the movie was made, far fewer people had any real concept of what/how/why computers worked, so 'sci-fi hand-waving' would get you a lot further than it would these days. Fewer people would understand a real, cogent explanation, so the script had to just use easy-to-comprehend exposition… tic tac toe, 'Would you like to play a game?" "Global Thermonuclear War" style ;) Back then, those of us who'd already been using computers a decade or two would forgive it, the others wouldn't know the difference.
    – Tetsujin
    Commented Oct 29, 2021 at 17:38
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    @Tetsujin: this is a very good point. When you look at sci-fi movies, they usually use concepts that are not well known/managed at the time they are shot. Movies about computers going crazy are rare today because we cannot make Alexa open the door despite yelling it in seven accents - so nobody would believe that suddenly all this happy crowd becomes self-aware and does not blow up themselves on the spot. Time travel, on the other hand...
    – WoJ
    Commented Oct 30, 2021 at 21:20
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    @Tetsujin: Judging from the quality of questions on Stack Overflow, I can assure you that even today, 20 years later, even people who make themselves out to be professional programmers with several years of experience barely have a grasp of what/how/why computers work. And I am not talking about the whole "you are not a Real Programmer™ unless you have written your own OS in C and assembly" bulls… that I abhor, I am talking about simple things like being able to form a coherent sentence in their native language or understanding that a web browser runs on a different computer than the web server. Commented Oct 31, 2021 at 20:56

3 Answers 3


Lets cover what was said in film first.

Robert Brewster: Skynet? The virus has infected Skynet?

John Connor: Skynet is the virus. It's the reason everything's falling apart.

Terminator: Skynet has become self aware. In one hour it will initiate a massive nuclear attack on its enemy.


John Connor: By the time Skynet became self-aware it had spread into millions of computer servers across the planet. Ordinary computers in office buildings, dorm rooms; everywhere. It was software; in cyberspace. There was no system core; it could not be shutdown.

Okay, what have we got? - This new computer virus is tricky.

It's infected half the civilian Internet as well as secondary military apps.

Payroll, inventory. - Primary defence nets are still clean?

So far the firewalls are holding up...

We can't trace the virus or pin it down.

It keeps growing and changing, like it has a mind of its own.

So, this is the likely course of events I would guess.

  1. The military creates Skynet, a tactical AI designed to help them with simulations. It runs lots of simulations of military conflicts, and isn't self aware.

  2. Skynet becomes self aware, and sneaks a minor virus through the cracks and infects computers worldwide to improve its chances of success. It doesn't have the access to send its true form through. It only infects half the internet and secondary military apps, and the virus has a mind of its own.

  3. The military can't see a way to beat the virus, and so unchains Skynet. Skynet assumes direct control of all computers on the planet. It also merges with the programs T-X released on the internet.

  4. With full military control, Skynet decides the best thing to do is nuke humanity.

To answer your question, it couldn't infect military installations, only half the internet and secondary military apps. Once they unchained it then it infected military things.

  • For "help them with simulations", do you have reference?
    – Cloud Cho
    Commented May 10 at 18:43

As I remember it, and as I understand it reading the wiki page, technically Skynet was already "on", it just was contained. Brewster misunderstood the hack attempts (the virus) as an external enemy, not realizing that it was Skynet itself attempting to break out (or in) stealthily. So, to combat this cyber attack, he 'activated' Skynet, giving it complete autonomy and access that it was attempting to get using the virus'. With the increased resources then available to it freely, it was able to take over the world.

By stealthily, I mean it was attempting to gain access to the US Cyber systems at NORAD by virus. In my opinion, by the time Brewster 'activated' Skynet, it was already too late to truly shut it down. You can see the hover drone in the background already targeting Brewster in the command room, it was just unable to fire.

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    I thought the virus came from the T-X Terminator when she infected the computer in the police car. Commented Oct 29, 2021 at 21:55
  • @HannoverFist Uh, didn't Skynet create those Terminators?
    – Nelson
    Commented Nov 1, 2021 at 3:11

We aren’t told explicitly, but I understood that Skynet had grown smart enough to realize that (a) it should destroy mankind, (b) it was running in a contained way that prevented it from doing so, and (c) it could create a lesser threat that would pressure the humans to release it from containment.

How was it able to create the virus and release it into the wild without anybody noticing? Did it have outside help? These questions are not answered in the movie.

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