or, can we make the Terminator a gardener.

Our hero from the somewhat near future is a farmer. His world has the same amount of magic as ours. He is part of a modern high-tech farm and some older fruit trees. While the humans he employs do a good job, he likes to try out things.

The Robot

So he got an former military robot from a sale. It's a humanoid model with two legs, two arms, body and something that passes for a head. All its weapons are removed. It is not top of the line. It is at least two generations old, like generations used for fighter planes. It was used in a group of soldiers. As a carrier for heavy stuff and situations where humans soldiers would be at greater risk.

The hardware of the robot is mostly modular. Movable parts are almost plug and play. Sensors can be replaced, upgraded or adapted, but need to be calibrated. CPU & internal memory are not physically accessible.

The robot needs to be able to adapt to new situations. For simple things there is some learning algorithm, like an autonomous car. For other things it's software can be updated. This can only be done by someone with physical access, as wireless communications are hackable. Within the platoon there is a tech guy that maintains the robots, so there is a somewhat onsite for the smaller repair and update stuff.

It can be connected to a laptop by a procurable cable. There is a app available for the laptop to monitor functions, but its only readout. A field tech made a Command Line Interface with admin rights (hack) to make his work more easy. The farmer somehow got this (sub-plot).

Let's give it a Linux like kernel. But instead of apps it has libraries that add or change functionality.

Before the sale a factory reset is done and combat related libraries removed.

The Hack

While it works nicely with voice commands, there must be a way to make it function better. So he decides to hack it.

  • First add arms.
  • Second use different movement patterns. (also, dancing)
  • Third re-calibrate the sensors.
  • Fourth, a custom ROM found, lets try it, we can always change back, aka, change operating system.
  • At this point I would like our farmer to have an adventure due to some very custom libraries created by a former user. And went undetected during reset. Non lethal.

Is this Robot hackable? - Feedback: it must be for your story, so yes.

If possible, how and what kind of skills does our farmer needs to do so?

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    $\begingroup$ It's as hackable as you need for your story. It would be a bit easier if you could tell us what you need to happen - because I think I can write pretty solid answers in "not really hackable", "doable but difficult" and "child's play" tone. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Apr 20 '17 at 17:17
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    $\begingroup$ My immediately thought is "is it running code? yes? then it's hackable." Just what the limits are will depend on other factors. Such as "does it receive wireless input?" "does its OS get regular updates?" etc. Some answers might increase its hackability along one axis or more, or reduce it. Making it unhackable on every axis pretty much requires reducing it to its constituent atoms first. $\endgroup$ – Draco18s Apr 20 '17 at 17:31
  • $\begingroup$ Interesting story. The answer is he needs to be a hacker. It is not some particular skill set, but one of treats curiosity and twisted mind and task solving. Basically, science minded person inclined to hacking things. The question is - how it is about WB. $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Apr 20 '17 at 19:42
  • $\begingroup$ @MolbOrg, it's about the world this farmer has lived in. What are the things that made him able to do this? I don't want to create a renaissance-bond-fix-everything guy. Just as an alien needs a whole world and history behind it to truly work, a man has a (smallish) world of knowledge and experience behind him. $\endgroup$ – Flummox - don't be evil SE Apr 20 '17 at 19:56
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    $\begingroup$ I have guy for you actually - not a farmer through, here he is - The $30,000 pocket dial watch his 1-2 year old videos. He is repair-guy of different electronics without formal education. And he talks a lot about himself, his past, his current etc. The mindset your farmer-guy should have. He should also have possibilities to gain the knowledge. But in that regard the question even worse as WB and it still not about the world. But really recommend to watch the link and his videos in general. $\endgroup$ – MolbOrg Apr 20 '17 at 20:08

What your story needs

Really, we can convincingly make it all three ways.

Not at all

It was decommissioned. It has software replaced by military property agency to some write-once chip. It has a lot and lot of wires inside, and chassis is so thick and tight it makes a really hard time to track all the wires. Worse, some of the wires are actually embedded in plastic-like shock absorbent. Chassis of the CPU is so thick that cutting it would probably burn it. Also, chip with software is digitally signed, and CPU won't accept unsigned software.

You could hack the CPU out, replace it with 3rd party microprocessor and own software, figure out all the wires, but for all practical purposes it is impossible - because it would be easier to design and build new robot.


Robot was made with military mindset in mind - it should be damn easy to replace any broken part. Thus, everything is easily labelled, snaps in place but is intuitively easy to take out. Programming was provided on separate chips and removal of weapon control routines left you with half a dozen open slots. Sure military software cartridges are though, but interface used is good old RSB 2.0 and can accept modern, re-writable RSB 5.0 memory devices due to two-way backward compatibility. Chassis is though, but have enough space to easily manipulate wires, and removal of weapon system left you with wire slots, attachment points et cetera. With your decommissioned robot, you got full manual, not only usage manual but also service manual and fundamental technical drawing. Oh, and sice some of these robots was sent to schools as learning aids, full API is readily available. Including examples of building and controlling simple arms attached to now-unused gunpoints.


Encrypted software was removed, replaced with unencrypted, simplified one for civilian use. Chassis is crowded and hard, but nothing was made intentionally difficult, and actuators are actually easy to connect, disconnect and replace. This would make it as hackable as roomba is today - requires skill, yes, but high-school student with enough time and motivation could do it. OK, maybe harder because it is more complicated device, but still skill required would be in similar league. Farmers hack tractors all the time already, so no reason for him not to do it. All right, he may have some problems along the way, but also he may be able to obtain help from people who already hacked similar models. Just like it happens with this Ukrainian tractor firmware.


That depends on whether the engineers who made the robot wanted to protect it from being hacked. When they didn't, a skilled hacker might be able to dump its software, rewrite it, and re-upload it. First Proof-of-Concept might be to just make the robot perform a currently popular dance routine, but then people might find some more useful robot software mods. If you can get a Roomba to play soccer, you can get a Terminator to pick apples. After a while there will be a sprawling community of warbot modders who will provide the hacked software packages, the tools to upload them and step-by-step instructions how to do that.

But considering that the robot's software was likely a guarded military secret, there might be precautions to prevent that and cause the whole CPU to self-destruct the moment it detects tampering.

When that happens and the robot bricks itself, the farmer can still make use of the hardware chassis by simply replacing the control unit with the near-future equivalent of an Arduino, soldering it to the wires which control the accentuators and programming it to perform whatever tasks the robot is supposed to perform. Again, software downloads and step-by-step tutorials will be easy to find online.

For safety reasons I would actually recommend the latter course of action. The original control unit might still have some combat routines left which the amateur programmer forgot to delete. You don't want your robot to suddenly attack people with farming implements.

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    $\begingroup$ You are mistaken in one thing. Military grade robots serve gin tonic as proof-of-concept demos. $\endgroup$ – Mindwin Apr 20 '17 at 18:29

He goes to the manufacturer for instructions or downloads the user manual on whatever passes for internet in his locale. Then follows the instructions.

Unless he's a robotics engineer as well as a farmer he needs to take it to an engineer for the mods.

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    $\begingroup$ In USA, farmers hacking agricultural tractors and harvesters are not unheard of already, so near-future high-tech farmer being also robotic engineer (if not by education, then by experience) is quite possible. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Apr 20 '17 at 17:28
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    $\begingroup$ @Mołot big difference between a tractor and a military robot, can your farmers hack a tank? I'm an engineer, but I wouldn't be able to build and install a robotic arm that actually works. Plus this is the farmers first robot according to the question. $\endgroup$ – Kilisi Apr 20 '17 at 17:33
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    $\begingroup$ Given that what they hack is mostly propulsion control system and intrusion detection (for unauthorized repair access) yea, I think they would be at least as good at it, if not better, than robotics student. Actually it might be easier on tanks, because tanks are made to be easy to fix, and tractors are made to be profitable for manufacturer to fix, so on these parts, tanks have less security. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Apr 20 '17 at 17:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Kilisi The big difference between hacking a tractor and hacking a tank is surprisingly not the hacking bit. Its the bit where the tank has people with machine guns watching it who are not interested in letting you hack the tank. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Apr 20 '17 at 17:44
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    $\begingroup$ @Kilisi True. However, there is a known aphorism in hacking: "The only truly safe computer is one which is disconnected from the internet, turned off, unplugged, stored in a concrete lined vault underground, and with armed guards posted at the surface. Even then, I'd check on it from time to time." $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Apr 20 '17 at 18:00

Depends entirely on the people who built the robot.

Adding a different movement pattern could be as simple as installing an app on a smartphone. Or it could be as hard as rewriting parts of the Windows Kernel without access to the source code (takes forever and the robot loses the magic smoke if you screw up).

The military grade protection could be similar to Smartphone root access: Once someone enables root access on the device, anyone can replace crappy default software as they see fit. If the farmer buys the robot already rooted, no special knowledge is necessary.

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    $\begingroup$ Military grade protection sometimes means none at all $\endgroup$ – Draco18s Apr 20 '17 at 19:09

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