The Big Idea: Daniel H. Wilson
Look out! It’s a robot uprising! Yeah, okay — but what then? That’s what Daniel H. Wilson was wondering in Robogenesis, his sequel to the massively successful novel Robopocalypse. Does he have answers? Find out below.
DANIEL H. WILSON:
Recently, I was talking to an older engineer-type gentleman at a cocktail party and trying to explain my career path from scientist to science fiction writer. In the middle of the conversation, he blurted out: “Wait, you’re telling me that you wasted ten years of your life!?”
He kind of had a point.
Despite ten years spent studying robotics, the most technologically advanced project I have worked on in the past year is a pretend space ship simulator in my basement – for my kids, I swear. Don’t get me wrong, the S.S. Coraline Wilson required the wiring of buttons and the scripting of space simulation software, but no machine learning algorithms or articulated arms were employed.
Even so, I don’t think I could have written Robogenesis without spending a decade in the trenches, desperately trying to learn math and science.
The biggish idea behind Robogenesis is that I did my best to realistically consider how human beings might survive a war between multiple titanic artificial intellects.
On its surface, Robogenesis is a thriller – a novel that follows regular people (and a few robots, and some in-betweens) who are fighting and surviving in a world transformed by the collapse of technology. There are no equations or Hidden Markov Models or Monte Carlo methods in Robogenesis, yet the story and its players are deeply rooted in what I have learned about how machines think.
Unlike creatures in the natural world, fellow members of an AI species do not form a natural class – each one may be radically different from the next, depending on what architecture they were built on and which datasets they were trained on. The AI may have completely different priorities when it comes to interacting with humankind. Was the machine even designed to interact with people? Or is it a deep thinker, built only to probe the mysteries of the universe? Would the machines try to manipulate us, ignore us, or eradicate us (as I considered in the Big Idea I wrote for Robopocalypse in 2011)?
So, my job writing Robogenesis was simple: just describe god-like artificial intelligences with truly alien perspectives and devilishly complex motivations. Oh, and I needed to make it damned realistic, because if I have anything unique to offer to this trope it is my perspective as a former roboticist.
I began by looking at the current state-of-the-art.
As you know, we already live with a lot of low-profile artificial intelligence. When you speak to Siri on an iPhone, your voice is sent to the cloud, processed by AI algorithms, and the translation returned. Facebook has AIs that sift through your photos and perform face recognition. Google’s AIs read your gmail and target ads accordingly. At the airport, whole body scanners literally see us naked and then an AI decides whether to pass on the image to a human screener.
(Yes, the robots see us naked.)
I extrapolated these trends into the future, ignoring the simplistic scenario in which a haywire AI wants to kill all humans. Instead, I considered what happens when really complex, incredibly disparate, and potentially bizarre artificial intelligences proliferate across the world’s technological infrastructure?
As I wrote Robogenesis, it dawned on me that an “apocalypse” is not really the end.
When we say apocalypse, we usually mean the fall of civilization (aka “the end of life as we know it”). But every new technology alters life as we know it. Automobiles, phones, computers, TV, the Internet – all have radically changed society and life as we knew it.
We all live through a mini-apocalypse with every new technology that is introduced. The disruptive effect of technology is so pervasive throughout history as to be a part of the human condition. Civilization has been under assault since its inception, and we have always found a way to survive.
In Robogenesis, I tried to take this basic human struggle to a frightening next level – pushing my characters to the limits of their ingenuity as they struggle to adapt to powerful sentient technologies. Only time will tell if I succeeded, but I sure do hope that those ten years in the trenches were worth it.