An FBI agent races through the decaying streets of a future Washington D.C., transported in a self-driving car and accompanied by a super-intelligent police robot. Law-enforcement and delivery drones jostle in the airspace overhead and the agent’s vision is filtered through Augmented Reality glasses into lines of code, the physical world a mere blur behind a cyber haze. The robot feeds the agent algorithmic projections of the location of a megalomaniacal hacker intent on the destruction of American society, and the agent barks at the automated vehicle to speed up as impending destruction races closer. Anyone intrigued by such a scene will undoubtedly delight in the novel it is taken from, Peter W. Singer and August Cole’s new work Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution. The second of their collaborations following a previous novel on futuristic warfare, the authors seek to blend pulse-pounding thrills with cutting-edge research into such topics as machine-learning, artificial intelligence, and automation. The authors describe their own goal as creating “useful fiction,” drama that can simultaneously entertain and inform. At this they resoundingly succeed, presenting a highly entertaining techno-thriller that also wrestles with the challenge of how America and the world can adapt to a world increasingly dominated by machines.
As the title makes clear, the focus of the book is on the fast-evolving field of robotics and its implications for human society. As Special Agent Lara Keegan races against time to uncover an insidious conspiracy in the nation’s capital, the authors fill her future world with the manifestations of today’s rapidly accelerating presence of automation and robotics. Set about 20 years in the future, the book imagines a world that would be nearly unrecognizable to those living today. The future streets of D.C. are full of the aimless unemployed, their jobs lost to automation and their only refuge VR headsets that transport them to whatever fantasy they desire. Machine intelligence has advanced so far that even once-safe fields such as Law or Finance have been taken over by algorithms capable of efficient calculations far beyond the individual human brain. Trust in the social contract has disintegrated as no one can be certain that their hard work one day will not be replaced by a machine the next. Order has broken down as the government struggles to provide for the masses displaced by automation, many of whom have been radicalized in extreme virtual communities. In many ways, the future world Singer and Cole present is a bleak one, characterized by technological disruption that pushes American society to the breaking point. The massive technological change envisioned by the authors combines with the now-familiar political dysfunction in D.C. to create a city and a nation on the brink of collapse. The authors suggest that without creative and urgent solutions to the technological problems that are metastasizing even now, American society will struggle to survive in the near future.
Hope in Burn-In comes from an unlikely source, a new model of police robot that Agent Keegan at first views with outright hostility but comes to trust as the story unfolds. Labeled TAMS (Tactical Autonomous Mobility System), the robot combines physical ability with breathtaking computing capacity, able to extrapolate from a face on the street a vast web of connections, ranging from criminal records to preferred musical playlist and so on. Keegan and TAMS’ relationship hearkens back to the classic archetype of hardboiled cop and fresh rookie, which the authors use to explore concepts of machine-learning and the potential for artificial intelligence to fill gaps in human ability. At first a blank slate and little more than a drone, TAMS quickly soaks up data from Keegan and the situations they find themselves in to become an adept and effective partner, still lacking intuitive human knowledge but able to contribute through split-second algorithmic connections and superior physical strength. TAMS represents a counterpoint to the widespread distrust of machines in the book, becoming a model for human-machine collaboration rather than replacement. The authors plainly expect a vast deal of disruption from automation in the coming years and offer no easy solutions for the widespread suffering that will likely follow. Through TAMS however, the authors suggest that the only sustainable way forward in robotics is to find ways for humans and machines to partner symbiotically as much as possible and to complement one another’s strengths in innovative ways.
Burn-In is ultimately an urgent wake-up call to policymakers, experts, and laymen to acknowledge the coming challenges of automation and robotics and craft solutions to meet them. Every science-fiction feature in the book is linked to copious endnotes that connect them to current technological trends and research. Indeed, those interested in the issues the book explores might spend as much time poring over the extensive reference section as they do reading the book itself. Singer and Cole, both experts on the intersection of national security and emerging technologies, convincingly make the case that the trends they project are already apparent, in the increasing ubiquity of automated machinery in the economy as well as the advancing sophistication of military drones. The book succeeds brilliantly in making the reader realize that developments which people take for granted today, such as self-serve kiosks in McDonalds or machine-dominated factories with just a few humans visible, would have been unimaginable just a few short years ago. Technological trends are accelerating at breathtaking speed and without deep reflection and problem-solving such trends will leave much of society behind. While there might never be a TAMS robot in every FBI field office, there will undoubtedly be a vast explosion in the impact of robotics in the coming years, potentially turning the world of Burn-In from a fantasy into a rapidly approaching reality.
About the Author:
Reid Barbier is a graduate student in the School of International Service at American University. He is currently working towards his masters degree in the Foreign Policy and National Security program.