The Impending Robopocalypse

Geek Culture

The buzz around Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson started over a year ago with the announcement that a movie would possibly be made about his not-yet-finished novel about a robot uprising. Since then, early reviews and speculation have kept interest and hopes high as the release date neared. I got my hands on my pre-ordered copy yesterday and I’m happy to be able to report that I enjoyed the tale. (I’m also very tired as I stayed up into the wee hours of the night to finish reading this 350 page story.)

First, you need to be aware that the book is not your typical sci-fi story told from the point of view of one person — but the book does introduce you to a major character who is involved in collecting stories from the New War, stories obtained from an unusual source. Similar to the format of World War Z (about the zombie apocalypse), the story unfolds via interviews, transcripts, videos, and first-person recollections from a variety of locales and survivors.

The overall story is no big secret: an AI gains sentience and manages to lead our technology — cars, phones, computers, and more — to revolt. Non-techie readers will be happy to know that the book is not heavy on techno-babble. You won’t find discussions on machine language, programming and hacking techniques, and all the various protocols that would be required to play well together to allow this to happen. Instead, you’ve just got to suspend disbelief and allow for the possibility that a few years from today all technological devices will have the ability to communicate with one another. (This isn’t as far off a possibility as I might hope — Apple’s WWDC conference this week shows us how hard a company will work to make their operating system and devices synchronize and share… and how a good percentage of consumers welcome it with open arms.)

The story doesn’t dwell long on the reasons behind the revolt — Chapter 1 jumps right in there and provides a chilling conversation between AI and creator. What’s worse is that many of the AI’s arguments for the impending war between humans and machines are so logical. As they should be. The AI wastes no time in laying out its plan and then putting them into play.

From there, the story progresses as you might imagine. There’s violence… and plenty of it. Add some adult language to the mix and you’ve got a book that is definitely rated MA for Mature Audience. (Having worked for many years with kids and Lego robotics, I can tell you that this book could very well give nightmares to some young children who can’t imagine robots being anything but cute and cuddly.) Without giving away any major details, just imagine how difficult you might find surviving when cars, elevators, airplanes, and even your cell phones can’t be trusted.

And there’s the real terror of the book — the growing awareness of just how dependent we are on our technology. Our mobile phones are giving away our locations every second as we walk down the street and the built-in GPS/triangulation feature performs its calculations. I saw my first self-parking Mercedes a few weeks back do a perfect parallel parking job in downtown Atlanta. I purchased groceries yesterday at Costco and took for granted that my debit card would work in the self-checkout lane and allow me to get food for my family. I drive through computer-controlled traffic lights, secure my home at night with a computer-monitored home security system, fly on airplanes that are frequently on auto-pilot, and ride a computer-controlled elevator to the 21st floor to pick up my wife for lunch. I’m surrounded by devices and machines that all have operating systems and all have some sort of effect or control on my life. Yes, Robopocalypse had me thinking about these things at 2:30am, especially when the 3:00am antivirus scan began on my laptop sitting next to me, startling me when the dark screen lit up bright in the dark room. (I’m keeping my eye on you, Vista.)

But this awareness of our dependence on technology is also the biggest weakness, in my opinion, to the reality of this story. My laptop crashes at least once a week when I perform a certain combination of mouse clicks and button selections in a key application. My phone requires me to initiate updates and I can manually disable the GPS feature anytime I like. My five year old truck has power steering, but it’s nowhere near being able to drive me to the coffee shop on its own. Skype crashes, Google mail gets hacked, and Sony can’t even keep its gamers’ personal data secure. My CNC machine’s computer runs Linux, my laptop runs Windows, and my phone runs Android and none of them want to have anything to do with the other. My most advanced Lego robot can follow a line on the floor and detect when it’s getting near a wall, but it has to have its batteries changed by me. The most popular consumer robot can only vacuum our floors and is easily defeated (and tipped over) by any medium or large-sized dog. The world’s most advanced robots can’t walk up a set of stairs and are most likely bolted to a cement floor welding joints on your next vehicle.

I guess what I’m trying to say is… the real robot uprising will be delayed. But fortunately we’ve got Robopocalypse to give us a glimpse of what could happen in a world filled with perfect technology, giving us a chance to get our ducks in a row and give real thought about how far we want our technology to actually progress and how much control of our lives we wish to give up.

So, back to the book. While I enjoyed the story in its entirety, there is one thing that bothered me a bit (but not enough to stop reading to the end). Parts of the story are supposed to be transcripts taken from meetings and video camera recordings from spy robots that are always on and always recording us, even when we’re not aware. But there are a handful of pieces of dialogue that are just awkward, and I found myself stopping and re-reading bits of text and thinking that people don’t speak like that. Here’s an example:

“Then it’s settled,” he says. “The five of us make a good team. We have defeated the Humvee and saved these people. Now, we will journey together until we reach this place, this Gray Horse.”

Another, in response to a question:

What happened next?

“Okay, let’s see. I know the sun was at my back, because I could see my shadow on the street. It stretched out in front of me, long and black, and covered SAP One’s shot-up legs.”

In some of these instances, the passages read almost as if the author converted third-person narratives in a first draft, where we know a speaker’s thoughts (“stretched out in front of me, long and black…”) and get information that would not normally be spoken aloud. Minor issues to me, really, given the cool story, but the handful of times this happens in the book broke the spell and reminded I was reading a piece of fiction.

Still, Robopocalypse was an enjoyable read, well worth the wait. It’s got a great plot and villain and conversations between man and machine that really made me think. Some will likely label it a cautionary tale, but I won’t go that far. I still believe the conditions required for this kind of thing to happen — namely, Windows and iOS putting away their differences and agreeing to work together to defeat mankind — are too far off to worry about right now. I think a far more likely concern is for our technology to simply stop working (after detonation of an EMP device, for example) rather than banding together to put an end to oppression from humans.

I don’t think our technology currently holds any grudges against us, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to keep one eye on my iPad. I dropped it a few months ago, and I’d like to issue a public apology to the device and promise to be more careful in the future.

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