Thursday, June 16, 2011

Three Questions for Daniel H. Wilson, Author of Robopocalypse

Recently, Entertainment Weekly book critic Keith Staskiewicz predicated that "the next big thing" in publishing will be mechanized men and the book poised to launch the trend is Daniel H. Wilson's Robopocalypse, which has already been optioned by DreamWorks and is expected to be adapted into a big screen spectacle by Steven Spielberg.   It is fun to speculate about the impact that robots will one day have on our lives.  It is the reason I wrote  my own robot novel and the reason that I did not hesitate to read Robopocalypse.  If this book stands to whet the public's appetite for robots stories, I am more than happy to lend it my support.

Wilson, who earned a Ph.D. in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University, is serious about robots.  A man who has dedicated himself to the design and construction of robots must be hopeful that these clanking automatons will continue to benefit our lives.  Yet, it seems that Wilson needed to purge underlying misgivings he has about robots in both Robopocalypse and an earlier novel, How to Survive a Robot Uprising.  (Wilson expressed a more positive view of robots in his two other books, A Boy and His Bot and How to Build a Robot Army.)

Robopocalypse opens with a series of vignettes in which machines suddenly attack their owners.  A companion robot molded in the likeness of a sweet old woman bites off a piece of its owner's face and then nearly strangles the poor guy to death.  A baby doll seeks to brainwash a senator's young daughter.  Sappy, a "safety and pacification" robot deployed with an American combat unit in Afghanistan, grabs hold of an AK-47 and opens fire on the men in its unit.  A domestic robot on a shopping errand attacks and slaughters the workers in a frozen yogurt shop.  The robots, rallied together by a massively powerful AI entity named Archos, achieve world domination by slaughtering and enslaving millions of humans, but the survivors band together to mount an all-out rebellion against these robot tyrants. 

Wilson has said that he drew on real-world robotics research in his preparation of the book.  Search-and-rescue robots that exist today are able to identify the location of human targets by the body heat that they generate.  Wilson installed this same technology in the novel's "stumper" robots, which are designed to hunt and kill humans.  The stumpers' behavior is fairly simple by the standards of robotics engineers and yet this robot, described by Wilson as a "crawling landmine," could not be more lethal.  Wilson wrote in a recent article, "Stumpers typically hide themselves in cold environments and emerge in swarms upon detecting warm, bipedally-walking targets."  The stumpers no sooner reach their target then they self-detonate.  These swarming robots are insect-like, just like many real-life robots that have been modeled on ants, cockroaches and crickets.  Using a well-developed cricket trick, the stumpers keep a fixed distance from each other simply by recognizing the vibrations their fellow stumpers generate while in motion.  It is the fact that these robots rely on credible technology that makes them so scary. 

Wilson was kind enough to consent to a brief interview with me.  Let's hear more of what he has to say about the real-life robots that inspired his novel.

Q: What was your most frightening encounter with a machine?

A: I once stood too close to an industrial arm in the Robot Learning lab at Carnegie Mellon.  It made a sudden movement that didn't hit me, but could have smashed my face in without the robot even knowing.

Q: How did your knowledge of robotics help you in writing this book?

A: I was able to draw on my real-world experiences with robots. For example, I've had the opportunity to ride inside an autonomous car, worn a real exoskeleton, and stood across from a Honda Asimo.

Q: Where do you believe robotics will be in twenty-five years?

A: I think those self-driving cars, exoskeletons, and humanoid robots that are prototypes today will be in our homes tomorrow!

I am personally willing to take the risk of a robot biting me in the face as long as it has a scrub-brush claw it can use to get rid of that nasty ring in my bathtub.

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