Their last book, Ghost Fleet, had parts that rang truer than others, but I really enjoyed it. Ghost Fleet’s portrayal of US Marines liberating a US state from foreign occupation added up. As a former grunt, I could absolutely see a senior leader eating an Osprey ramp under full combat load on insert, breaking his nose and getting stuck fighting that way for days.
On the other hand, the war widow turned murder-hooker or the grizzled Navy Chief’s love story seemed harder to buy (everybody knows Chiefs don’t have hearts). Basically, you read Ghost Fleet for the rail guns not the feels. So you can imagine my surprise when I picked up Burn-In and found the storyline of the Marine war-bot wrangler turned FBI agent’s disaster of a homelife just as compelling as the high stakes domestic terrorist hunt she was leading. It might be the pandemic talking, but the upside-down outside world following the characters home and wreaking havoc on their relationships will be equal parts release and escape for anybody who’s spent a little too much time at home over the past several months.
Big tech offers a utopian view of our connected future but Burn-In plays trends forward and explores the dystopian outcomes lurking around the corner. Ever feel a pang of guilt when you hand over your biometric data without reading the terms and conditions or connect your new toaster to the cloud? Burn-In will make you painfully aware of what all that data can do in the wrong hands.
The book is extensively researched and footnoted so the reader can link the real world to the future storyline. Did I mention there’s a ninja robot, plagues visited on DC, and elite hostage rescue FBI agents fighting in exoskeletons?
Burn-In hits the e-shelves today and We Are The Mighty recently caught up with Peter Singer to talk about the coming technological revolution, the future of terrorism, and tactical robots.
WATM: The characters in Burn-In are living through a technological revolution not that dissimilar from the pandemic-induced disruption we’re all living through. The economic upheaval follows the characters home, straining their relationships, upending their careers and even changing their identities. How did you paint this picture so accurately?
Singer: A lot of the trends that the book explores in this future that’s a mix of fiction and nonfiction are at play in the pandemic—from the move toward AI and automation, to the challenges of greater amounts of distrust in our politics and our society, to critical infrastructure and public services that are more brittle than we ever wanted to admit—and coronavirus has drastically accelerated them. Much of the population has been rapidly thrown into distance learning, remote work or unemployment.
Telemedicine is now used at a level that no one anticipated would happen for at least a decade. Robots are policing curfews and cleaning subways and hospitals. AI and data tracking implementations are rolling out that go beyond even the most wild science fiction. It’s guaranteed that we’re not going to go back to the way it was before, so all of the tough social, political, legal, moral, security issues that our character wrestles with in this future are going to come faster for us in the real world.
WATM: The term sabotage was coined when workers fought back against technology in the Industrial Revolution. What will be the first flashpoints between workers and robots?
Singer: Science fiction is starting to come true but the reality is very different from the familiar story lines. The word ‘robot’ was coined a hundred years ago and there’s an early 1920s sci-fi play that’s informed our fears of robot overlords since. In the play mechanical servants wised up and rose up—it’s always been a story of robot rebellion. Instead, what’s happening is that we’re going through an Industrial Revolution. Revolutions have a good and a bad side. The Industrial Revolution gave us mass consumer goods and modern concepts of rights but it also gave birth to climate change and new political ideologies like fascism and communism that we spend the next 100 years working our way through.
We’re entering a technological revolution with three key trends. The first is job replacement and displacement and it won’t be just a matter of changing the tool in someone’s hand in an early factory. This is a tool that takes on the job of the people, whether they’re lawyers or soldiers. A McKinsey study argues that AI and automation will replace over 40% of current occupations in the next 20 years.
Second are the new ethical, legal, moral questions that always accompany new technology but go further this time because they’re now about machine permissibility and machine accountability. What do you allow the machine to do on its own and who’s in control? These questions impact everything from combat to your kids getting to soccer practice and there are already real world examples such as the fatal Tesla wreck. Who was responsible? The human driver that wasn’t driving? The municipality that allowed it to be deployed before there were good laws? The software programmer?
The third set of issues involve new kinds of security vulnerabilities. We’ve mostly thought about cyber security as information theft: stealing a jet fighter design or stealing credit card information. Instead as we move into this new world cyber means will be used to cause kinetic damage like any other kind of weapon. There will be new kinds of attacks and crimes such as a murder conducted via a smartphone hack or the ability to hold all of Washingtion DC hostage through critical infrastructure control (DC has flooded before). A country that’s divided politically, socially, economically is less able to weather that kind of change.
The Industrial Revolution was rife with outbreaks of extremism and worker protests that morphed into what we’d now call insurgency and terrorism. In 1814 more British soldiers were fighting Luddites at home than were deployed in the War of 1812. Luddites were craftsmen who were put out of work by the early factories and in turn, they assassinated factory owners and orchestrated street violence to try and check technological progress. What does it look like when a modern Luddite doesn’t have a hammer and a musket but a drone, an AR-15 and malware?
WATM: The book takes place decades from now but the social media landscape is recognizable. Users provide their data freely and live in a completely connected world. Events trend in real time and the characters have to navigate the consequences of the culture of influence during a terror attack. Is social media as we’ve come to know it inevitable?
Singer: There’s a lot of action in the book but the scariest scene to me is when Lara Keegan, the protagonist, takes her little girl to the Starbucks of the future and the staff greets them by name. Lara has an internal dialogue asking herself if they know her by name because she’s been coming there for years or because of face recognition technology and a record of her visits in the past. Is there a human connection or not? We’re always going to be trading back and forth between privacy, security and convenience and that balancing act is something that will touch every aspect of our lives: how we interact with government and businesses, who we are politically, and what happens at home.
Who is going to own the information and who is going to be able to access it? The individual, the private sector, or the government? We talk about this with Twitter and FaceBook now but there will soon be other dimensions including the camera on the street and the delivery robot. An observer will not only be able to know what you’re doing right now, but could access all of your life’s history, and shape the decisions you make in the future. You will not always be conscious of this shaping. What can we do? We have to understand the ecosystem—if you’re ignorant of it you’re just a target.
The next step is implementing things that support the better and limit the bad. How do we protect privacy and limit malicious influence? Deepfakes are in the book and they’re also being used to misinform during the pandemic. The Belgian premier was just targeted with a deepfake. The book explores virtual watermarks and that type of verification is possibly the policy path out of deepfakes and malicious disinformation.
If you’re stuck at home, it might as well be with a great book. Pick up Burn-In and you’ll find that your quarantine just got a whole lot more interesting.