Is the end near?

Daniel H. Wilson's Robopocalypse plots a robot uprising in the near future, but (so far) the science is still fiction

It starts out slowly--so slowly people don't realize what's happening. One robot malfunctions, attacking a human. Soon more robots fail, turning on humans, hunting them down and slaughtering them. Some of the survivors are forced into labor camps, where they undergo bizarre cyborg experiments. Others fight the robots. Daniel H. Wilson's book Robopocalypse paints a bleak picture of the near future when robots work together to crush humans and take over the world.

Wilson's books, which include How to Survive a Robot Uprising: Tips on Defending Yourself Against the Coming Rebellion, focus on the dark side of technology--what happens when good robots go bad, what occurs when we become trapped by our own creations. His work, like that of so many other science fiction writers, speaks to our fear of technology, and that fear resonates with readers--including Steven Spielberg, who's currently working on the movie version of Robopocalypse. Anne Hathaway and Chris Hemsworth are slated to star in the film, which is tentatively scheduled for 2014 release. (Recent reports in Hollywood trade papers suggest the film is being delayed.)

In Robopocalypse, a highly intelligent robot named Archos infects the world's other robots--companions, domestic helpers, smart homes, boxy drones, manufacturing robots and cars--with a virus that causes them to seek out humans and kill them. Many of these robots resemble existing robots in our real-life world; the self-driving cars bear an eerie resemblance to driverless vehicles developed at CMU, Google and elsewhere, while the humanoid robots sound like a more advanced version of the Wabian robots at Japan's Waseda University.

"There isn't anything inherently scary about robots," says Matt Mason, professor of computer science and director of CMU's Robotics Institute. Sometimes they're bad, other times they're good.

Indeed, asks Mason, "Isn't the reason that we're interested in robots because they're so much like us?"

Robots have played important roles in literature, TV and movies for generations--centuries, if you count Homer's description in the Iliad of Hephaestus using an army of metal men to build his armor. Fictional robots fulfill different roles in our imaginations. They have to solve problems and move in the physical world, like humans. They're helpers such as RoboCop, or Rosie, the Jetsons' maid, and they're killers like the Cybermen of "Doctor Who" or the Cylons of "Battlestar Galactica."

But Mason says robots do possess an essential quality that makes them perfect villains: "If you want to write a scary book — you need a smart enemy."

Robots are certainly smart, and getting smarter. The most interesting part about Wilson's book--and what makes it different from many other sci-fi books--is that Wilson, an SCS alumnus, makes a distinction between mere intelligence and actual human consciousness, Mason says.

But he notes that according to Moravec's Paradox--named for Hans Moravec, an adjunct faculty member at the RI--it's easier to create a fast-thinking robot than one that can master complex locomotion. (Mason jokes that "maybe there are already evil robots out there who just have found (human) minions to carry out their plans.")

Put another way, machines may be able to process information quicker or better than humans, but it's harder to train a robot to fold a towel than it is to train a robot to think through chess moves like a grandmaster.

That's one of the ways that Wilson's book differs from many other sci-fi adventures. Wilson (CS'03, '04, '05) doesn't create a dystopia where the evil robots are humanoids, like those depicted in "Battlestar Galactica" or Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Instead, in Wilson's world, boxy hunks of metal perched on insect-like legs lead the bloody revolution, while smart cars weed out the human population.

In other words, Wilson's robots are only a bit more advanced that our current technology, making it seem as if there could be monsters in labs and even in our homes. It makes a robot like Archos--seemingly limited in his mobility--a more realistic threat than an army of murderous humanoid robots yet to be devised.

Are robots currently as smart as those depicted in Wilson's books? Self-driving cars and automated drones are certainly sophisticated, as Chris Atkeson, a professor of robotics and human-computer interaction at CMU. He also served as Wilson's Ph.D. advisor at CMU.

"Google has cars that drive themselves and those cars have to make tough decisions on their own," Atkeson says. "That takes pretty subtle thinking." But he adds a caveat: "I think there is a greater cognitive capacity in (Wilson's) robots than what we have now, in that they are thinking like people. And we haven't achieved that yet."

Wilson says his fiction is informed and inspired by his education at CMU. Growing up, he enjoyed science fiction "like a lot of scientists do," he says in an interview. "Ultimately, I learned how to program as a kid and that gave me a real creative release — I was able to program computers to do creative stuff. Then when I learned there was such a thing as (artificial intelligence), I got really excited."

But Wilson didn't really feel that his science fiction resonated until he started studying real computer science and robotics. He was still in CMU's Ph.D. program when he began writing the semi-serious book that became How to Survive a Robot Uprising, which was released in 2005 and won Wired magazine's "Rave" award the following year.

"Technology and robotics are having more and more of an impact on people's lives," Wilson says. "We're afraid of machines because we're afraid of them becoming too powerful." But he adds that fear of robots varies by country. In Japan, for instance, people embrace robots and one of its most popular heroes is Astro Boy, an animated robot who saves the world.

What makes so many people so terrified of robots? "I am going to play psychoanalyst," says Atkeson, noting that robots "act like children. A critical part of growing up and becoming independent is rejecting your parents and going off and doing your own thing."

Robots are stronger and smarter than humans. Combine this with the idea that many believe humans would mistreat robots--making them second-class citizens--and it's easy to imagine a resulting horrible revolution as robots "grow up," reject their human "parents," and seek vengeance.

Wilson's latest book, Amped, takes place at Pittsburgh's Taylor Allderdice High School and explores what happens when people become inseparable from their technology. In Amped, some of the characters have neural implants that were originally intended to help people overcome handicaps. But these neural implants are making people smarter--superior to other humans.

"It's another techno-thriller, a story of a civil-rights movement that is sparked when people with disabilities use neural implants to become smarter," Wilson says. "It's really the difference between us fighting the robots and us becoming the robots."

Wilson is now at work on a sequel to Robopocalypse and plans to continue exploring technology and the power it holds over us. "I am pro-technology--the more power the better," he says, "but the more technology we have, the more our lives depend on it."
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Jason Togyer | 412-268-8721 |