.
S

peculative or science fiction is less a predictive medium than a reflective one. For as much as it talks about advanced technology or trends far off into the future, it is much more a mirror to the times in which the author and their readers are living. Those trends and events, be it sentient machines or post-apocalyptic dystopias say much more about the anxieties of that time period than they do about what could come to pass.

Book Review. Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution, by P.W. Singer and August Cole, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (May 2020).

Here, authors P.W. Singer and August Cole excel. The subtitle of Burn-In, “A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution” is perfectly suited. Burn-In is not about the rise of the machines in the Arnold Schwarzenegger “Terminator” sense. Delightful though that film is, the likelihood of it taking place is miniscule compared to both the world created by Singer and Cole and the story they craft in this universe. Burn-In is a thought-provoking and philosophical summer blockbuster; it is Michael Bay meets Stephen Hawking, and it is fantastic.

Set in Washington, DC and its surrounding environs, Burn-In follows FBI Agent Lara Keegan as she navigates a world that is both eerily familiar and, perhaps, just around the corner. Automation and machine learning have dramatically reshaped this world. Jobs, including many white-collar jobs, have been replaced by artificial intelligence, robots, and drones. Fewer people are needed for employment, yet economic productivity is surging. Her husband, Jared, a lawyer, is put out of work due to algorithmic legal counsel and earns a fraction of his income tending to the elderly through virtual reality. Their daughter, Hayley, bounces about their Ballston apartment with AI playmates in both virtual reality and augmented reality.  

Everyone is fully connected, constantly, via AR/VR goggles, wearable technologies, and the ubiquity of internet-connected and internet-enabled devices. This is a world where you cannot escape technology even if you wanted to, and there are groups that very much want to do so.

The result of this automation is societal upheaval. The social contract or the social expectation of mobility is shattered. Going to school and getting a degree is no longer a guaranteed pathway to the middle class. An undescribed economic downturn further exacerbated these pressures putting many unemployed, living in camps around the metro DC area. A group of veterans is encamped outside the Capitol building and squatters live in the formerly high-end apartments in City Center DC—where workers today get $20 smoothies. Even the FBI is shunted to a disused mall outside the District as a result of the downturn and politics.

The divide between the haves and the have nots in this world rapidly expanded as ownership of data streams resulted in unimaginable wealth—data in this future is generated in quantities unfathomable today. Every person is emitting data on a second-by-second basis, every household item is composed of sensors; data is truly the new oil in this world, even more so than it is in ours today. Drones, driverless cars, and flying taxis are the norm, but exist alongside more “analog” non-networked technologies.

In this world, Keegan is assigned a new robot partner, TAMS, as part of a pilot program. The desirability of this project’s success is unclear. TAMS is grounded in reality and extrapolated from real-world technologies to be wholly believable—if just on the edge of believability. How Keegan works with TAMS and confronts the duties of law enforcement with a robotic partner is fascinating to watch. TAMS is clearly a more able partner, scaling buildings to pursue a suspect, performing rapid link and network analysis, tapping into data feeds, and pushing pertinent information to Keegan. But for all of that, TAMS is still a machine that needs to learn and ingest more data to be more efficient and more effective.

In lesser hands than Singer and Cole, this human-robot partnership could have easily descended into cop-and-buddy farce, but it doesn’t. Not even close. The authors use this relationship to explore some of the most complex questions of humanity, our relationship with machines, the ethical and moral dilemmas associated with artificial intelligence, and the societal impact of these technological revolutions.

Keegan and TAMS spend the book pursuing a techno-terrorist and, without going into the plot in too much detail, the motivations of the terrorist are familiar and reflective of a lot of society’s angst about technology and the extent to which we place our faith and trust in machines. Along the way, Keegan and TAMS encounter an eccentric, visionary billionaire, a firebrand Senator, and bureaucratic inertia and politics (it is nice to see that for as many things change, some things never will).  

The plot is tightly written, rich and vibrant, and with very well-developed characters. It is incredibly detailed and well researched. Burn-In has extensive endnotes that show the depth of research as well as the real-world grounding of what Singer and Cole created.

As someone who grew up reading original Tom Clancy (i.e. the first four books) reading Burn-In, I found myself reminiscing about the joys of a detailed techno-thriller with a great plot. Too often the thriller genre today is dominated by larger-than-life former special forces/SEAL heroes that single-handedly save the day, stop the bomb from going off, and give the finger to “politicians” all while taking down countless *insert generic bad guy figure here*. Burn-In is not that kind of book and it is so refreshing.

As a reader, I find myself more often than not disengaged from fiction. For some reason I find it challenging to truly get into a story, to suspend disbelief, and simply allow the narrative to flow. I try to dissect the plot, find out who did what to whom and when, and identify the dog that didn’t bark. I rarely read a book that fully engrosses me, that pulls me into the plot and its characters and allows me to shut that part of my brain off. Burn-In is one of those books. I read it in nearly one sitting, putting it down only to respond to automated work chimes demanding my attention, apt enough for a story about how machines and automation are coming to dominate our lives.

Look at the trends Singer and Cole extrapolate; one can’t help but be alarmed. The amount of data we willingly surrender is only going to increase. Companies will monetize that data at greater and greater rates, using it to drive our behavior and habits. The inability of Congress to act without massive external stimuli will continue. Automation and economic dislocation are only going to worsen as robotics become cheaper and more capable, and algorithms become more advanced, and machine learning more effective.

The economic pressure on those least able to handle it will only increase and, in all likelihood, rapidly climb the socio-economic ladder, catching those in the middle and upper-middle class by surprise. Law enforcement will find itself playing catch up to emerging technologies and their societal implications. Human intelligence collection will become increasingly challenging, if not impossible in a fully data transparent environment that is constantly generating data.

While Singer and Cole don’t come to any conclusion one way or the other—whether technology is good or bad, whether we should halt or accelerate AI development, or what should be done to address the inevitable inequalities that will happen—they serve as a fantastic guide to these questions and dilemmas. I’m not a book club-person, but I would love to read this book with friends just to debate the issues they discuss.

Their previous work, Ghost Fleet, rapidly became required reading within the Pentagon. It described a potential conflict with China, how America’s technological edge could erode, and what the current trends could mean for the future. Burn-In needs to become that kind of book for the general public. The way the authors artfully craft and weave in complex philosophical debates into this techno-thriller is probably the best way to get people to engage with the real trends that are happening today.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

a global affairs media network

www.diplomaticourier.com

Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution

May 17, 2020

Book Review. Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution, by P.W. Singer and August Cole, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (May 2020).

S

peculative or science fiction is less a predictive medium than a reflective one. For as much as it talks about advanced technology or trends far off into the future, it is much more a mirror to the times in which the author and their readers are living. Those trends and events, be it sentient machines or post-apocalyptic dystopias say much more about the anxieties of that time period than they do about what could come to pass.

Book Review. Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution, by P.W. Singer and August Cole, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (May 2020).

Here, authors P.W. Singer and August Cole excel. The subtitle of Burn-In, “A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution” is perfectly suited. Burn-In is not about the rise of the machines in the Arnold Schwarzenegger “Terminator” sense. Delightful though that film is, the likelihood of it taking place is miniscule compared to both the world created by Singer and Cole and the story they craft in this universe. Burn-In is a thought-provoking and philosophical summer blockbuster; it is Michael Bay meets Stephen Hawking, and it is fantastic.

Set in Washington, DC and its surrounding environs, Burn-In follows FBI Agent Lara Keegan as she navigates a world that is both eerily familiar and, perhaps, just around the corner. Automation and machine learning have dramatically reshaped this world. Jobs, including many white-collar jobs, have been replaced by artificial intelligence, robots, and drones. Fewer people are needed for employment, yet economic productivity is surging. Her husband, Jared, a lawyer, is put out of work due to algorithmic legal counsel and earns a fraction of his income tending to the elderly through virtual reality. Their daughter, Hayley, bounces about their Ballston apartment with AI playmates in both virtual reality and augmented reality.  

Everyone is fully connected, constantly, via AR/VR goggles, wearable technologies, and the ubiquity of internet-connected and internet-enabled devices. This is a world where you cannot escape technology even if you wanted to, and there are groups that very much want to do so.

The result of this automation is societal upheaval. The social contract or the social expectation of mobility is shattered. Going to school and getting a degree is no longer a guaranteed pathway to the middle class. An undescribed economic downturn further exacerbated these pressures putting many unemployed, living in camps around the metro DC area. A group of veterans is encamped outside the Capitol building and squatters live in the formerly high-end apartments in City Center DC—where workers today get $20 smoothies. Even the FBI is shunted to a disused mall outside the District as a result of the downturn and politics.

The divide between the haves and the have nots in this world rapidly expanded as ownership of data streams resulted in unimaginable wealth—data in this future is generated in quantities unfathomable today. Every person is emitting data on a second-by-second basis, every household item is composed of sensors; data is truly the new oil in this world, even more so than it is in ours today. Drones, driverless cars, and flying taxis are the norm, but exist alongside more “analog” non-networked technologies.

In this world, Keegan is assigned a new robot partner, TAMS, as part of a pilot program. The desirability of this project’s success is unclear. TAMS is grounded in reality and extrapolated from real-world technologies to be wholly believable—if just on the edge of believability. How Keegan works with TAMS and confronts the duties of law enforcement with a robotic partner is fascinating to watch. TAMS is clearly a more able partner, scaling buildings to pursue a suspect, performing rapid link and network analysis, tapping into data feeds, and pushing pertinent information to Keegan. But for all of that, TAMS is still a machine that needs to learn and ingest more data to be more efficient and more effective.

In lesser hands than Singer and Cole, this human-robot partnership could have easily descended into cop-and-buddy farce, but it doesn’t. Not even close. The authors use this relationship to explore some of the most complex questions of humanity, our relationship with machines, the ethical and moral dilemmas associated with artificial intelligence, and the societal impact of these technological revolutions.

Keegan and TAMS spend the book pursuing a techno-terrorist and, without going into the plot in too much detail, the motivations of the terrorist are familiar and reflective of a lot of society’s angst about technology and the extent to which we place our faith and trust in machines. Along the way, Keegan and TAMS encounter an eccentric, visionary billionaire, a firebrand Senator, and bureaucratic inertia and politics (it is nice to see that for as many things change, some things never will).  

The plot is tightly written, rich and vibrant, and with very well-developed characters. It is incredibly detailed and well researched. Burn-In has extensive endnotes that show the depth of research as well as the real-world grounding of what Singer and Cole created.

As someone who grew up reading original Tom Clancy (i.e. the first four books) reading Burn-In, I found myself reminiscing about the joys of a detailed techno-thriller with a great plot. Too often the thriller genre today is dominated by larger-than-life former special forces/SEAL heroes that single-handedly save the day, stop the bomb from going off, and give the finger to “politicians” all while taking down countless *insert generic bad guy figure here*. Burn-In is not that kind of book and it is so refreshing.

As a reader, I find myself more often than not disengaged from fiction. For some reason I find it challenging to truly get into a story, to suspend disbelief, and simply allow the narrative to flow. I try to dissect the plot, find out who did what to whom and when, and identify the dog that didn’t bark. I rarely read a book that fully engrosses me, that pulls me into the plot and its characters and allows me to shut that part of my brain off. Burn-In is one of those books. I read it in nearly one sitting, putting it down only to respond to automated work chimes demanding my attention, apt enough for a story about how machines and automation are coming to dominate our lives.

Look at the trends Singer and Cole extrapolate; one can’t help but be alarmed. The amount of data we willingly surrender is only going to increase. Companies will monetize that data at greater and greater rates, using it to drive our behavior and habits. The inability of Congress to act without massive external stimuli will continue. Automation and economic dislocation are only going to worsen as robotics become cheaper and more capable, and algorithms become more advanced, and machine learning more effective.

The economic pressure on those least able to handle it will only increase and, in all likelihood, rapidly climb the socio-economic ladder, catching those in the middle and upper-middle class by surprise. Law enforcement will find itself playing catch up to emerging technologies and their societal implications. Human intelligence collection will become increasingly challenging, if not impossible in a fully data transparent environment that is constantly generating data.

While Singer and Cole don’t come to any conclusion one way or the other—whether technology is good or bad, whether we should halt or accelerate AI development, or what should be done to address the inevitable inequalities that will happen—they serve as a fantastic guide to these questions and dilemmas. I’m not a book club-person, but I would love to read this book with friends just to debate the issues they discuss.

Their previous work, Ghost Fleet, rapidly became required reading within the Pentagon. It described a potential conflict with China, how America’s technological edge could erode, and what the current trends could mean for the future. Burn-In needs to become that kind of book for the general public. The way the authors artfully craft and weave in complex philosophical debates into this techno-thriller is probably the best way to get people to engage with the real trends that are happening today.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.