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'Robopocalypse': Talkin' robot Armageddon (Q&A)

Daniel Wilson's new novel, "Robopocalypse," chronicles humanity's fight against millions of murderous robots run by an omniscient AI. Perfect summer reading.


Skynet? That's so 1980s. Evil artificial intelligence has a new name, and it's Archos.

Archos is the villain in Daniel Wilson's new novel "Robopocalypse," and it's bad-ass. The time is the near future, and Archos has taken control of every intelligent machine on the planet, from household robots to airplane autopilots to self-driving cars. All of them are trying to kill or enslave humans:

In the first months after Zero Hour, billions of people around the world began a fight for survival. Many were murdered by technology they had come to trust: automobiles, domestic robots, and smart buildings. Others were captured and led to the forced-labor camps that sprang up outside major cities. But for the people who ran for the hills to fend for themselves--the refugees--other human beings soon proved to be just as dangerous as Rob. Or more so. ("Robopocalypse," p. 195)

The premise isn't new. But Wilson, who has a doctorate in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University, invests it with a remarkable realism. It's also a fast-paced, multifaceted tale of survival told by characters ranging from an elderly engineer in Japan to a U.S. Army technician in Afghanistan to a resistance fighter in Alaska. As relentless as a Predator drone, this mind-bending thriller will make you tread a lot more carefully around your Roomba.

At age 33, Daniel Wilson already has seven books under his belt. Anna Camille Long

Published earlier this month, "Robopocalypse" is already on The New York Times bestseller list, and Steven Spielberg is set to direct a film version. I've known Wilson since we were both flogging books about robots and caught up with him on his tour to promote "Robopocalypse."

Q: Robots destroying mankind has been done myriad times. Why did you want to ride this old horse for this novel?
Wilson: My goal with "Robopocalypse" was to allow the reader to hit the ground running. For this reason, I set the story in the near future, chose not to focus on tedious technological details, and used a familiar robot uprising story setup. Once the reader is in my world, however, things quickly become more complex and interesting.

You've got a Ph.D. in robotics from CMU. How many evil robots have you built, and what do you make of President Obama telling folks there last week that, as commander-in-chief, his job is to "keep an eye" on robots?
Wilson: Robots are tools that can be used for good or evil, but to my knowledge no scientist has ever intentionally built an evil robot. Robots clearly have an image problem. I think it's because in the United States robots entered pop culture as movie monsters in the 1950s. Unlike other monsters (e.g., mummies, vampires, and zombies), robots have actually transitioned into real-world technology that is in our lives. Unfortunately, that movie monster stigma hasn't yet fallen away. But I trust that someday it will.

You've got plenty of scary robots in your story. Did you draw inspiration from real machines? How concerned should we be about the ongoing robotization of the U.S. military? Will there always be a "human in the loop"?
Wilson: Each of my scary robots is based intensively upon real-world robotics technology. You can think of every robot as the solution to a problem. Sometimes people set out to solve military problems, and the result is a military robot.

In some cases, having a "human in the loop" is advantageous. In other cases, it is not feasible to consult a human before pulling the trigger--such as for land mines, autonomous hunter-killer torpedoes, and ship-to-air defense systems that target and annihilate incoming missiles.

Autonomous weapons have been around for ages. That's why I'm not any more worried about robotics technology in warfare than I am about other technology used in warfare. War drives progress, and progress isn't slowing down anytime soon.

When do you think general-purpose robots (not, say, machines dedicated to vacuuming) might become common in households?
Wilson: The most human-friendly shape for a robot to take is our own. For that reason, I believe humanoid robots will someday be a common sight in our cities and homes. Unfortunately, interacting with human beings poses a set of incredibly difficult problems that must be solved at the same time: speech recognition, gesture recognition, bipedal locomotion, grasping, and object manipulation, etc. It could easily take a few decades to solve these problems in a cost-efficient way. Until then, we will continue to see single-purpose consumer robots like vacuums and floor scrubbers.

Let's say all those Skynet blog comments prove prophetic and Skynet comes true. For those who won't have a copy of another of your books, "How to Survive a Robot Uprising," (Skynet will have destroyed all copies, natch), what do you advise for staying alive?
Wilson: To survive the Robopocalypse, take full advantage of your human adaptability and ingenuity. Move to a rural environment that is not robot friendly, or use demolition techniques to create a hostile environment. Watch your enemy and learn his strengths and weaknesses. Meanwhile, constantly change your own tactics and remain unpredictable. If it comes down to it, go for the sensors.

You've got a film version of "Robopocalypse" in the works. What's next for you?
Wilson: I'm currently writing my next novel, entitled "AMP." It is about a near-term future in which a human rights movement is sparked when people begin incorporating technology into their bodies. The film rights sold to Summit, with Alex Proyas tentatively attached to direct. I'm also screenwriting the remake of a 1980s movie called "Cherry 2000."

Sounds fascinating. Thanks for your time!