Author Of 'Robopocalypse' On The Future Of Robotics

In the summer science fiction book, Robopocalypse, civilization's technology develops a mind of its own and sets out to destroy humanity. Author Daniel H. Wilson, who has a Ph.D. in robotics, talks about why technology can be frightening, and how to avert the robot apocalypse.

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IRA FLATOW, host: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. President Obama launched today the National Robotics Initiative aimed at spurring interest in next-generation robotics. Speaking at Carnegie Mellon University, he quipped...

President BARACK OBAMA: You might not know this, but one my responsibilities as commander-in-chief is to keep an eye on robots, and I'm pleased to report that the robots you manufacture here seem peaceful.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

OBAMA: At least for now.

FLATOW: But what if they were not. You see, just about everything around us is really a little robot. Tiny computer chip brains are embedded in all of our machines, from your cell phone to your coffee maker, your car to your cable. What would happen if all those computer-controlled devices decided not to be peaceful but to rise up together and rebel?

Well, a new science fiction book takes these fears to the extreme. "Robopocalypse" is set in the near future, when robots get so intelligent that they have a mind of their own, they band together to destroy humankind. Sounds pretty scary. I'm not going to give away the final conclusion of the book. That's for you to find out, unless you feel complacent.

My next guest says we'd better get used to thinking about futuristic technology. Some day, you might have a robot do your chores, fight your wars. Wait, don't we have that already? Uh-oh. What would happen if they turned to attack us?

Do you have fears of technology? Do you love it? Are you reading "Robopocalypse"? Give us a call. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. You can tweet us, @scifri. Let me introduce my guest. Daniel H. Wilson is the author of the new book "Robopocalypse" and also the nonfiction book "How to Survive a Robot Uprising." And he's a contributing editor to Popular Mechanics. Also, he has a Ph.D. in robotics. He joins us from KQED in San Francisco. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

DANIEL H. WILSON: Thanks for having me.

FLATOW: Nice to have - this was a really fun book to read, and...

WILSON: Really?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Yes, it was a fun - it was a page-turner for me, at least for me, because I like science fiction, and you have created a world where everything that has a computer chip, right, decides to attack humanity.

WILSON: Well, yeah, it's set in the near future. So, you know, it is a robot uprising sort of book. But the robots don't come from outer space or the future or anything like that. So it's definitely - it's in the near future so autonomous cars are here, you know. Yeah, all the information that we've shared, that we constantly share about our locations and our social networks. Yeah, all that information, all that intimate technology really gets turned against us in this book.

FLATOW: But, you know, one of the things that struck me about that is that you remember Isaac Asimov had three rules of robotics, and they were that robots could never attack their creators. You create a whole paradigm shift in that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WILSON: Well, you know, I have to go on a little rant about the three laws, then.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WILSON: You know, a roboticist doesn't program a machine in English. You know, you can't just convey these three laws to a machine and have it obey the laws. And also, people seem to forget that Asimov crafted those three laws primarily so he could break them in really interesting ways.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

WILSON: To make all these sort of detective-like, you know, stories. And so, you know, the three laws are great to think about and to conceptualize but really difficult to actually employ in a machine.

FLATOW: Now, as I mentioned before, you are a trained scientist in robotics.

WILSON: Yeah, Carnagie Mellon.

FLATOW: And - go ahead.

WILSON: That's where Obama spoke today, so...

FLATOW: That's right. What did you think of his statement? He said yet, you know.

WILSON: You know, he's mentioned something like that before, earlier, and I've always thought that it's really funny that he has a sense of humor about it, you know. I mean, especially because he's passing - or he's, you know, he's creating funding to really build infrastructure in manufacturing, and, you know, it sort of like could very easily be boring, you know, but not whenever he...

FLATOW: Do you think we are headed in the direction of your book? I'm not talking about the revolution, the robots rising up, but that they'll be such a part of our lives in the future?

WILSON: Absolutely. I mean, I love robots, and, I mean, I love robotics, and I think they're a great addition to - they're something that people should absolutely be building. They solve a lot of problems. And I do think that, you know, we're a technological society, and we're getting more and more technology, and a lot of that is going to appear in the form of robotics and not necessarily humanoid robots.

You know, they don't have to look like people to be robots. So, you know, right now, we're in a situation where robots have their fingerprints on a lot of things that we interact with daily. You know, they are building all of our gadgets, and there's artificial intelligence algorithms that are figuring out where stuff should go on shelves, you know, in supermarkets.

They're figuring out whether we should get credit cards, and they're solving these intellectual problems that we can't deal with, but we don't actually interact with a whole lot of physical robots like we imagine in pop culture a robot looks like. You know, instead, we just live in the robot's world, and they're building it for us every day.

I think in the future, we'll have a lot more interaction with real robots, though.

FLATOW: Do you ascribe to Ray Kurzweil idea that technology is going to get infinitely more intelligent than we are?

WILSON: No, I really don't. I understand it intellectually, but if you're just in the lab, you're building a robot, okay, it is so hard to make it do anything right. I mean, it is such a huge challenge to iteratively improve on your research and to make your - to reach your goals.

And so the idea that, you know, it's just going to suddenly, exponentially, magically, on its own take off and start to get really, really smart, to me that sounds like someone telling me that, you know, elves are going to come into my shop and do all the work for me in the night, and I'm going to wake up, and it's going to be done. You know, I just - I can't see it.

FLATOW: So your book then is not a warning about the future because you don't...?

WILSON: You know, it's really not. It's framed as a robot uprising scenario so that basically you know what it's about, right, Robopocalypse. By the time you get to the fourth or fifth syllable, you know, you've got the gist of the plot.

But from there, I really try to get more complicated about what's going on. You know, it's an autonomous, you know, artificial construct. This thing is alive. It's got thoughts of its own. And so, you know, the robots in this book are not necessarily 100 percent concerned with people.

They're not out to destroy humankind, in fact. I mean, we're definitely at war with them in the book, but that's not their main goal. I mean, they've got other things going on. So, you know, that's the theme of the book.

FLATOW: I think it's cool that you had a book before, "How to Survive a Robot Uprising: Tips on Defending Yourself Against the Coming Rebellion." It's a tongue-in-cheek book of...

WILSON: Yeah, important to note that that's a humor - that goes in the humor section. Well, you know, I wrote that while I was a grad student at Carnegie Mellon, and I was actually sort of annoyed that robots are always the bad guys on television and in movies, and I'm aware that I've kind of - the irony of "Robopocalypse."

But I just went around and asked all the roboticists I knew what they would do, you know, if their robot attacked. And usually they'd say that they would take a - they'd go up one stair, you know, one step or walk away slowly. But then I asked them to sort of take it a little further.

And so "How to Survive a Robot Uprising" is really a primer about robotics. You know, it's got a lot of information about robotics, and it actually is used in some introduction to robotics courses. And it does it in kind of a fun way because human beings are just really naturally fascinated by the things that we're afraid of.

You know, and so whenever you frame things like that, it just becomes automatically more engaging somehow.

FLATOW: What made you decide to give up your career as a robot engineer and become a writer?

WILSON: You know, I got into robotics because I loved the robots in pop culture, you know, and I love how robots straddle this line. They started out as pop culture, you know, in the '50s and before then, and then - RUR(ph) - and then they kind of have become real.

And so I took a similar journey. You know, when I was younger, I was really into robotics and science fiction, and then when that didn't take off, I decided to study robotics for real, and then I had the opportunity to write about them after that. And, you know, it felt natural, so...

FLATOW: Yeah, so - and they're making a film out of your book, correct?

WILSON: Yeah, so DreamWorks optioned it, and Steven Spielberg has announced that he's going to direct it. And so my fingers are crossed on that. That's just sort of incredible news that I kind of feel like maybe I'm dreaming or something like that, someone is playing a really particularly horrible joke on the robot nerd.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: You give up control, right, of your own work once it gets into a film.

WILSON: Well, absolutely.

FLATOW: Have they consulted you? Have they consulted you at all about, you know, what the film would look like compared to the book?

WILSON: At the very beginning, they had built a whole robotic ecosystem of all the robots that are in the book. And the robots in the book are constantly evolving, and they're becoming - the machines are studying animals, and they're becoming - making the robots much more realistic - sorry, much more like natural animals, you know. So they're very evolved.

And so at the beginning, I saw a lot of artwork, and I was able to comment on it and get back and say, you know, this is realistic in this way, and this is less realistic. And they really did - I saw improvement. I mean, I saw that the robots changed, and that was amazing to me.

At this point, they're pretty far down the line, and, you know, I'm no longer - you know, I'm waiting in line. I'm like camped out in the tent outside the movie theater.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Yeah. I know what that's like. Your own robotics research, was any of that in your book, that stuff that you had work on?

WILSON: Yeah. There's a chapter called...

FLATOW: Which part?

WILSON: ..."22 Seconds," and it's the chapter that takes place in Japan. There's an elderly bachelor who's living in a, basically, a big, automated building that's in - basically a, sort of, half of a hospital and half a building. It's for people that are getting older who live in these buildings that do a lot of work to take care of them. And that was my research.

So I didn't have to ask anybody any questions about that. I was just able to write that right away. So my research was all about building smart environments that could, basically, keep track of occupants and build these really intimate, intricate models of how people behave so that it could spot when you started to have functional decline, and you maybe just needed some help, because that's pretty much inevitable.

And so without a system like this, people can sometimes have one small task that they can't accomplish, and then suddenly they have to go to, like, a nursing home, you know? It makes no sense. So, yeah, "22 Seconds." And that is a gory chapter, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Talking with Daniel Wilson, author of "Robopocalypse." 1-800-989-8255. Hugh in Oakland. Hi, Hugh.

HUGH: Hi. Good day to you all.

FLATOW: Hey, there.

HUGH: So there's some talk about some computer functions, memory functions, calendar, other things from your PDF, laptops and others being - chips being put directly into your brain, sort of like an extension of chips that go into pets and whatnot, but instead they would be more computerized. And that opens up the possibility for hackers potentially plugging directly into the brain, too, and wondering if an extension of your precept could be turning people against themselves.

WILSON: So what you're talking about is neural implant or a brain computer interface, and they're actually - they're very common right now. There's a - there are cochlear implants that allow people that are deaf to hear. There's retinal implants that allow people that can't see to see. And the brain computer interface is typically - they put a - they just put a electrode on your - usually your motor cortex, and they're able to sense, basically, electrical activity in your brain that's triggered whenever you think about moving your body, because this is before your body is actually moving. This is going right to the source. And then you can use that information to do stuff in the environment.

So for people who have locked-in syndrome, which is a terrible situation where you're completely paralyzed, but fine cognitively, those people can move a mouse cursor simply by thinking about it. And there's this great experiment where they tested this on a monkey, and the monkey is able to grab a banana using a robot - a robotic arm by thinking about moving its own arm. So it's pretty incredible.

Now, in terms of controlling someone's mind, I don't see that happening, because it's really a one-way communication. The electrode is sitting on top of your brain, listening to what's going on in there and not really so much delivering any information. And the closest that you can get to that is probably - I think there's something called deep brain stimulators, which kind of give a natural - just a pulse to your brain for people that have, like, Parkinson's disease in order to try to, basically, steady out, you know, whenever you have an electrical confusion in your brain like - to associate with epilepsy and things like that. But that's far from brain control. I don't really see any mind control coming through that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: We're talking about...

WILSON: It's an interesting thought.

FLATOW: Yeah, for the next book. Talking about "Robopocalypse" with Daniel H. Wilson on SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

I'm Ira Flatow. Do you think people are really fearful of robots? And they certainly don't realize how many are around us everywhere, controlling everything, do they?

WILSON: Well, I think they, you know...

FLATOW: (unintelligible) and everything, isn't it?

WILSON: Yeah, I think that robots are really an embodiment of a bigger fear of just technology in general, you know? Because we're so dependent on technology, and it's around us so much now, and it's just - there's more and more. The stakes are going up higher and higher. So it's easier to focus on a robot, though.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Do you have a follow-up that you're working on to "Robopocalypse"?

WILSON: Yeah. In fact, that question was really appropriate, because my follow-up is called "Amped," and it's about this near future. There's no robots in "Amped," by the way, which is sort of, I know, a departure. But it's about this near future in which people are starting to integrate technology into their bodies a lot, and we're starting to realize that people who we thought were disabled are becoming super-abled. And it's really a mind, you know, it's total shift in thinking. And some people are interested in, you know, not having to implant their children in order to have them be competitive in school.

And, you know, I think that adopting new technology is always a change and it's always scary. But the moment that it starts going into our bodies is going to be a pretty scary moment for civilization, and I think it's coming.

FLATOW: But just to reiterate, even though you're talking about an apocalypse in "Robopocalypse," you don't think there's going to ever be one, an uprising of all these robots, because...

WILSON: No, I...

FLATOW: Because?

WILSON: I don't think there's going to be an uprising because, you know, I don't think that - in order to have that, you need to have this super-intelligent entity that sort of appears, and then not only that, but you needed to really, for some reason, want to harm humankind.

Now, that said, you know, if you're building a product that people are going to interact with, you know, you have to make it safe. You can't build a toaster that's going to electrocute somebody, you know? And if you're building a robot, then you have to be extra careful because they're autonomous. They make their own decisions. So if you're going to put, you know, a butler robot in someone's house, well, you got to make sure that if it - if you're holding it under the armpits and it lowers its arm, it's not going to cut someone's fingers off.

FLATOW: Well, we have worms that go through computers and take them over and do things that we don't want them to. Couldn't that happen with the robots?

WILSON: Yeah. I think it's much more likely that that kind of thing could happen. I mean, in "Robopocalypse," there's a chapter - at the very beginning, there's a - just a mention of a - a policeman is asking this kid whether he thinks it was a tele-robbery, you know, was someone tele-operating this robot in order to rob your store? And, you know, I think that kind of stuff, you know, people will misuse technology whenever they can. And so it's possible.

FLATOW: All right. Well, we're talking with Daniel H. Wilson, author of "Robopocalypse." There's a chapter of it on our website if you'd like to. And I want to thank you, Dan, for taking time to be with us today, and just leave you with a Klaatu barada nikto.

WILSON: Thank you. It's my pleasure.

FLATOW: Thanks again. We're going to take a short break. And when we come back, we're going to talk about new kinds of concrete, pavement, where the water goes right through it and other designs in pavement. I know you think pavement is boring, you won't after this segment. So stay with us. We'll be right back.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR.

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