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An action-packed thriller explores the implications of emerging technologies

Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution

P.W. Singer and August Cole
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
432 pp.
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In the opening pages of Burn-In, an FBI agent conducts close-quarters surveillance of a suspected terrorist bomber in Washington, D.C. Simultaneously, in New Jersey, an elderly gentleman listens attentively to the enthusiastic technological prognostications of a world-famous computer scientist and mathematician from the back of a hallowed lecture hall at Princeton University. Moments later, he bludgeons the speaker to death with his cane.

In this, their second novel, coauthors Peter Warren Singer and August Cole—both renowned technology and policy experts—come close to perfecting the genre of educational and informative techno-thriller. Like their first such collaboration (1), this latest entry portrays a world in which conventional aspects of domestic security and law enforcement—combating terrorism, managing protests and social upheavals, tracking a serial killer, providing a secure environment on college campuses—all occur within a transformative technological context that both enables and simultaneously disrupts these myriad objectives.

As the narrative unfolds, a complex tapestry of emergent, disruptive technologies is revealed. Far from the fanciful inventions that typically populate science fiction, the systems described herein are currently available or under development for imminent deployment. The D.C. traffic congestion with which agent Lara Keegan and her partner have to contend, for example, is mostly composed of driverless vehicles, their complex operational algorithms engaged in competitive maneuvering for even the slightest comparative advantage. If the agents invoke the emergency override protocol granted to law enforcement personnel and cause the other vehicles to move aside, the surveillance drones buzzing overhead will immediately transmit this activity to the news outlets that operate them, alerting the terrorist to their presence.

Keegan’s field of vision, meanwhile, is networked into an operations command center via virtual reality glasses, which display real-time data on the suspect’s location. These “viz glasses” continuously exchange data with other law enforcement personnel, while simultaneously performing facial scans of the surrounding crowds, subjecting each passerby to massive digital analysis.

Once apprehended, despite his uncooperative silence, the suspect’s identity is unmasked by a Tactical Autonomous Mobility System (TAMS), a military robot whose combat utility proved minimal and is now being tested for possible use in domestic law enforcement scenarios. Keegan, we learn, has been selected to field-test this robotic deep-learning technology system because of her prior experience managing the deployment and “force mix” of unmanned systems for the Marine Corps in Afghanistan. In technology circles, what she has been asked to undertake is known as a burn-in, a lengthy trial run of any new technological breakthrough, designed to push it to its limits of reliable functionality.

The novel also contains ample instances of what the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Science Foundation dub the ethical, legal, and social implications (ELSI) of technological development and diffusion. Just before his death, for example, the Princeton computer scientist boasts to his elderly guest how his use of Linux open-source software to develop complex machine-learning algorithms has made artificial intelligence (AI) universally available and affordable for every conceivable purpose. As his killer peels off an AI-designed silicon facial mask (manufactured on a 3D printer to confuse the university’s AI-assisted security and surveillance system), he reveals himself to be a former DARPA engineer whose wife and son were tragically killed in a Metro train crash caused by dangerous emergent behaviors in one of the scientist’s AI-governed public transportation systems.

This narrative thread, and many others throughout the book, illustrate what co­author Peter Warren Singer identified in his widely acclaimed book Wired for War (published in 2009) as a key constituent of technological innovation and advance: “Anything that can go wrong, will—at the worst possible moment.”

The aim of this work of fiction is not merely to engage and entertain but also to educate and inform readers about the vast array of automated and increasingly intelligent autonomous systems that are proliferating in availability and use. The authors provide detailed documentation of the actual features and current use of these systems, together with a companion educational guide to help instructors use the novel to teach about the profound depths of the robotic and AI revolution that is taking place all around us.

References and Notes
1. P. W. Singer, A. Cole, Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015).

About the author

The reviewer is a professor emeritus at the U.S. Naval Academy, Annapolis, MD 21402, USA.