A Review of “Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Future” by P.W. Singer & August Cole (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2020).
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On the day I picked up my advance copy of “Burn-In,” P.W. Singer and August Cole’s latest techno-future novel, armed protesters in Michigan blockaded the state capitol in Lansing. The hair stood up on the back of my neck as I read the opening chapter of “Burn-In,” which introduces us to an armed camp of military veterans bivouacked on the north lawn just beside the U.S. Capitol in protest.
And just a few days later, as I was reading the chapter where a bombastic politician uses the Lincoln Memorial as the backdrop for his rabble-rousing speech, news came that President Trump planned to host a virtual town hall at the memorial. The coincidence was almost too much to believe.
Yet there it was. A picture of the near future and its social structure that was occurring in near real-time.
Singer and Cole will forgive me, however, if I say that the societal coincidences of their book are, in the end, not the most significant aspect of their work. While they are capable, Clancy-esque prose stylists, the plotline of their story—terrorists, FBI investigations and the like—is really not why “Burn-In” is such a worthwhile read. Were the story the main point of the book it would sit, comfortably, with any number of other escapist good guy vs. bad guy novels.
What sets Singer and Cole apart is that their novel really isn’t fiction. Oh, sure, it is dressed up as a novel of the near future, but what Singer and Cole have done—as they also did in their earlier work “Ghost Fleet”—is invent a new form of predictive future nonfiction, masquerading as fiction. Richly detailed and heavily footnoted (what other fiction novel do you know that has footnotes?) they paint a grimly realistic picture of what the world may look like in a few short years. Call it, if you will, Nostradamus exposition—but do not, I urge you, think of this as mere adventure fiction.
Rather, watch as the authors paint us a picture of where the technological revolution will take us in the next five to 20 years. While they are more aggressive than I would be in assessing the pace of change, there can be little doubt that they have accurately defined the arc it may take. Here are just a few of the things in the world they see ahead for us:
● Self-driving cars and self-steering drones.
● Artificial intelligence robotic FBI agents.
● Pervasive facial recognition.
● Biometric analysis that can detect lies.
● Individualized virtual reality.
● And a host of other technologies, all of which are on the cusp of adoption.
The future they paint is not, to my mind at least, a terribly attractive one. The fleets of self-driving cars compete with one another blocking travel by competitors; the drones are pervasive surveillance platforms that also pose risks of violence; the artificial intelligence agent is both incredibly intelligent and fundamentally untutored; facial recognition is the basis of widespread surveillance; and virtual reality gives each individual a curated experience, magnifying discordant viewpoints. You get the idea. It is a future where human beings are empowered by technology and yet lose their agency and humanity in the face of its advance. The future that “Burn-In” predicts is a time when the social fabric of society is fraying and human connection is atrophying.
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What are we to make of all of this? Is “Burn-In” nothing more than a good story and an interesting—albeit somewhat depressing—prediction of the near future? I think not.
In a single book, Singer and Cole have captured many of the strands of an important insight—one that I have taken to calling the advent of the Ayabmuk World.
Late in the last century, at the dawn of the digital age, those who developed the new technologies of social media, internet connectivity and instant messaging were optimistic about the effect they would have on human nature—perhaps almost giddily so. They saw a world freed from the constraints of government and politics and conflict. They saw a world in which free flows of information would lead to greater understanding—a circumstance that would, in turn, reduce conflict and violence. As John Perry Barlow, one of the early internet activists, so romantically put it:
Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.
We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.
It was, in short, to be the Panglossian “best of all possible worlds”—a world where technological advances would allow everyone to come together and join hands and sing “Kumbaya.”
This optimistic view of human nature is no novelty with the invention of technology. At least since the time of Greek philosophers, Platonic optimism has contended against Aristotelian pessimism to measure the virtue of humanity.
Indeed, “Burn-In” reminded me of nothing so much as the parable of the ring of Gyges from Socrates’s inquiry into human virtue, recounted in Plato’s “Republic.” Early in Book Two, Socrates considers what it is that makes a person just, by which he meant someone who was moral and acted in a just manner.
Glaucon, one of the participants in the Socratic dialogue, offered the view that morality is nothing more than a social construction, and that citizens are virtuous and just only because they fear sanction for acting in an unjust manner.
To illustrate this, Glaucon told the story of the ring of Gyges—a mythical magical ring that renders the wearer invisible, much like the One Ring of power in the Lord of the Rings. What, Glaucon wondered, would cause a person who had this ring to be just and virtuous? Glaucon’s view was that no person would be of “such adamantine temper as to persevere in justice” if he could engage in unjust behavior without any fear of punishment.
Glaucon’s idea is consistent with much of our human experience. In the absence of adverse consequences or punishment, social order can break down. For one of the rare times in Plato’s works, the problem seemed to leave Socrates flummoxed—he had no answer save to suggest that education might curb humanity’s baser impulses. But Glaucon’s views are, to me at least, the more accurate depiction of human nature. To be historically asynchronous, it is fair to say that Glaucon’s assessment is a fundamentally Hobbesian view of the world—pessimistic and fearful.
What Singer and Cole show us, in all too stark reality, is that technological change exacerbates baser human tendencies. While new capabilities might, in optimal circumstances, bring us a world where truth and justice reign, the future the authors paint is a dimmer, grimier version—where, in effect, technology gives everyone a partial ring of Gyges.
Not, of course, in the sense of invisibility; far from it, for in the near future, all of our actions are known or knowable. But rather in the sense of a loss of accountability as technology empowers self-regarding behavior. This is the opposite of the optimistic world that Barlow imagined—rather than Kumbaya, we see its opposite. They present an Ayabmuk World where hyper technology gives us hyper irresponsibility and hyper independence.
Though the book ends rather more optimistically than we expect, for me the authors limn a world in which human responsibility is eroded and one where human agency is brought into question. In a future where artificial intelligences make important choices and decisions for us and in which we bear little or no responsibility for our own actions or those of our robots, the darker side of human nature seems likely to come to the forefront.
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The art of predicting the future is an unenviable creative endeavor. For too many—Nostradamus included—the only way to succeed is to retreat into Delphic obscurity. All credit then to authors who are bold and firm in their predictions, thereby risking the possibility of error.
Singer and Cole are bold. While some of their predictions may err, they paint a plausible—indeed, highly likely—vision of the near future. I suspect that the grim vision I have seen in the book is not the message that Singer and Cole wanted to send. Without giving away the ending, it is safe to say that the authors see a possible way forward toward a brighter future than the one I have glimpsed in their writing. And that, indeed, is likely their boldest prediction—that in the end, all will be well.
If the future is to be well, it will—at least in part—be because of books like “Burn-In.” One thing is certain: Far too many choices about technology and its uses are being made in unexamined ways —ways that are influenced less by an understanding of larger social forces and more by a narrower focus on what is currently possible. Technologists rush headlong forward to create the new reality, while ethicists, policymakers and citizens struggle in the uncertain wake. This book, at least, may help rectify that imbalance.
The authors’ earlier book, “Ghost Fleet,” has justifiably become an insider’s classic for its accurate depiction of war in the near future. So much so that it is now a must-read in the Pentagon. “Burn-In” has a wider range and scope and deserves a commensurately wider audience. Those who are optimists may see in it the promise of the future. For pessimists like me, it is a cautionary tale that prompts one to ask, “How do we avoid this?” But in either case, “Burn-In” is a must-read both for any policy practitioner who asks what government and society will look like down the road and for the average American who wonders how to shape the future. If we ignore the authors’ warnings, that will only hasten the advent of an Ayabmuk World—and that is a reality for which no one should wish.