Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution by P. W. Singer and August Cole. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020, 432 pp.
The topic of artificial intelligence (AI)—once confined to limited circles—is now firmly mainstream. To be sure, conventionality could be a word used to describe the growing movement to write on the subject; yet unconventional approaches exist to help both the professional and nonprofessional appreciate AI and its potential. Enter P. W. Singer and August Cole, writers demonstrably capable of blending theory and practice and making the impossible seem plausible. These features were on full display in Ghost Fleet, a seminal work of nonfiction that elevated the authors as leaders in the field of science fiction. Ghost Fleet trenchantly drew our collective attention to a world yet to come, establishing a high bar for novelists to follow. With the recently released Burn-In, Singer and Cole have exceeded their own standards in connecting the reader to the future and, in doing so, prove that when it comes to AI authorship style is just as important as substance.
With their latest work, the authors energetically carry on the tradition of this genre’s giants including Isaac Asimov (I, Robot) and Robert Heinlein (Starship Troopers), to name a few. In this stirring encore to Fleet, however, they break new ground in describing the nexus between human and robot. Singer and Cole clearly use their own proximity to recent innovations in big tech to tell the story—and succeed in telling it. Burn-In puts the promise and peril of AI firmly in our grasp such that readers will undoubtedly ask their own questions about the future long after putting the book down.
Through a colorful human and robotic protagonist, the writers hew to novelistic form as the plot unfolds. This attention-grabbing style keeps the reader engaged throughout, while simultaneously providing a nuanced perspective of AI vis-à-vis its intersection with humankind. In this way, Singer and Cole deftly preserve credulity with each passing chapter. Aside from passages replete with action, the thrust of this story resolutely centers on AI’s societal impact rather than a robot apocalypse. Herein lies the true value of Burn-In, as its artful portrayal of society’s reliance on technology pulls readers into a world they may not recognize. Indeed, the authors vividly describe the methodical lurch toward a world where we grow comfortable outsourcing everyday life to AI—starting with the innocuous but eventually graduating to a level of dependence that portends danger. This slippery slope is an obvious cause for concern, but we are tacitly assured that human action today can preserve AI’s immense potential for tomorrow. At the same time, by uncovering the societal vicissitudes that could occur once the full force of AI is upon us, Burn-In effectively balances one’s sense of optimism with a measure of apprehension. Those who see a future marked by human helplessness in the face of technological inertia would do well to read this book. For even in the future, human values can provide order to what could otherwise be an orderless world.
Through an evocative style, the reader faces an important question as the story develops: Is the human who fears the machine or the machine that operates with uncontrollable levels of efficiency the larger threat? Burn-In provides a range of perspectives to help answer this question—from the atavistic collection of human communities longing for the past to those who believe that a robot’s probity far exceeds that of a human’s. With respect to AI’s potential, the writers describe machine-learning algorithms remarkably well. Moore’s Law, stating that computer processing power doubles every two years, takes new meaning in these pages. The speed by which robots learn, process, and evaluate data is impressively depicted—so well, in fact, that the reader is left to question the human race’s ability to handle AI efficiencies in a world where data is unavoidably ubiquitous. Equally impressive is Burn-In’s compelling description of a future where humanity’s propensity to engage in internecine warfare is the natural byproduct of a robotic rise. To be sure, the sweep of the story brilliantly examines what should drive both current and future debates over AI.
This novel is mostly confined to the physical world, a particular weakness in an otherwise highly readable book. After all, as trends suggest an inevitable merging of physical and cloud-based realities, one could consider a process of eversion whereby we live our lives primarily in the ether. On this score, Burn-In falls short of meeting expectations. The application of AI by our competitor states is a topic also left uncovered. Given that America’s lead in the AI race is precarious today, Singer and Cole would do a service to policy makers by envisaging a world where a near-peer opponent merges its technological edge with authoritarian ends. In light of their literary record, one cannot doubt that the authors will explore this space in their next novel.
Importantly, the reader who benefits from this work will view current events headlines in a different light. Modern-day efforts like the Defense Innovation Board’s recent release of the “Recommendations on the Ethical Use of Artificial Intelligence” report, as well as the Vatican’s recently announced “Rome Call for AI Ethics,” may otherwise go unnoticed; yet the benefactors of Burn-In will find these headlines hard to ignore. Indeed, one quickly realizes that these modern-day initiatives buttress the authors’ implicit suggestion that commitment today will help us chart a path tomorrow. Turning today’s initiatives into tomorrow’s verities will be a monumental task, however—a notion also underscored in this well-timed book.
Anyone who endeavors to write about AI’s potential impact runs the risk of being pilloried over speculation. However, a speculative style of writing is most certainly required to broach this pivotal topic, and it is the quality that makes today’s science fiction genre resonate. Indeed, how can today’s infantryman, pilot, submariner, lawyer, first responder, or teacher imagine a world run by robots without creative prose to keep us engaged? On this score, Singer and Cole clearly understand how to make the unintelligible understandable, and in Burn-In they deliver the best of contemporary science fiction. Defense professionals, policy makers, and American citizens alike would do well to pick up a copy.
LTC Kirby “Bo” Dennis, USA
US Army War College Fellow