Roboticist and writer Daniel H. Wilson is the author of several books, including How to Survive A Robot Uprising, Robopocalypse and, most recently, Amped:
In Amped, people are implanted with a device that makes them capable of superhuman feats. The powerful technology has profound consequences for society, and soon a set of laws is passed that restricts the abilities—and rights—of “amplified” humans. On the day that the Supreme Court passes the first of these laws, twenty-nine-year-old Owen Gray joins the ranks of a new persecuted underclass known as “amps.” Owen is forced to go on the run, desperate to reach an outpost in Oklahoma where, it is rumored, a group of the most enhanced amps may be about to change the world—or destroy it.
You’re a scientist with an advanced degree in robotics. Obviously that has influenced your subject matter, but I’m more interested in learning if a scientific background influences the way that you write. Has it?
I believe that everything about an author’s life influences everything they write. You can’t take your background out of the end product. For my part, I never went off to war or became a lawyer or a spy. Instead, I spent a decade studying robotics, artificial intelligence, and data mining. A lot of technical knowledge falls out of those years and, sure, I take advantage of it when I write – but I think the real overarching influence of all that schoolin’ is simply having a scientific mindset. I have a love and respect for science and the technology it produces. I hope that feeling comes through into my writing – even when I’m writing about homicidal robots.
Does being a scientist ruin some of the joy of being a science fiction fan? Is it harder to accept fiction that is based around a flawed technological premise?
Knowing too much about any subject can certainly compromise your suspension of disbelief. A critical little voice in your head speaks up and says, “A shell should have been ejected when he cocked that shotgun,” or “Why does Skynet have chairs in its headquarters!?” But there will always be experts in a crowd, and no writer will ever make every single detail satisfy every single person. So if you really love science fiction, you’ve got to say to yourself, “Shut up, will ya? Some of us are trying to enjoy a movie.”
Your first work was nonfiction, albeit nonfiction of a humorous nature. Why did you move into fiction?
Conveying real knowledge in an entertaining way is a great challenge and it’s really fun to read when people do it right. But there’s just something magical about crafting a living, breathing world and populating it from your imagination with your own men and machines. Maybe it’s the mad scientist in me, but I love to peer down into my fictional worlds and think, “I made you.”
Robopocalypse explored the consequences of becoming dependent on technology outside of ourselves. Amped reverses this by focusing on technology within our own bodies. Which one scares you more?
I get terrified even describing my beloved soldiers as they sprint breathlessly over frigid plains with plugger swarms dropping out of the sky and mantis quadrupeds loping silently over the ice in pursuit. I mean, killer robots are scary as hell – but at the end of the day they’re imaginary. It’s the humans that worry me for real. Our capacity to discriminate and dehumanize each other and hate is frightening.
Do you think that we’ll ever seen the kind of technology in Amped? Would you sign on for that kind of thing?
Like most people, I won’t adopt an implant into my body unless there is a huge benefit for doing so. And that’s exactly why this technology will go to people with severe disabilities first. Later, as the devices mature, “regular” people will grapple with whether or not to incorporate them into their own bodies. When this technology is available electively, I won’t grab the first generation. I’ll be second in line.
With the advent of the internet we’ve seen a generation gap growing between “digital natives” and those who grew up pre-net. Do you think that we’d see the same kind of thing in an “amped” society?
All new technology divides generations. It always has, and it probably always will. This isn’t a bad thing in my opinion. Human society is well structured in that the young are willing to adapt to new circumstances while the previous generations maintain what traditions may survive. Stride forward, but keep one foot on solid ground, right? It must be a good strategy, because we’re all here.
How else would technological augmentation change our society? Do you foresee radical legislation attempting to limit its impact?
I believe it is quite likely that some kind of legislation will limit the dispersal of implantable technology. Labor unions are going to want to protect their workers’ jobs. Professional sports associations will see it as an avoidable headache. Religious groups will likely be reticent to embrace such a sweeping change. But there is no stopping progress. You can put on the brakes all you like, but within twenty years my bet is that getting an implant will be as easy as getting your ears pierced.
I recently spoke with author Warren Ellis about the future of robotics and artificial intelligence. He was extremely skeptical about both. His opinion was that AI would hit a dead-end eventually, and that the most we could hope for would be robots with dog-like sentience rather than beings of equal or superior intellect. What do you think?
I’d have to respectfully disagree that AI progress is going to dead-end anytime soon. First of all, it’s silly and misleading to compare machine intelligence to anything biological, like an animal. Each living creature is the solution to a problem: how to survive in a particular environment. Artificial intelligences are solutions to entirely different problems: they route supply lines to our armies, interpret our voices and gestures, predict the weather, etc. AI routinely outperforms human beings at specialized tasks. As we move ahead, these machine abilities will combine to create convincing simulacrums of human intelligence. Turing tests will be passed. Questioning whether or not these creations are truly alive will become academic.
Steven Spielberg has signed on to direct Robopocalypse, and you’ve already sold the film options for Amped. How has success changed you? Do you still feel the same sense of pressure to write? Is that hard to get used to?
Han Solo was right – you never want to know the odds. Luckily, I’m just a bit too dumb to be able to properly calculate them. Thank god for it. So, while I am aware in an abstract way of Spielberg and actors and movies, my actual life is simple. I wake up and I write things down. I’m not on a tightrope or in a spotlight or in front of an audience. I’m a guy in a hoodie, sitting in a coffee shop, thinking and typing. It’s a great living if you can pull it off.