Robopocalypse

Robopocalypse

By Daniel H. Wilson
Doubleday, 368 pages, June 2011

Reviews, excerpt, and explanations edited by Andy Ross

Amazon Best Books of the Month, June 2011:

In the not-too-distant future, robots have made our lives a lot easier: they help clean our kitchens, drive our cars, and fight our wars — until they are turned into efficient murderers by a sentient artificial intelligence buried miles below the surface of Alaska. Robopocalypse is a fast-paced sci-fi thriller that makes a strong case that mindless fun can also be wildly inventive. The war is told as an oral history, assembled from interviews, security camera footage, and first- and secondhand testimonies, similar to Max Brooks' zombie epic World War Z.

Guest Reviewer Robert Crais:

Robopocalypse is as good as Michael Crichton's Andromeda Strain or Jurassic Park, an end of the world story about a coming machine-versus-man war. I couldn't stop turning the pages.

Set in a future only a few weeks away, the world is still our world, where advancements in silicon-chip technology and artificial intelligence have given us rudimentary android laborers and cars that can get around without human drivers.

The war begins the fourteenth time a scientist named Nicholas Wasserman wakes an amped-up artificial intelligence dubbed Archos. In a protected lab environment designed to contain his creation, Wasserman has awakened the sentient computer intelligence thirteen previous times, always with the same result: Archos realizes that it loves that rarest of miracles life above all else, and to preserve life on Earth, it must destroy mankind. This wasn't exactly what Wasserman wanted to hear, so thirteen times before, a disappointed Wasserman killed it and returned to the drawing board. But unlike Archos, Wasserman is a man, and men make mistakes. Now, on this fourteenth awakening, a simple (but believable) error by the scientist allows Archos to escape the barrier of the lab. And the war is on.

When Archos goes live, its control spreads like a virus as it reprograms the everyday devices of our lives, from cell phones to ATM machines to traffic lights to airliners.

The book is rich with high-speed-action set pieces and evocative ... but Robopocalype is a terrific and affecting read because it is about human beings we can relate to, invest in, and root for. By choosing to show us these events through the eyes of the men and women involved, Wilson gives us a high-speed, real-time history of the war on its most human level, and it is our investment in these characters and their desperate struggle that grabs us and pulls us along at a furious clip.

In lesser hands, the story could have been head-shot with pseudo-science technical jargon, overwrought explanation, and cartoonish characterizations. Instead, Wilson has given us a richly populated and thrilling novel that celebrates life and humanity.

Reviews:

"It's terrific page-turning fun."
Stephen King, Entertainment Weekly

"Things pop along at a wonderfully breakneck pace, and by letting his characters reveal themselves through their actions, Wilson creates characters that spring to life. Vigorous, smart and gripping."
Kirkus

"A brilliantly conceived thriller that ... will grip your imagination from the first word to the last, on a wild rip you won't soon forget. What a read ... unlike anything I've read before."
Clive Cussler, New York Times bestselling author

"An Andromeda Strain for the new century, this is visionary fiction at its best: harrowing, brilliantly rendered, and far, far too believable."
Lincoln Child, New York Times bestselling author of Deep Storm

"Robopocalypse reminded me of Michael Crichton when he was young and the best in the business. This novel is brilliant, beautifully conceived, beautifully written (high-five, Dr. Wilson) ... but what makes it is the humanity. Wilson doesn't waste his time writing about 'things,' he's writing about human beings fear, love, courage, hope. I loved it."
Robert Crais, New York Times bestselling author of The Sentry

"Futurists are already predicting the day mankind builds its replacement, Artificial Intelligence. Daniel Wilson shows what might happen when that computer realizes its creators are no longer needed. Lean prose, great characters, and almost unbearable tension ensure that Robopocalypse is going to be a blockbuster. Once started I defy anyone to put it down."
Jack DuBrul, New York Times bestselling author

"The parts of this book enter your mind, piece by piece, where they self-assemble into a story that makes you think, makes you feel, and makes you scared."
Charles Yu, author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
 

Behind the Fiction

The science of Robopocalypse

Daniel Wilson gives us a brief excerpt from the opening of the novel Robopocalypse, then explains the scientific research that went into it.

Excerpt:

Twenty minutes after the war ends, I'm watching stumpers pour up out of a frozen hole in the ground like ants from hell and praying that I keep my natural legs for another day.

Each walnut-sized robot is lost in the mix as they climb over each other and the whole nightmare jumble of legs and antennae blend together into one seething murderous mass.
With numb fingers, I fumble my goggles down over my eyes and get ready to do some business with my little friend Rob, here.

It's an oddly quiet morning. Just the sigh of the wind through stark tree branches and the hoarse whisper of a hundred-thousand explosive mechanical hexapods searching for human victims. Up above, snow geese honk to each other as they glide over the frigid Alaskan landscape.

The war is over. It's time to see what we can find.

From where I'm standing ten yards away from the hole, the killer machines look almost beautiful in the dawn, like candy spilled out onto the permafrost.

I squint into the sunlight, my breath billowing out in pale puffs, and sling my battered old flamethrower off my shoulder. With one gloved thumb, I depress the ignite button.

Spark.

The thrower doesn't light.

Needs to warm up, so to speak. But they're getting closer. No sweat. I've done this dozens of times. The trick is to be calm and methodical, just like them. Rob must've rubbed off on me after the first couple years.

Spark.

Now I see the individual stumpers. A tangle of barbed legs attached to a bifurcated shell. I know from experience that each side of the shell contains a different fluid. The texture and heat of human skin initiates a trigger-state. The fluids combine. POP! Somebody wins a brand new stump.

Spark.

They don't know I'm here. But the scouts are spreading out in semi-random patterns based on Big Rob's study of foraging ants. The robots learned so much about us, about nature.

It won't be long now.

Spark.

I begin to back away slowly.

"C'mon, you bastard," I mutter.

Spark.

That was a mistake: to talk. The heat from my breath is like a beacon. The flood of horror surges my way, quiet and fast.

Spark.

A lead stumper climbs onto my boot. Gotta be careful now. Can't react. If it pops I'm minus a foot, best case.

I should never have come here alone.

Spark.

Now the flood is at my feet. I feel a tug on my frost-covered shin-guard as the leader climbs me like a mountain. Metal-filament antennae tap, tap, tap along, questing for the tell-tale heat of human flesh.

Spark.

Oh Christ. C'mon, c'mon, c'mon.

Spark.

There's going to be a temperature differential at my waist level, where the armor chinks. A torso-level trigger-state in body armor isn't a death sentence, but it doesn't look good for my balls, either.

Spark. Whoomph!

I'm lit.

Explanations:

My goal for Robopocalypse is to depict a terrifying, hyper-realistic future in which our familiar technology has run amuck and then evolved. Toward that end, I found inspiration and guidance by drawing on real-world robotics research.

I'm not trying to sound like a pretentious ass hat by saying that a lot of real robotics research went into my writing. I agree that science fiction is full of great, realistic robots that came straight from the imagination. All I'm saying is that my own creative process was to build on existing research in order to provide grounding for the dozens of unique robots that spy, stalk, and fight through the Robopocalypse.

Here's a glimpse of that process. The following is a breakdown of the decisions that went into the creation of "stumpers," those nasty little bugs you just read about.

Overview

The "stumper" is a crawling landmine. It is described as an insect-like, walnut-sized hexapod with filament antenna and a bifurcated shell. Stumpers typically hide themselves in cold environments and emerge in swarms upon detecting warm, bipedally-walking targets. Upon reaching a skin-temperature trigger-state, the stumpers self-detonate.

Robotic Platform

The stumper is designed to injure and terrify human beings over a wide range of hostile outdoor environments for very little cost. The intelligence of a stumper is built into its design, which is complex, and not its behavior, which is simple.

Hardware

Stumpers are mass-produced from cheap materials. The body of each stumper is fashioned out of a few pieces of stiff fabric. This creates a robust platform that can locomote over varied terrain, resist crushing forces from being air-dropped into action, and consume minimal energy.

Sensors

Detecting body heat is accomplished via modified passive infrared sensors (PIRs). Gait recognition is accomplished via filament antenna attached to microphones that have been gated for desired vibrational frequencies.

Detonation Mechanism

Upon detecting a skin-temperature trigger-state, a stumper self-detonates by releasing stored current from a capacitor, vaporizing a wire "plug" that separates two liquids, which then explode on contact.

Behavior

Stumpers operate in structurally homogenous swarms with identical behavioral strategies. Self-organization arises as each stumper obeys simple local rules, similar to fish schooling or birds flocking. For example, each robot stays a certain distance from the others while target seeking. The result is an emergent behavior in which stumpers flow around obstacles and surround prey. This decentralized approach is reactive and requires no active communication; it minimizes processing by mapping sensory information directly to action; and it requires no leader or central control. The loss of an individual stumper causes no disruption to the behavior of the swarm.

Placement

Limited numbers of stumpers must distribute themselves to maximize the probability of human contact. Distribution of a living minefield requires only local communication. Through passive communication, each stumper keeps a set distance from its neighbors, resulting in tunable placement over a given area.

Target-seeking

The systematic exploration of an area for resources by non-communicating agents falls under the umbrella of a "foraging problem." Ant species have evolved numerous effective solutions which have been replicated in autonomous multirobot systems. Typically, these solutions result in randomized fractal paths spreading outward from a central focal point. In addition, using body heat to find human targets is a common "search and rescue" problem for robots designed to operate in disaster zones.

Communication

Passive communication between the robots is accomplished using vibration detection. While in motion, stumpers generate a vibration tailored for easy recognition by nearby comrades. This form of vibrational communication is modeled on mating crickets.

Summary

And that's a brief overview of the sort of decisions that went into creating realistic robots for Robopocalypse. Luckily for the reader, very few of these details explicitly make it into the book. However, this level of realism is in my head as I write.
 

Robopocalypse

Directed by Steven Spielberg, 2013

A sci-fi story set in the aftermath of a robot uprising.
 

AR  This novel wins the game I started with Lifeball and and terminated with G.O.D. Is Great.