from Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program and Net Politics

With "Burn-In," Cole and Singer Show Us the Robotic Future We Need to Avoid

French robot Pepper, detecting whether people are wearing face masks and if not, instructs them to wear them.
French robot Pepper, detecting whether people are wearing face masks and if not, instructs them to wear them. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution gives us the worst-case scenario of how increased automation can affect the U.S. economy and society.

October 7, 2020

French robot Pepper, detecting whether people are wearing face masks and if not, instructs them to wear them.
French robot Pepper, detecting whether people are wearing face masks and if not, instructs them to wear them. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes
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There are only three books I have ever stayed up all night to finish (that didn’t involve writing a paper for an English class): The Da Vinci Code, Red Storm Rising, and Ghost Fleet. Ghost Fleet, the most recent entry on the list was the highly acclaimed first novel from August Cole and Peter Singer. A gripping “novel of the next world war,” it combined fast-paced action and well-developed character arcs with detailed and footnoted discussions of the coming evolution in war-fighting technologies (including cyberwarfare). Often over the years, I have returned to look up a remembered passage, track down the references, and explore them as the starting point to my research.

Given this track record, I was excited for Cole and Singer’s next effort: Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution, so much so that I wormed my way into getting a review copy. I thought it would be the perfect escapist novel to while away the early days of COVID-19. And while Burn-In has the same fast-paced action, well-developed character arcs, and meticulously-researched technology descriptions, I could not bring myself to read much of it at first.

More on:

Robots and Artificial Intelligence

Labor and Employment

The “real” robotic revolution in the book’s subtitle is a far too real and dystopian near future where robotics and artificial intelligence have come together to make today’s winner-take-all economy look like a socialist ideal. With skyrocketing unemployment and fractured national politics, it was simply too depressing to read a book whose core message seemed to be, “you think things are bad now, just you wait.”

I picked it up again a few weeks ago in a better frame of mind, was able to finish it, and enjoyed the same things I enjoyed about Ghost Fleet. The final one hundred pages are riveting and suspenseful. The technologies they describe are a marvel and in labs being developed today. Following their footnotes can lead you to fascinating research. If you have not just lost your job, these are the reasons that will make you enjoy Burn-In.

As we look at building the economy back, central to that should be how we create and sustain good jobs at a time when the temptation to use federal stimulus dollars to invest in automation will be all too real. The setting of Burn-In is an economy in which almost all jobs have been taken over by robots. At first it was cleaning, food prep, and shelf-stocking—millions of low paid jobs held by “low skilled workers.” But in the opening pages of the book, the robots have come for the corporate lawyers. The Ivy League-trained husband of the FBI agent main character now spends twelve hours a day on the couch being rewarded by AI for positively engaging through a VR headset with a lonely retiree 3,000 miles away. His wife has been tasked with training a robot as her new partner. Her uncle, who had a good job maintaining a fleet of robots, lost it when a new fleet of robots was brought in to do the maintenance.

The book constantly shows how the jobs that are supposed to be “safe” from robotics and automation can be taken by them. Music is written by the machines. Robots have marginalized sex workers. Accountants are a thing of the past.

As our lead FBI agent and her new partner travel through Washington, DC, they move slowly through the traffic created by competing self-driving cars. They pass burned-out buildings and homeless encampments. People who can afford it have moved into secure compounds outside the city. The only viable business left over from today appears to be Ben’s Chili Bowl, where the Ali family has created jobs by introducing table service. These charity jobs are about the only coherent response we see in the book to the unemployment crisis.

More on:

Robots and Artificial Intelligence

Labor and Employment

I won’t spoil the plot, but at the end, when the nation is reeling from devastating failures of the systems it has come to depend on, there is no dramatic rethinking of the role of technology in society or the right to work. At best, we are left with the suggestion that there could be ways that robots and people could work better together instead of simply replacing people with robots. (Minor spoiler.) That is how our FBI agent hero and her robotic partner work out. For everyone else, there is only a vague promise of Basic Universal Income proffered by the sitting president.

So, yes, everyone should read Burn-In to take in the worst-case scenario. But then everyone should also start imagining what a better future with robots and computers could look like.

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