Daniel H. Wilson is one of the foremost prophets of the near future. While his fellow futurists Ray Kurzweil, Peter Thiel, and Stephen Wolfram develop, fund, or theorize about what’s coming next, Wilson — who has a PhD in robotics from Carnegie Mellon University — writes novels. Wilson’s New York Times best sellers Robopocalypse and Robogenesis may be page-turning sci-fi, but they are also sustained, compelling thought experiments from someone who has written plenty of nonfiction about the topic of artificial intelligence. You may have read his tongue-in-cheek instruction manuals How to Build a Robot Army and How to Survive a Robot Uprising, as well as his occasional articles as “Resident Roboticist” at Popular Mechanics magazine. He may be known for his speculation, but his ideas aren’t fanciful.
In his latest novel, The Clockwork Dynasty, Wilson once again responds to an all too plausible scenario: what would it mean if artificial intelligence were the preeminent life on Earth? In his two previous novels, Wilson wondered what would happen if the incipient artificial intelligence decided that humans were inimical to the future of life on Earth. Here, he’s more interested in what aspects of humanity might transcend our physical obsolescence, because in our current economic and political situation, it’s not clear why any neutral arbiter would choose us over enlightened AI.
The economic logic of late capitalism is oppressively reductive of human quality. Power is concentrated in oligarchies and individuals are measured not by innate worth, but by net worth. Workplaces have been streamlined and jobs specialized, with machines doing more and more of the labor; if humans are needed, it is to perform soul-deadening tasks. Since the industrial revolution — and increasingly quickly since Henry Ford and Frederick Taylor — the workplace has encouraged humans to be ever more machine-like in their efficiency.
It’s no coincidence that many long-running major sci-fi franchises feature frightening cyborg entities and scenarios in which humans have been replaced by machines, be it Doctor Who’s Cybermen and Daleks, Battlestar Galactica’s Cylons, Blade Runner’s replicants, Star Wars’s Clone Army, or, most frighteningly perhaps, Star Trek’s Borg.
In terms of AI, it’s no longer a question of whether robots will be able to ace the Turing test; think of how many of the interactions we are already having online are with robots or computers. Intelligent robots have moved from factories to call centers. Google and Facebook have replaced a generation of journalistic rewriters. When Ken MacLeod wrote The Night Sessions in 2008, his cyborg priests and AI religious fundamentalists must have seemed outlandish. By 2017, they only seem mildly unlikely.
In The Clockwork Dynasty, the irrepressibly readable Wilson has retreated to pseudo-vampiric sentient robots. I say retreated because he’s dealing with the past and present, rather than the future — though his rewriting of the past is no less radical than his speculative work. Two of our protagonists are “avtomats,” as his ancient robots call themselves, that come from the Russian Empire. At least that’s where they were revived; their origins are mysterious and far more ancient. Peter is modeled as an immortal doppelgänger of his late 17th-century namesake, Peter the Great, and Elena, his long-term partner, was revived at the same time. Over the succeeding 300 years, legends have grown up around these beings, who have hidden their true appearance and superhuman strength under cover of night. “They call us vampir,” the avtomats report.
The novel is a historical romp across centuries and continents, taking us from early modern Russia to present-day Oregon. There’s a notable detour to a stinking pre-industrial London, some decisive Indian adventures in the British Empire, and then some grim episodes in the World Wars. In each historical period, the avtomats emerge as anonymous but powerful movers of human history.
In the present day, the plot is driven by a human protagonist, June Stefanov. She represents human history and continues Wilson’s excellent run of female lead characters — a distinction not to be sniffed at in male-written robot sci-fi. She takes us from the quiet beginning where she’s examining a small clockwork doll, to the climactic end where good avtomats fight bad avtomats for the future of, well, potentially everything. (So as not to spoil that big final battle scene altogether, I’ll note there are also some misunderstood avtomats in the mix.)
Although the ancient origins of the avtomats are shrouded in mystery, each of these beings depends for its power on a key “Word.” Some examples of the “Words” that motivate the avtomats are “Love,” “Justice,” and “Reason.” Wilson doesn’t belabor the point, but the allegorical implication of the book is not that sentient robots have always been with us (and usually been supremely powerful), but that they operate according to the same principles that have always ordered human civilization. Ultimately, he suggests that any civilization depends upon the balance of these “Words,” whether embodied by humans or robots.
Considering how AI is actually distributing itself through society — and judging by the speculation in Wilson’s own previous novels and nonfiction — it doesn’t seem that robots are likely to impose their influence on society by means of superhuman androids like the vampire avtomats. But we humans are better at understanding stories that feature human-like protagonists, so Wilson has chosen to frame his novel in that way. Just because we don’t see transformers or avtomats in the streets doesn’t mean their less recognizable brethren aren’t becoming omnipresent.
Back in 1940, Isaac Asimov understood that the ability of robots to supersede us makes them the scariest, and most convincing, of sci-fi villains. He instituted his famous “Three Laws of Robotics” in 1942 (in the short story “Runaround”) precisely because his robotic world would have been too mortifying otherwise. But the three (he later added a fourth) hard-wired commandments that instruct machines not to harm their makers have remained fiction. Contemporary robots have no such compunction.
Now, as AI improves by leaps and bounds, the so-called “Internet of Things” is ripening for control. We are unwilling prey to Russian or Chinese government hackers, but voluntarily submit to the inhuman networks that are already sucking up our data lifeblood — Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, IBM’s Watson, and, of course, Google.
Translation services like Google’s, which are fed by our own input, are a good bellwether of AI’s advances. Previously dreadful, they are improving rapidly, month by month. Computers don’t “learn” a language’s rules; they absorb a language as we use them. We probably won’t understand, or even notice, how we enabled computer consciousness once we’ve done it.
Rather than a declaration of war, as in Robopocalypse, the interests of different networks of humans and AIs will slowly diverge. As they do so — and interests conflict — nations, classes, and networks may subtly (or not so subtly) sabotage one another.
With a phone in every pocket, a code in every appliance, and computers in charge of every vital national function, we may soon be yearning for the clarity embodied in that simple fight between good and evil robot vampires at the end of The Clockwork Dynasty.