From 'Ghost Fleet' to Robot Warfare: Q&A with the Authors of 'Burn-In'

Burn-In cover
Courtesy Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Futuristic fiction from the likes of Tom Clancy and Eugene Burdick has informed and influenced the thinking of American leaders for decades, but it was author and futurist August Cole who coined the term FICINT -- Fiction Intelligence.

When Cole and political scientist Peter W. Singer published their 2015 thriller "Ghost Fleet," dense but not too dense with endnotes and citations illustrating how canny Chinese cyberattacks really could bring the U.S. military to its knees, they elevated the art form. The book was briefed with National Security Council staff, carried around under the arms of general and flag officers, and used as the inspiration for Marine Corps essay contests and war games.

It's now a half-decade later, and 2020 has already seen viral web searches for "World War III" and a global pandemic catastrophe that has dealt untold economic damage and doubtless exacted a high penalty to military readiness.

But Cole and Singer's "Burn-In," released today from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, is focused on the internal turmoil emerging technology may bring the United States in its wake, rather than the geopolitical implications. For think-tankers and military and civilian officials, "Burn-In" offers a buffet of challenging questions and troubling future quandaries; for those who seek a good story, it has it all: robot sidekicks, bearded military veterans gone rogue, and a technological showdown of biblical proportions set in the nation's capital.

This month, Singer and Cole participated in a Q&A about their newest work of FICINT. Readers of "Burn-In" may be surprised to encounter a futuristic novel featuring a humanoid, learning robot in which the robot isn't necessarily the villain of the piece. What do you think people tend to get wrong when they conceive of a future in which robotics and automation play a prominent role?

Peter W. Singer and August Cole: "Burn-In" is a new kind of novel in that it blends fiction and nonfiction. As a reader, you're following the hunt for a terrorist -- but at the same time, you're getting the latest nonfiction research on the ways that AI and automation will reshape our world, often in ways we are not ready for or might not expect about what's ahead.

Most of the ways that we think of robots, going back to literally the first use of the word "robot" in the earliest sci-fi exactly 100 years ago this year, is that the machines wise up and then rise up. We all know the "kill all humans" narrative from "The Terminator" or "The Matrix," but it actually started exactly 100 years back. In 1920, the play R.U.R. first used the word "robot" to describe mechanical servants that revolted against their human masters.

While that uprising might happen someday (hopefully never), what is really happening now is more akin to a new Industrial Revolution. It is exciting to see all the ways AI and robots are coming true, but we need to be careful as the last one was pretty traumatic. You got factories and mass consumer goods and modern democracy ... but you also got mass worker revolts, the Civil War, and ideologies like communism and fascism that the world would spend the next century working its way through, not often peacefully.

Like so much else, the events of the last few months just made this all even more challenging. The trends of greater automation and AI -- in our society, business, military, even family lives -- were already in play before the coronavirus pandemic, but all data point to a drastic acceleration in the coming years. Many roles that would have seen a more gradual transition to greater automation have been pushed forward in a matter of weeks. Much of the population has been rapidly thrown into distance learning and remote work, medicine is being conducted remotely on a scale not anticipated for a decade, big data-fueled AI tracking of society is happening at a scale never thought possible, and robotics have been deployed into roles ranging from policing curfews to replacing human cleaning crews everywhere from subways to hospitals. One hundred percent of these roles are not just reverting back after all this. But it also means all the legal/ethical/social/security concerns were also set aside during the pandemic, and will be a major issue to work through in the aftermath. Your first joint book, "Ghost Fleet," quickly became the Pentagon's favorite novel and even made it on the official reading list of the commandant of the Marine Corps. Who is your target "Burn-In" reader, and did the popularity of "Ghost Fleet" among military brass affect the way you thought about this project?

PS & AC: It was a crazy and unexpected experience. "Ghost Fleet" ended up being used everywhere from briefings at the White House and the "tank" at the Pentagon to sparking congressional investigations and even having a $3.6 billion Navy program named after it. We still give talks on it to groups that range from the military war colleges to Joint Special Operations Command. And it's a novel!

"Ghost Fleet's" traction with professional military readers really hit home to us that if you can combine fiction, fact and futures, make it exciting yet realistic, then a novel can have a meaningful impact in the world. So that was very much in our mind with "Burn-In," envisioning a double-barreled approach building a story while also peppering interesting and useful real-world technologies and trends that people need to know about. So you might read a cool scene about a veteran turned FBI agent trying to find a terrorist hiding in a crowd at a train station but, by the end of it, you learned a little bit about everything from facial recognition software fundamentals to algorithmic bias. Was there a particular concept or idea that kick-started the process of writing this novel for you?

PS & AC: We kicked ideas back and forth for a while, but the starting point was probably an experience shared with us well over 15 years back, where an Army unit in Iraq held a funeral for its EOD robot that had been "killed in action." The machine was just a tool, but it wasn't just that to those soldiers who counted on it during life-and-death situations. And that was for the first generation of this tech, which wasn't smart and couldn't talk to you. What would come next?

The idea of science fiction's robots coming true, but not in the way they are usually portrayed, seemed so interesting for storytelling, but also important in a nonfiction sense. It hits everything from what the next two decades will actually be like to what effect these new machines will have on our society and security, even our families. That is, you could mine some really cool aspects for the story as writers, but also hope to start an incredibly important conversation on technology and security in the AI era. It's always enjoyable to read the footnotes and see how the future you describe is, at least in theory, already in progress. With these projects, what comes first: the list of technologies and the stack of research, or the book concept and ideation?

PS & AC: Thanks! That's actually what makes this book so different from a regular thriller, the accompanying research to show that it is drawn from the real world. It certainly makes the writing harder, as you can't just wave your hand and have the hero pull out some fictional fix-it-all gadget. But we think that grounding is what makes the story not just more useful, but also more entertaining, as you don't have to suspend disbelief at all.

For us, research and creation actually go hand in hand. Sometimes, we'll have a scene and we'll look for new tech or trends to populate it with. Take, say, a combat scene, where we might go run down what sniper rifle or drone is being prototyped now for that kind of unit. And other times, we'll be inspired by the research and create something out of it. An example (plot spoiler warning) was news of a hacker showing off a new way to take down a smart home via light bulbs. It might even be through a character. For example, the spouse of our hero is a contract lawyer, who has lost their job to automation. We deliberately chose that profession, out of all the possible ones, to show an important point from the research on how the looming job loss won't just be blue collar jobs like factory workers, but also high-income roles like contract lawyers. But even more, we took it beyond the raw data on automation figures and fleshed it out. What will be the effect of that shift from a safe, high-paying job to a life of remote, ad-hoc virtual gigs? How will it hit not just him, but his marriage and even politics in America? ...That little thread we pulled on the ardors and effects of remote work certainly turned out to be more timely than we thought. "Ghost Fleet" and "Burn-In" center on two of what are perceived as the greatest current threats to national security: a massive takedown by a technologically advanced peer competitor; and a cyber infiltration that turns our systems and infrastructure against us. Sometimes, it seems it's just a matter of time until one of these scenarios comes true. Apart from a healthy fear, what can those in national security take away from your books to better prepare for these threats?

PS & AC: Hopefully, "Burn-In" gives people not just a great escapist read, which we all certainly need right now, but also proves to be what we call "useful fiction" or "FICINT." That is, the reader walks away from it not only entertained, but informed and thus better prepared. They will be forearmed with various terms and concepts that are going to be crucial to them soon, as well as experiencing along with the characters the sort of questions that we -- and they -- are all going to have to answer. It might be something specific, like how to prevent the kind of cyberattacks the bad guy is able to pull off, or it might be something broader, like how to navigate a moral, political or even family dilemma the character faces. Ultimately, our hope is that reading "Burn-In" can be not just a form of entertainment, but an act of preparation and thus even prevention. Both of your books spend a lot of time describing the way future technology will encase us -- from VR headsets to glasses that interpret what we're seeing for us. What are your biggest concerns regarding our increasing entanglement with technology?

PS & AC: We use the story to play the twin sides of that entanglement. One side is what many in the military can attest to. Technology is a tool, not a panacea, and a tool that can be used by us, but also by our nation's thinking adversaries. So a key theme is how, for all our uses of the latest and greatest, will bad actors exploit that same technology and its new vulnerabilities? One fictional turned real example of that were the cybersecurity failings in supply chains that played out in "Ghost Fleet" and obviously became even more of an issue in its wake. In "Burn-In," well, we don't want to give too much away, but let's just say it has to do with the emerging Internet of Things and, just as you have the AI and robots of science fiction coming true, you also have attacks of a type and scale never possible before.

But another theme is how even the most idealized plans for the future can play out to be pretty dystopian even without that Hollywood-level attack. The reader follows our heroes through a world that follows the plans laid out both by the government and business for the future, for everything from how they plan to do data tracking to facial recognition at stores. It may not feel that comfortable, maybe even dystopian. You see how it can erode not just our relationship with the government, but also one another. A little detail, but a creepy one, in the book is when our hero and their daughter are familiarly greeted by name at a Starbucks. But they don't know whether the person greeting them actually knows them, or is just using the name that the store's data tagged them with. That ain't science fiction any more. What is the division of labor for you both on a project like this? And how do you find time for it among all your other academic and think tank work?

PS & AC: It just got a lot more complicated while running a pop-up coronavirus homeschool as well!

Both of us have an array of jobs and multiple kids, so there's always a balancing act going on. Indeed, we note in the acknowledgments that we worked on the book everywhere from the stands of a kid's basketball practice to the shotgun seat of a long drive to a family vacation. That's why it is so special to us.

Our process between us is akin to 3D printing. We come up with the design together, and then we exchange drafts back and forth and back and forth, each time both adding, but also cutting and changing, until it becomes this really complex thing. If it's possible to end on a positive note: What's one thing you see that makes you optimistic about the future of national security?

PS & AC: The U.S. military reflects what we are as a nation.

It is a diverse, learning organization that isn't always perfect, but constantly renewing itself. Even more, it allows an exchange of ideas, not only inside it, but also with folks like us. We've had the amazing opportunity to share our research and ideas everywhere from the Joint Chiefs to some 50 different bases. All of that, from the diversity of backgrounds and open exchange of ideas and learning that wouldn't be possible in states like China or Russia. These are such amazing strengths for both our nation and its military, and we're so proud to play a small part in it.

Burn-In was released May 26.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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