A warning light switches on in the Dynamic Robotics Laboratory at Oregon State University. A pair of three-foot-tall, disembodied legs come alive with a clank. ATRIAS, one of the world’s most advanced bipedal robots, takes a lap around the small, open classroom, moving with a powerful velociraptor-like gait. Onlooking robotics students and visitors stand well outside its path: the robot, the lab director has already warned, doesn’t know its own strength.
For a layperson, the sight of this cutting-edge technology in action is as impressive as it is worrying. ATRIAS is another step toward robots that can move freely through human environments—but does that really sound like a good idea? For roboticist-turned-novelist Daniel H. Wilson, however—on this day a guest of the lab—the spectacle is just good material. “How could you not be scared of robots?” says the skinny, self-assured 36-year-old, adding half-jokingly, “I’m here to take advantage of that."
But in a way, it’s no joke. Wilson has become one of Portland’s most successful writers by probing worries about what a future of fast, strong, smart machines—ATRIAS’s descendants—will mean for slower, weaker, dumber creatures like us. Beginning with satirical, nonfiction books like 2005’s How to Survive a Robot Uprising, he broke into the big leagues with his best-selling 2011 novel, Robopocalypse, which was optioned by Steven Spielberg before it was even finished. Now regularly called the heir apparent to Michael Crichton, Wilson releases Robogenesis this month, the long-awaited sequel that picks up where Robopocalypse left off.
Humans, of course, have feared—and been fascinated by—their mechanical creations since at least 1920, when the play R.U.R., about an android rebellion that wipes out humanity, became a global smash (and introduced the word “robot” into the English language). In science fiction’s midcentury golden age, legends like Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov explored the perils of artificially intelligent technology in visionary works such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and I, Robot. Modern-day media franchises—Terminator, Matrix, Battlestar Galactica—show that our fears of losing control of our technology have only grown more vivid.
Wilson uses his knowledge of real-life robotics to create a cinematic but not-so-distant world in which automatons deal with all of life’s mundane chores: cleaning, cooking, driving cars, policing Afghanistan. There are no monstrous killing machines like in Terminator or Matrix; instead, Wilson’s apocalypse comes when a single, newly minted artificial intelligence—convinced that, in order to save life on the planet, it must destroy humans—turns all of these everyday tools against their makers. The result is not only terrifying, but at times touching (robot-human love) or even darkly comical, as when the robots, programmed to be fastidious, clean up after every slaughter, or when an elevator cheerily lures its victims with that Pavlovian “ding.”
Although he was an insatiable bookworm growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Wilson pursued computer science rather than English in college. “For me, they did the same thing,” he says. “A painter paints and a programmer programs—that’s how you get what’s in your head out into the real world.”
He went on to earn a Ph.D in robotics from Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute, working on projects like home sensors and “autonomous surface vessels” (boat drones, basically). While there, he also wrote the tongue-in-cheek advice book called How to Survive a Robot Uprising, featuring tips such as “don’t bother with karate” and “pretend to be damaged.” After he completed his doctorate, Wilson struggled to find a robotics job. Meanwhile, he earned the equivalent of a roboticist’s annual salary from Robot Uprising. So he kept writing.
“I always planned on getting a robotics job after the next project,” he says. The success of his debut novel, Robopocalypse, finally rendered the point moot. Wilson had written only the first 100 pages when Dreamworks, the movie studio cofounded by Spielberg, got ahold of the summary and snapped up the film rights. That in turn set off a bidding war between publishers. (Random House won.) A week later, Wilson was “shooting the shit about robots” with Spielberg in LA. “It was madness,” he recalls. “I wrote the rest of my first novel with Steven Spielberg waiting on my pages.”
Wilson soon learned Hollywood’s volatility. Last year, Spielberg sent Robopocalypse back to the drawing board to be retooled as a less expensive project. In the meantime, a short film adapted from Wilson’s story “The Nostalgist” is in postproduction.
Though the author jokes about “trying to make a buck” off humankind’s android anxieties, the post-robopocalyptic tale in Robogenesis makes clear that he’s interested in exploring what those anxieties tell us about our own humanity. If we create machines of equal—or greater—complexity to humans, the book implicitly asks, what is our unique value? Movies like Her, in which Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with an operating system, suggest an audience becoming more sophisticated when it comes to humanity’s relationship with technology. “You can’t get away with just a robot-uprising story anymore,” Wilson says. “The themes are evolving.”
Does this mean Robotopia is in the offing? Not likely.
“Robots are unique tools, unprecedented in our history, part of our fate as toolmakers,” Wilson says. “But it’s really, really fun to contemplate how dangerous they can be.”