Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto
- Scott R. Garceau () - December 7, 2011 - 12:00am


By Daniel H. Wilson

347 pages

Available at National Book Stores

 When Flight of the Conchords did a song about killer robots, we all laughed. Purportedly sung by droids, The Humans Are Dead predicted our merciless annihilation, and even had a “binary solo” that consisted of a string of zeros and ones

Try laughing your way through Robopocalypse, Daniel H. Wilson’s best-selling page-turner, though.

Ha. Ha. Ha.

With this novel, those who secretly fear we are becoming too reliant on our gadgets have something new to fear: soon, those gadgets won’t need us anymore.

And they may decide the planet doesn’t need us, either.

Robopocalypse — now being filmed by Steven Spielberg — echoes a bunch of other paranoid sci-fi riffs on androids taking over — everything from HAL in 2001 to Robocop, Battlestar Galactica to Terminator: The Salvation — but it reads so much like a script that you can’t help visualizing it with, say, that dude from Avatar in the movie version. Writer Wilson has science on his side, though: he packs a PhD in robotics from Carnegie Mellon, and a lot of the scary droids in the book are based on actual models being tested in the field of robotics.

It’s the near future, and robots not only serve as househelp, they’re present in almost every aspect of cutting-edge technology we rely on — “smart” cars, plane navigation systems, automated air filtering systems, military drones and guidance apps. So it’s really not that far in the future. The novel opens a few minutes after the war with our tin-man adversaries is over. A certain Private Cormac “Bright Boy” Wallace is mowing down Robs (battlefield slang for “robots,” natch) and finds one that contains a program detailing the entire history of mankind, up to its near-takeover by a new strain of artificial intelligence called Archos that has spread through all computers and robot technology like, well, a virus. In fact, it is a computer virus, spawned by a smug scientist named Nicholas Wasserman in an underground research lab at Lake Novus in Washington State. Here, Wasserman trades fatalistic patter with the first self-aware robot infected with the deadly virus.

Professor Wasserman pushes up his glasses. “What do you wish to learn about, Archos?”

“Life. I will learn everything there is about life. Information is packed into living things so tightly. The patterns are magnificently complex. A single worm has more to teach than a lifeless universe bound to the idiot forces of physics. I could exterminate a billion empty planets every second of every day and never be finished. But life. It is rare and strange. An anomaly. I must preserve it and wring every drop of understanding from it.”

“I’m glad that’s your goal. I, too, seek knowledge.”

“Yes,” says the childlike voice. “And you have done well. But there is no need for your search to continue. You have accomplished your goal. The time for man is over.”

Clearly, Archos is very creepy to have around as your only companion in an underground research lab. I think it’s that “childlike voice” that makes his fatalistic pronouncements about man’s redundancy particularly chilling.

Robopocalypse jumps around in time from there, and it’s the inevitability of superior intelligence that makes mankind’s decimation seem so effective here — shades of Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End, in which “Star Children” take over after foolish humans muck up the planet.

But wait. We’re in the post-9/11 world. We humans just can’t go out like that. No, siree. In true Terminator fashion, the human race forms a resistance — with outposts as far apart as Tokyo, Afghanistan, and the Asage tribe of Native-Americans — people who become wise to the robots’ evil intentions early on, and stage guerrilla warfare to take out as much of technology as possible. As the Vietcong did against American forces, the straggle-ass human rebels unite and learn ways to stop or at least slow down the robots’ genocidal campaign. There’s a young British hacker being relentlessly hunted by Archos, so he decides to redeem himself; there’s an old Japanese inventor who discovers how to turn robots back over to the human side; there’s a US soldier who partners with some Taliban fighters to stage guerrilla attacks against the Robs. And in one chapter, a demolition expert realizes that the robots are neat freaks (shades of C3P0): they don’t just program car computers to mow down fleeing humans, they send out butler robots afterward to clean up the mess, mopping up the bloody remains in the streets. So the explosives expert starts blowing up buildings — enough rubble and wreckage to slow down the obsessive-compulsive droids in their spread across cities.

Wilson captures an impressive range of human emotion and humor in this novel, which recalls early Michael Crichton (when ideas were new things to him) in its inventiveness. He lets the important characters develop from chapter to chapter, until it’s clear who will stand up for mankind and who will become human compost. Sure, it dissolves into silliness toward the end. But what probably made this novel more of a bestseller smash than other gloom-and-doom sci-fi predictions of human extinction is its nagging insistence that humans have the capacity to survive, triumph over all adversaries and — more importantly — unite despite their differences. In other words, it’s optimistic. Basically, it’s Independence Day all over again, with robots subbing for Martians.

Having read several such gloom-and-doom predictions (such as Alan Weisman’s The World Without Us), I’m not quite so cheerily upbeat about humankind’s chances. After all, we’re already threatening our own breathable atmosphere with pollution and noxious gases. Robot technology meanwhile proceeds with little thought given to its repercussions. We’re already “weaponizing” robots (the US drones that tracked down Moammar Gadhafi, for instance), entrusting them with killing technology. As with most things, sure, it’s fun as long as people get to buy cool iPods and smartphones and tablets — but it will be less fun when artificial intelligence reaches a point of “singularity”: when computers can actually think quicker and better than us, on their own. At that point, a lot of those problems that have nagged humankind for its entire history will be settled and/or solved by robot intelligence in a heartbeat. And our purpose on this spinning blue marble may then come to seem a little… limited.

Or so the sci-fi writers tell us. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Wilson posits a compelling imaginary world where humans get to stand up, fight, and live another day. Preferably a bit wiser in the bargain.

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