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Interview: Annalee Newitz

Annalee Newitz is the Tech Culture Editor at Ars Technica, and the founding editor of io9. Previously, she was the editor-in-chief of popular tech site Gizmodo. Her nonfiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Wired, The Smithsonian Magazine, The Washington Post, 2600, New Scientist, Technology Review, Popular Science, Discover and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. She’s the co-editor of the essay collection She’s Such A Geek (Seal Press), and author of Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction (Doubleday and Anchor), which was a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize, and Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture (Duke University Press). Her first science fiction novel, Autonomous, will be released from Tor in September 2017.

Autonomous follows the cyberpunk cat-and-mouse game between Judith “Jack” Chen, a drug pirate who reverse engineers prescription pills on the black market, and Eliasz, a military agent who’s on her trail. During the chase, both Jack and Eliasz develop complex relationships with their companions: indentured human Threezed and military bot Paladin respectively. Tell us how this story came together for you.

The story began for me with Paladin. I wanted to write about what could happen if we do what Elon Musk and his friends suggested in their Open Letter about AI, which is to build AI in such a way that we control their every move and thought. The story came to me as I saw Paladin struggling to understand who he is, and to find his own identity in the morass of orders and commands that structure his consciousness. I wound up building a world around him. Jack is definitely just as important as Paladin, but she came to me later.

You start off the novel with lyrics from the song “The Last Saskatchewan Pirate” by Canadian musical comedy trio The Arrogant Worms. It’s like an overture for the whole story. You even list the trio as one of your musical inspirations in the acknowledgments. What about this song sparked your imagination for the book?

I love the prairie humor in this song, where the pirate “Tractor Jack” is stealing hay and fertilizer because the economy has tanked. I think my character Jack is doing something similar when she steals the molecular blueprints for medicines. It’s not exactly what we think of when we imagine piracy. But that’s the kind of swashbuckling you get when you grow up on the prairies.

The title indicates an exploration of freedom and what it means to be owned. What came to you first? The characters, setting, or theme?

I definitely started with the characters, though a key part of their identities is that they live in a world where people can be indentured. Each character’s status as indentured or not really shapes who they are, so it’s hard for me to divorce the characters from their environment.

How did you decide on Jack and Paladin as your main point-of-view characters?

I love ambiguity in stories, so I wanted Paladin to be tracking down a person who was basically a good guy. I hope that ultimately readers can identify with all the characters in the novel, and see how they are equally worthy of love, even though they screw up sometimes.

That’s what I really like about Autonomous. There’s no cut-and-dried hero-versus-villain scenario. Eliasz may see Jack as an anti-patent terrorist, but over the course of the novel we get to know them both as fully rounded characters. After a while, I didn’t feel like I was rooting for one character more than the other.

That’s great! I wanted the people in the book to feel as realistic as possible, and I think part of realism is acknowledging that it’s very rare to meet someone who is one hundred percent good or evil. One of the big themes of the novel is how we are all programmed, literally or figuratively. Humans grow up in families and cultures that teach us to view the world and other people in very specific ways. Jack’s experiences have taught her that patent laws can harm people, and even kill them, but she’s kind of clueless about how indenture laws do the same thing to humans and robots. Likewise, Eliasz has seen how indenture destroys lives, but doesn’t understand how intellectual property does too. Jack and Eliasz have a lot in common, but they never realize it.

Many authors have talked about novels they’ve written that didn’t find a publisher before selling their first one. Did you have any of those before Tor bought Autonomous?

Autonomous is the first novel I’ve ever completed, but I do have some half-finished monstrosities on dusty hard drives. For a long time, I’ve toyed with writing an alternate history of the 1980s, set in the shitty place where I grew up. Little bits of that idea are going to make it into my next novel, though in a very different form.

You’ve written several books of nonfiction before this one, including Scatter, Adapt and Remember and Pretend We’re Dead. What’s it like to switch gears to book-length fiction and to have your debut novel published?

It’s really liberating. Nonfiction will always be my first love, because I became a writer in order to tell the truth. But there are some truths you can only tell in fiction. Plus, I don’t have to worry that real-life people or companies will be harmed by this story. I can say as many inflammatory things as I want! Journalistic ethics do not apply. That’s just plain fun.

In one talk that you gave for your book Scatter, Adapt and Remember (youtube.com/watch?v=NExVFDO70t0), you introduced the audience to your idea of Slow Future vs. Fast Future. Futurists have projected rapid cycles of change because of how quickly technological developments take place. But you talked about Slow Future as a corrective to the idea of a Fast Future, because real-time change doesn’t happen as fast as it does in fiction, TV, or film. Is that why you set your novel in the twenty-second century as opposed to the near future?

Absolutely. I still cheated a lot, though, because I really don’t believe that we could develop human-equivalent AI in one hundred years. I’m not ruling it out, but I think it may take a lot longer than we realize, simply because we barely understand our own brains.

In the twenty-second century setting of Autonomous, humans coexist with a variety of bots. One question I returned to several times after reading your book was this: For bots like Paladin who are programmed specifically for indenture, is autonomy truly autonomy? Can Paladin transcend programming and formulate thoughts for himself, or does his programming not make any difference for its autonomy?

As several of the robots point out in the novel, autonomy isn’t a program—it’s more like a password or a key. It gives the robot root access on its own consciousness, which means it can modify its own programs or download new ones. I’d compare it to what happens to humans when they go from being children who basically believe everything their parents say, to being young adults who seek out new sources of information and begin questioning what they’ve been told. Once a robot is autonomous, it can look critically at its own programming and change its own mind.

You introduce us later to a medical research bot named Med, who was “born” autonomous and, unlike other bots, had parents. She hasn’t been indentured like Paladin, and for that reason she feels she’s missed out on a key part of the bot experience. Does her autonomy still count if it’s programmed?

One of the themes I tried to highlight in Med’s story is the way humans engage in microaggressions against autonomous robots. A common kind of microaggression is for a human to ask a robot if it has just been programmed to believe something, or if a human is secretly controlling it. Med deals with this all the time at work in the lab, where most of her colleagues are humans. My guess is that she’s been asked over and over if she’s “really” autonomous, or if her opinions “count” given that she thought them up using programs. She’s probably learned a ton of ways to cope with those subtle efforts at undermining her self-confidence in order to succeed.

You show that humans can also be indentured—not only by the Human Rights Indenture Laws but also by crazy performance-enhancing drugs that make them addicted to their work and doing repetitive tasks to the point of insanity or death. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition with what’s going on with the bots working toward autonomy. Would you like to say anything about that?

One of the themes in this book is that humans can be programmed just as easily as robots can, whether by cultural conditioning or drugs or stereotype priming. And it’s much, much harder for humans to break out of their programming than it is for bots. An autonomous bot can tweak her programs, but an autonomous human can’t easily get rid of traumas or other experiences that influence her beliefs.

In his essay “Consciousness in Human-Level AI” from the book What to Think About Machines That Think, professor of cognitive robotics Murray Shanahan picks two attributes that show signs of consciousness and human-level intelligence: awareness of the world and the capacity for suffering. An AI would need both of these in order to be considered sentient. Were you thinking of these specific traits when you were coming up with your bots or did you have others in mind?

I’ve been really influenced by AI researchers like Joanna Bryson, who has done work on the way machines’ learning algorithms wind up reflecting the biases and preconceptions of the people who make them. An algorithm is only as good as its dataset, and if that dataset is created by people, it will be packed with human prejudices. That’s why my bots are just as confused and neurotic as humans. I guess what I’m saying is that I consider a bot to be human-equivalent when it can make emotional and ethical mistakes just like humans do.

Some futurists and robotics experts say AI stands for artificial intelligence. Others say we should be thinking about AI as augmented intelligence, which is developed to increase human intelligence. Which is it for you?

It’s definitely both. Rodney Brooks, who used to run the AI lab at MIT, has always said that AI will grow out of the merger of human and machine. That could mean humans who’ve been augmented by things like exoskeletons or brain implants that enhance perception. Or it could mean machines that use huge datasets of human information to run a human-like mind. I imagine our future will hold a tremendous diversity of life forms and intelligences that are hybrids of biological life and machines.

You came up with a diversity of design models for your bots. Paladin, for example, is kitted extensively with armor and weaponry. One bot named Fang is designed as a mantis. Another is designed like a mosquito, and others are humanoid. Which of these models in your favorite?

I love them all, but obviously Paladin is the hottest.

You founded the blog io9 and were its editor-in-chief from 2008-2015. You were also editor-in-chief of Gizmodo, and you’re currently the tech-culture editor at Ars Technica. Did any of your journalism and editorial experience come in handy when putting your book together? Did any of the research for the novel come out of these experiences?

Yeah, I did a ton of research for the novel, and tried hard to make the science and social world as plausible as I could. Sometimes I would just stop writing and read scientific journals and articles to make sure I was on the right track, especially when it came to neuroscience. I also put in a lot of references to computer security that some readers will find deeply amusing. Yep, Paladin is using a futuristic version of SSL when he talks to other robots. And botadmins have a terrible sense of humor when it comes to naming the utilities that the robots run in their minds.

The release of Autonomous couldn’t be more timely. The way you delve into the issue of patented pharmaceuticals and how expensive they are for a large percentage of society reminds me of our current administration’s attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. It’s no wonder that Jack reverse engineers pills to make them available to patients who otherwise couldn’t afford them. When exactly were you working on the manuscript? What was going on at the time that made you think about patents?

I started this novel way back in 2010, so a lot of these healthcare issues were unfolding around me as I wrote it. But I think my anger about the patent system started when I was working at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, back in 2004. I was helping out with a project to challenge overly broad patents, and I started to research all the ways that patents can be used to intimidate small business owners and garage inventors. Plus, the way drugs are patented can actually endanger lives. Companies with deep pockets can file for secondary patents and lock up the rights to drugs long after they should enter the public domain and become generics. It’s an ugly, broken system.

Can we expect more adventures of Jack’s crusade against Big Pharma and pill patents in this world?

I have written a couple of short stories set in this world, including one for Lightspeed called “Drones Don’t Kill People,” which is about the birth of the robot civil rights movement. I also have a story coming out in the Saga Press anthology Robots vs. Fairies, which is about a robot revolutionary who is trying to recruit more robots to its cause. Both of those stories are about robots gaining autonomy and having political awakenings of very different kinds. After Autonomous comes out, I’ll probably write one more story set in this universe, possibly about what happens to a couple of the characters after the events of the novel.

What other writing projects do you have coming up?

I’m working on my next novel for Tor Books, which is about time travel. I’m super excited about it because it’s dealing with this weird part of time travel that is ubiquitous but pretty much nobody ever writes about it. You’ll have to wait a couple of years to see what that is! My other upcoming book project is a nonfiction book about archaeology, focused on ancient lost cities. It’s about why people chose to abandon their cities, and what we can learn from previous generations about urban collapse. So both books are allowing me to travel through time, which I love.

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Christian A. Coleman

Christian A. Coleman is a 2013 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. He lives and writes in the Boston area. He tweets at @coleman_II.