Cover image of "Robopocalypse," a novel about an apocalyptic future

If you’re imagining ranks of humanoid robots marching in lockstep as they trample on humanity and all that we’ve created, you’re on the wrong track. Daniel H. Wilson’s Robopocalypse is a science fiction novel, to be sure. And as the title suggests it depicts an apocalyptic future. But it’s a future with a difference. This is a treatment of robots and artificial intelligence from an entirely different perspective. It’s engaging. And it’s very, very scary.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

An older view of an apocalyptic future

These days you can hardly scan the web or pick up a newspaper without stumbling across one, and perhaps several, stories about artificial intelligence. Many are scary. But almost universally the current treatment of AI is about software. Most robots are machines used to automate manufacturing processes. Of course, a few are built to seem friendly, presaging an era of robotic home assistants or health aides. But that’s mostly for show nowadays.

AI—the stuff that worries the likes of Bill Gates and Elon Musk—seems destined to inhabit the Internet. And potentially wreak havoc on all of humanity’s creations. Perhaps even eliminate the human race entirely to ensure a future for all the other species we seem so intent on killing off. But Daniel Wilson’s novel, which was published more than a decade ago, reflects an earlier sensibility. Back when the greatest danger we thought we faced from AI-powered robots seemed to be losing our jobs.

Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson (2011) 416 pages ★★★★☆

Image of robot thinking
If this is the future you imagine for artificial intelligence, you’re probably on the wrong track. Image: Forbes

A speculative novel structured as an oral history

The book is structured as an oral history of sorts, a succession of vignettes from varying points of view about the origins and the progression of the “New War” between “Rob” and the human race. You can read this book as a straightforward sci-fi thriller—fodder for Hollywood. (In fact, Steven Spielberg picked up the option to film the story, though he later shelved it. Instead, the director Michael Bay is now developing the property for the big screen.) However, the novel is also a thought-provoking portrait of what could conceivably happen a few decades down the road when the relentless advance of science and technology takes us to the Singularity. That’s the long-awaited point at which artificial intelligence outstrips human intelligence—although some AI experts today think it’s not far off. There are very, very smart people who have done a lot of thinking about this coming event. Some see the upside. Not everyone, though. Apparently, not Daniel H. Wilson, who knows a lot about AI. And, for what it’s worth, not I.

About the author

Photo of Daniel H. Wilson, author of this novel about an apocalyptic future
Daniel H. Wilson. Image: X-Prize Foundation

Daniel H. Wilson is the author of this novel and of four other books, including a sequel to Robopocalypse and How to Survive a Robot Uprising: Tips on Defending Yourself Against the Coming Rebellion. He comes to his subject matter armed with a PhD in Robotics from Carnegie-Mellon University, as well as Masters’ degrees in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics. His alma mater is frequently cited as the nation’s leader in robotics. The speculation in this novel is grounded in a genuine understanding of the world of automata and the possible futures they may create for us. Wilson, a Cherokee citizen, is a member of the Sci-Fi Advisory Council of the X-Prize Foundation.

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