To celebrate the release of The Last Firewall, I decided to do another article about the technology behind the books. I wrote about the technology behind Avogadro Corp a few months ago, and that turned out to be fairly popular, so I’m back with the technology behind A.I. Apocalypse. (I don’t want to do The Last Firewall yet, because that would give away too many spoilers.) Although I don’t say so explicitly in the books, Avogadro Corp is set in 2015, A.I. Apocalypse in 2025, and The Last Firewall in 2035. I make all the technology as plausible as possible. That means it either exists, or is in development, or can be extrapolated from current technology. I described how I extrapolate tech trends and predict the future.
- Semi-autonomous cars: In an early scene of the novel, Leon runs across the street, trusting that the cars will automatically stop due to their mandatory “SafetyPilots”. As we know, Google has an autonomous car, and car manufacturers, such as Toyota, are working on them now. Many manufacturers are starting with small pieces of autonomy: maintaining location within a lane, maintaining the distance from the car ahead of them. Fully autonomous vehicles are clearly more expensive than partially autonomous vehicles, so it’s quite reasonable we’ll see collision avoidance technology before we see fully autonomous vehicles. Our safety conscious culture and insurance risk reduction could result in such technology being mandatory within ten years.
|Autonomous copter from 3D Robotics|
- Autonomous package delivery drones: Leon and his friends make their escape from a burning city via an unmanned package delivery plane. These are very feasible. Autonomous flying planes are very popular among hobbyists now. Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired, left to form 3D Robotics, who manufactures auto-pilot systems. Fuel efficiency is partly a function of flight speed. It makes sense that in a more fuel efficient future, we want to convey packages at just the right speed: not faster than they need to get there. When human pilots are removed from the picture, package delivery drones can become an economical way to move goods.
- Solar-powered flight: Also feasible, the first long-distance flights using solar power have already taken place. There are solar powered airships, solar powered quadcopter, solar powered fixed wing surveillance drone, and a long duration solar powered drone. The attraction to solar power includes indefinite flight time and low cost of flight. The drone Leon and his friends take has to land before dark, but that wouldn’t necessarily be the case in real life: most drones would contain battery power to allow them to maintain sufficient altitude at night (although they might lazily drift and trade-off some elevation during the dark hours).
- Mobile Phones as Computers: Leon and his friends own phones that work as both smartphone and computer by synchronizing their output to nearby display and input devices. This is similar to the Ubuntu Edge, which can be used as a full computer or phone. While computing power is increasing all the time, one of the constraints is displays. Phones can’t just grow indefinitely larger. Flexible screens might help, but still have limitations. The solution in the novel is the availability of cheap, high resolution displays nearly everywhere. By knocking your device against them, the phone and screen exchange a handshake that then permits the wireless display of data. Bump does this sort of synchronization now for exchanging contacts, files, and other data. Air Display creates a wireless remote display for iOS/OSX devices. One Amazon reviewer knocked A.I. Apocalypse for failing to foresee Google
Google Glass projector/prism system
Glasses. At the time I wrote the manuscript, they hadn’t been invented yet. It’s still not clear to me whether this will be the future or not. Glass could be yet another type of screen (after desktop monitor, tablet, and mobile phone screen), and while it offers certain conveniences (always there, relatively unobtrusive) it’s still a very small screen (many call it tiny) that’s more suitable for the display of summary information than for an immersive experience. That may change over time, such that we see full-screen glasses.
- Evolutionary Computer Viruses: One of the main themes of the novel is that artificial intelligence will evolve rather than be programmed. I’ve braved surveillance by the NSA to research current articles on evolutionary computer viruses. (Don’t try this at home, kids.) Computer Virus Evolution Model Inspired by Biological DNA is a research paper describing the idea in more detail that concludes “The simulation experiments were conducted and the results indicate that computer viruses have enormous capabilities of self-propagation and self-evolution.” The Frankenstein virus was a self-assembling and evolving computer virus put together by two researchers from the University of Texas at Dallas.
- Pilfering existing code to build a virus: Yup, the Frankenstein virus does that too.
- Humanoid robots: Later in the novel, the virus AI embody several humanoid robots. ASIMO is a long-running research project by Honda. Part of the reason Japan does research into humanoid bots (as opposed to other, more utilitarian designs) is that they see the use of robots as essential in caring for their growing elderly population. Even in the United States, we’re starting to see more research into humanoid form robots. That’s because robots need to navigate structures and tools designed for the human form. If you need to go up stairs, open doors, or use utensils, the human form works. If you look at the DARPA
robotics research challenge, you see humanoid robots being used, such as ATLAS, from Boston Dynamics. The same folks who brought us the scary looking Big Dog bring the even scarier looking ATLAS. (ASIMO is so cuddly by comparison.) Since the DARPA challenge requires the robot to negotiate human spaces (e.g. to go into a nuclear reactor and shutdown equipment), it takes a humanoid form to succeed at the challenge. Boston Dynamics has a ton of experience in this space. Their earlier PETMAN robot is also worth looking at.
- Mesh networking: In the novel, Avogadro Corp (a thinly disguised Google) has deployed Mesh networking every to guarantee net neutrality. Mesh networking is real and exists today. I think it would be a great solution to the last mile bottleneck. Google Fiber is proof that Google cares about the connection to the end-user. They just happened to have chosen a different technology to achieve the same result. Fiber is coming to Austin, Texas and Provo, Utah after starting in Kansas City, so clearly Google wants to continue the experiment. Unfortunately, commercial use of mesh networking seems to have been relegated to creating networks for legacy hotels and similar buildings. But I think there’s promise for consumers: Project Byzantium is a mesh network based on the Raspberry Pi for the zombie apocalypse. The low cost of the Raspberry Pi is awesome, but we should see even lower cost, smaller size, and lower power consumption solutions as time goes by. Then it becomes easy to sprinkle these all around, creating ad-hoc mesh networks everywhere.
- Internet Kill Switch: A late plot point involves a master password embedded in all network routers. While this doesn’t exist in reality, in the context of the novel, Avogadro Corp has basically given away mesh boxes and routers for years, and they’ve effectively become the sole provider of routers. Historically speaking, many routers come with default passwords, and many people don’t change them. Thanks to all the recent disclosures around the NSA spying on Americas, we know there are more backdoors than ever into computer systems around the world. I think it’s within the realm of feasibility that if you had one company providing all the routers, that there could exist a backdoor to exploit them all. (Of course, how the kill signal propagates around the internet is another question.)
- ELOPe’s Plane: This was modeled after Boeing’s X-37b. It’s pretty far-fetched that this could be considered a multi-mission military plane, but it’s what I had in mind visually. Think of the X-37b being 50% larger, wings large enough to make it aerodynamically appropriate for sustained flight, and the payload section holding a small number of passengers, and you’ve basically got ELOPe’s white unmarked plane.
- Rail gun: PA-60-41 uses a rail gun to shoot down the incoming military attack. Rail guns exist of course, although why one would be in downtown Chicago is questionable.
- Lakeside Technology Data Center: As the time of writing, Lakeside Technology was the world’s largest data center. It’s now the third largest. It does have a distinguishing cooling tower that was the target of ELOPe’s attack.
- Evolving General Purpose AI: The biggest leap in the book, of course, is that general purpose AI could evolve from simple computer viruses to sophisticated intelligences that communicate, trade, and form a civilization complete with social reputation. As much as possible, I matched the evolution of biological life: from single cell organisms to multicellular life, learned intelligence vs. evolved intelligence, etc. For this reason, I think it’s inevitable that will eventually occur: it’s just life evolving on a different substrate. (It’s probably not reasonable that it could happen so quickly, however.)