Duke Law’s Kristen Casey reviews: “Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution”

Today’s post is by my brilliant research assistant Kristen Casey.  You’ve seen her work before (see here  here, and here), and today she reviews P.W. Singer’s and August Cole’s new book, Burn In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution

Here’s Kristen:

Burn In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution, the latest from P.W. Singer and August Cole, follows Marine veteran and FBI agent Lara Keegan several decades in the future as she hunts for a terrorist disillusioned with technological change and intent on revealing what he believes to be the inherent evil of artificial intelligence.

The most compelling aspect of Burn In is its twist on the traditional buddy cop trope. Agent Keegan, who served as her Marine unit’s “robot wrangler” in the Middle East, is partnered with a Tactical Autonomous Mobility System, or “TAMS”, an advanced domestic law enforcement robot the FBI is piloting. Together, Keegan and TAMS investigate the series of strange and devastating occurrences linked to the failure or perversion of technology.

We join Keegan as she navigates her personal and professional relationship with TAMS. How is Keegan meant to feel towards the robot, especially as TAMS develops a relationship with her daughter? And as the terrorist’s plot intensifies, how can the skills and strengths of human and machine best complement each other to solve the case and save lives?

Agent Keegan—intelligent, pragmatic, and resigned without being unfeeling—is our ideal avatar as we are introduced to this world. We see through her eyes not only how the technological transformation has affected geopolitics, warfare, and law enforcement, but also its continued effects on the social fabric of America as citizens wrestle with feeling left behind by the waves of change (sentiments already consistently expressed today.)

Keegan’s experiences invite the reader to ponder some of the traditional questions inherent to stories about future technology—what does it mean for something to be “alive” or “human”? In what ways can artificial intelligence go beyond the control of human creators? Burn In also asks the readers to consider the ways in which our current political and economic institutions and relationships are ill equipped to adapt to these sweeping changes. As an example, the partnerships between government and private industry in the world of Burn In are more entwined and corrupt than ever, with dire consequences for individual freedoms.

Burn In is thoughtfully researched and its world building is carefully contemplated, with footnotes throughout for those who want to dig in further to any particular innovation or concept. The authors’ inclusion of specific details and observations builds a believable picture of a society almost entirely reliant on artificial intelligence and technology. Some specific aspects of the novel’s future are fun (drone-delivered groceries and meals), others are far more troubling (129 degrees in Washington DC).

Of particular note to this law student is the plight of Agent Keegan’s husband, a formerly successful Yale-educated regulatory lawyer who was laid off when his law firm replaced 80% of junior staff with machine learning systems. As Keegan observes, “Automation had always seemed a problem just for truck drivers or factory workers, until suddenly it wasn’t. It turned out not even a Yale Law degree could compete with the algorithms.” Even trial lawyers in Keegan’s world had become obsolete. “Predictive analysis meant that both sides knew the chances of success” and thus opted to settle rather than embark on the “folly” of a costly lawsuit or prosecution.

Burn In is full of these kinds of portraits of people grappling with their place and purpose in a society increasingly run by machines, where the old rules no longer apply. It also highlights the ways in which technology has already impacted wage and wealth inequality and productivity.

In comments shared with General Dunlap, Singer suggested the Burn In is intended not only to have a predictive value but also a preventive one. Can we avoid social, political, and economic ills by realistically imagining and grappling with what society will look like in the coming decades? How must our institutions, attitudes, and relationships to technology evolve?

The authors and the novel’s characters clearly share an apprehension about the consequences of technology for our economic and social wellbeing. While the villain of the story attempts to “fight the future” and the inevitable technology, our hero instead confronts the uncertain and frightening future and begins the daunting task of carving out her place in it.

Singer summarized a “core theme” of Burn In: the technological transformation of society “is coming,” and the “best manner” to “weather the changes it will bring . . . is to find the optimal human-machine partnerships.” Agent Keegan’s mission is representative of our larger challenge. As she herself says, “There’s no fighting change. We have to embrace it.”

About the author:  Kristen Casey (J.D. 2021) is a third-year law student at Duke University School of Law. She grew up in San Diego, CA, and graduated cum laude from Harvard University with a B.A. in Government in 2015. Kristen was a business strategy consultant at PricewaterhouseCoopers before coming to Duke Law and interned with Warner Bros. Entertainment in Los Angeles during her 1L summer. She is Co-Director of the Veterans Assistance Project and a Staff Editor for Duke’s Law and Contemporary Problems journal.

The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect the views of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security, or Duke University.

Remember what we like to say on Lawfire®: gather the facts, examine the law, evaluate the arguments – and then decide for yourself!

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