This article originally appeared on VICE US.
Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution is a new form of book, a cross between fiction and nonfiction. It is a techno-thriller, following a hunt for a terrorist through the streets of a future Washington, D.C. At the same time, it is a work of research with over three hundred factual explanations and predictions baked into the story, replete with the nonfiction reference endnotes to show their source from the real world. The idea is for the reader to enjoy a vivid story and characters, but also learn about everything from how AI works and its planned applications, to its likely impact on the future of politics, economics, society, and security. As a result, Burn-In has drawn early praise from a diverse mix that ranges from the current or former heads of the CIA, U.S. Navy, Marine Corps, NATO, and LinkedIn to the writer of Lost, Watchmen, and the new Star Trek movies.
The following scene takes place about halfway through the story. A series of cyberattacks on dams, water treatment plant, and sewer systems (all incredibly vulnerable critical infrastructure in the real world) have caused a massive flood to sweep across the low-lying areas of Washington DC. In a sense, it is an intentional version of the 1936 flood that remade the city. In the tsunami's aftermath, FBI Special Agent Lara Keegan and the test system that she's been assigned to vet are part of the emergency rescue effort. TAMS (short for Tactical Autonomous Mobility System) is where the software of Siri and Alexa and the hardware of robots will be in approximately 10-15 years. Keegan is uncertain whether she should help train up TAMS or sink the experiment, to help protect her own job down the line... -- P.W. Singer
Keegan kept her hands on the SUV’s wheel, ready to snatch control as she travelled with TAMS against a steady stream of autonomous ve- hicles fleeing the flooding along the Potomac. Above its historic high water mark, the river spread over the entire basin and had even over- whelmed the barrier walls at Reagan National Airport.
“Send our location to Noritz and the TOC,” said Keegan. TAMS pushed a thumbs-up emoji to Keegan’s vizglasses.
Their destination was the old FBI Washington Field Office building at 4th and G. A notice had gone out that a temporary command post had been set up there after the Hoover Building’s basement flooded and the entire block lost power.
On the SUV’s screen, Keegan projected live satellite imagery of the city overlaid onto a street map. It showed how the flood wave had paid no mind to the orderly gridlike arrangement of Washington’s streets. The initial wave had surged well up to M Street, but then the waters had quickly receded, leaving muddy red sidewalks and sucking cars right out of their parking spaces.
Most of all the view showed how just a few feet in elevation made all the difference between devastation and normalcy. Most parts of the city were untouched, but now a massive moat cut through Washington, DC,’s federal district, turning the southern chunk of the city into an island. The Potomac River’s newest tributary entered the city at the Tidal Basin on the edge of the National Mall before its waters returned back into the main river near the lower elevation of the District Wharf shopping complex. Or rather what had been the District Wharf shopping complex.
The borders of the flood zone reflected the subtle topographic con- tours of a city constructed out of swampland, unnoticed by most residents, but which had originally set its design over three centuries back.3 The flood’s edge ran along Pennsylvania Avenue, roughly miroring the now-paved-over Tiber Creek that had once reached right up to the President’s Palace, before it was renamed the White House.4 It then ran from 15th Street beside the Treasury Department building, down over to the I-395 highway tunnels that opened at the base of Capitol Hill.5 Its southern side ran along Madison Avenue, the lower edge of the National Mall, which had previously been the open canal where Washington’s residents had dumped their trash in the early days of the republic’s capital city. The slight incline of the National Mall protected its green spaces, but the Museum of Natural History and the Justice Department, as well as the other buildings between Madison and Pennsylvania Avenues, now appeared as squares of cement rising out of the brown-red water, like tiny islands.
Keegan zoomed in, seeing tiny dots swarming each of the island-buildings. Some were brightly colored city and federal emergency response drones, but there were also parcel drones dropping packages on the rooftops, an automated rush of requested deliveries and flash-funding charity drops. Panning over to the veterans’ encampment, Keegan saw that the rest of Capitol Hill remained dry.
“Route the vehicle around any areas less than 20 meters in elevation,” Keegan said, realizing the vehicle’s navigation probably didn’t have a scenario for city streets literally disappearing underwater.
They got as close as Farragut Square before the crowds got too thick. Keegan sent the SUV off to autopark up on high ground near H street and they set out on foot. Overhead, a bright yellow FEMA drone loitered in a lazy circle, while a micro-cam drone from one of the newsfeeds landed on the statue of Admiral Farragut to get a better shot. Thousands of people were out in the streets, some with a specific destination in mind, some aimless, and many just to film and comment.
As they wove through the crowd, they passed the Farragut West Metro entrance. Keegan hated that spot more than anywhere in DC. She’d first been there nine years ago, while on leave from the Saudi stability op. It had been in early December, so on her way home, she’d killed time during a seven-hour layover at Dulles Airport to come in and check out the White House Christmas tree and all that stuff that you were supposed to be fighting for. Riding the subway escalator up, though, she had recoiled at the stench, not because it was that bad, but because it was all too familiar. The station had been turned into an encampment for desperate people, crushed together to escape the cold. She was a stone’s throw from the White House, witnessing the abject abandonment of fellow humans that she’d only before experienced in refugee camps. And she knew that her commander in chief would never walk the two city blocks to confront that dark fact.
Today, a stream of men and women, some with children, emerged out of the station, wet and sobbing.
“TAMS, gimme a status check on the Metro,” Keegan said as she headed down to see if anyone below needed aid. The rule beaten into her since boot camp was Marines headed toward the sounds of chaos.6 “The lower-elevation sections of the Orange Line and Blue Line are flooded,” said TAMS. The bot pushed a Metro map with the affected segments to Keegan’s vizglasses. It also marked malfunctions that had apparently locked the valves for the Metro system’s air vents and the DC stormwater overflow pipes that connected to the Potomac River.7 To save money, the designs had piggybacked off each other, but now their malfunction prevented the system from clearing itself.
Peering down the escalator, Keegan could see the effect. Muddy water lapped halfway down the steps, meaning the entire ticketing mezzanine was flooded. Worse, the next lower level where the trains boarded also had to be completely underwater.
“Is everyone out?”
“No. My acoustic sensors indicate there is a female adult trapped below.”
Keegan couldn’t hear anything over the rush of the water and the voices of the crowd above. Her stomach knotted. “Where exactly?”
“I cannot ascertain.”
There was an agent’s booth in the middle of the second level. That might be high enough for somebody to climb up on and get above the flood. She eyed the swirl of muddy water. It was too deep to stand in, and the current would send her down into the Metro tunnels if she tried swimming it.
“Can you reach her?” Keegan said.
“Yes. I am rated to ISO standards for underwater operations for a duration of thirty minutes at 10 meters depth.”
The water reeked of ozone and sewage. If TAMS went in and never came out, that would certainly solve the problem that the deputy director had put in her lap. But it would present another: she would have to find a way to finish the rescue herself.
“Then do it. I need you to reach whoever is down there and lead them out.”
“OK,” it said.
TAMS stepped carefully toward the water’s edge, narrowly avoiding stepping on a tiny frog that hopped up the steps. All sorts of shit down there is going to be forced up, thought Keegan.
“Hey! You need to get out of there! What the hell are you doing?” a man shouted down.
“Good question,” Keegan called back, then she thought better of it.
It wasn’t the time for snark.
“We’re FBI. There’s someone trapped down there!”
A barrel-chested African American soldier in Army fatigues smeared with mud came running down the escalator. He pulled up in shock at the sight of TAMS descending into the water, one hand gripping the railing. “That thing yours?”
“Yeah,” Keegan replied. “It detected someone inside. I think they’re stuck in that booth by the turnstiles, you know, where you ask for di- rections.”
“And you’re going to send the Terminator in after them?” “If you’ve got a better idea, I’m listening.”
“Nah. Just don’t ask me to sign for that when you lose it.”
With the water now up to its neckline, TAMS had stopped to listen to their conversation. Perhaps the soldier’s uniform had triggered some old program.
“TAMS, you’re still cleared to proceed,” Keegan stated. “OK.”
It wasn’t a remarkable set of last words, Keegan thought, as the bot disappeared into the murk in a shimmering blue halo generated by its onboard navigation lights. Her AR glasses pushed a notice: Network connection lost.
“This going to work?” the soldier asked. “Hell if I know.”
“Sergeant Terrence King, Maryland National Guard,” he said. “Your phone app functional? I need to let my wife know I’m OK.”
“Agent Lara Keegan. No, not without the bot boosting the signal.” The man sighed.
Then light washed over them and Keegan looked back up the escalator and saw a line of people gathered to watch, several turning on their lens cameras to record them, even a few holding out old smart- phones to get a better angle.
“FBI! Turn your cameras off!” she shouted back. “Like that’s ever worked,” said King.
Keegan glared at him, then turned back to the water, waiting for any sign of the robot. Neither spoke as they waited, watching another frog hop past their feet and clamber up the escalator. Then they heard a voice.
“We’re coming up! We’re coming up!” a breathless woman shouted from the far end of the tunnel. Then she appeared, a woman in her fifties. She thrashed at the water with one hand, her other arm being pulled by some force under the water. Just ahead of her a faint blue light got brighter and brighter as it approached beneath the surface.
“We’re up here! Watch the steps at the bottom of the escalator,” said Keegan, wading into the water as TAMS came into view, its head barely clearing the surface. She and King pulled the woman out of the water, the polyester of her blue WMATA uniform dripping sheets of water.
King took off his jacket to wrap the woman up and led her up the stairs.
TAMS, meanwhile, waited down at the bottom of the escalator, the water lapping at its waist, its arm locked on the railing. Keegan thought about what exactly the deputy director would order at this moment.
“Come on, TAMS,” she said. “Get out of the water, hero.” “OK.”
As the machine exited the murk, water spurted from its joints and sensor ports. On Keegan’s viz screen, it showed that the connection to the bot’s operating system was still not working.
“Confirm diagnostics, TAMS,” Keegan said.
The robot stood still for thirty seconds, until a message read on Keegan’s vizglasses: System reboot complete. Restore network connection.
That meant taking TAMS up to the street level to get a signal. “Fol- low me to the street and reestablish satellite bandwidth connection.”
At the top of the stairs, she stopped so abruptly that TAMS liter- ally stepped on her heels. Even through the pant leg, the metal edge scraped a piece of skin off the back. “Shit,” she said to herself, but not at the pain.
Waiting there was King, standing at attention. He threw a salute and then started clapping, a steady authoritative rhythm. The crowd of hundreds behind him joined in, wet palms slapping together in applause, humans looking for something good to cling to on a day of awfulness, even if it was a machine.