The Price of Freedom: An Interview with Annalee Newitz, Author of "Autonomous"

09/21/2017 03:18 pm ET

In the far future setting of Autonomous, Annalee Newitz’s groundbreaking science fiction debut, the tyrannical power of corporations runs rampant and robots are indistinguishable from human beings. Against this backdrop of corporate oppression, the drug pirate Jack—who has dedicated her life to illegally manufacturing and distributing medicines—becomes entangled in a vast and deadly plot. Soon she is racing against time to solve the mystery of a terrifying drug, even as a ruthless, sadistic investigator is hot on her trail.

Autonomous combines a propulsive, action-packed plot with meditations on corporate ethics, AI, identity, and what it means to be free. I caught up with Annalee to find out about her inspirations, thoughts on AI, the experience that grounds this science-based novel, and more.

Readers know you as a founder of io9, but Autonomous demonstrates an intimate grasp of issues in the scientific community. Can you tell our readers about the aspects of your background that you brought to this work?

I’ve been working as a science journalist for about 15 years—covering everything from exoplanets and AI to archaeology and biotech—and before that I did a lot of writing about computer security and hacking for places like Wired. One of the things I love about my job is that I get to spend a lot of time talking to researchers, academics, and scientists, so I’ve picked up a lot of stuff about the politics around scientific research in the course of my reporting. And when I started work on Autonomous, I couldn’t completely turn off my journalist brain, so I interviewed a lot of experts on the topics covered in this book—synthetic biology, neuroscience, addiction, patent law, and (of course) robotics. A lot of people helped me understand the science in this novel, though none of them should be held accountable for my leaps of logic.

Science fiction about the future is often about the way we live now. But it can also be an attempt to demonstrate or predict how society will evolve in the future. I’m interested in the extent to which Autonomous is a commentary about the present moment, vs. how much of it is predictive—or a cautionary tale!

Autonomous is really about the present, and a lot of the things that happen—patent piracy, insanely expensive drugs—are going on right now. That said, obviously we don’t have human-equivalent AI, and it’s possible we never will. So the sections of the book about robots weren’t exactly what I’d call a prediction, but they are a meditation on what life would be like for sentient robots if they evolved out of our current ideas about AI. We don’t have a good way of talking about non-human intelligence, and a lot of public figures like Elon Musk are warning that we need to put extreme limitations on AI to prevent it from destroying us. Call it preemptive enslavement if you want. Mostly I worry that our attitudes toward potential human-equivalent AI are just reflections of how humans view each other. If a person is different, or has a mind that doesn’t work “typically,” they get pathologized or in a worst case scenario called subhuman.

Every aspect of Autonomous—from the relationships between robot and human, master and slave, to broader systemic issues like drug patents—ends up being related to agency and freedom.

Honestly I hadn’t intended to bring all the themes back to agency and freedom, so I think this is one of those magical things about writing fiction where you wind up doing something and noticing it later. Originally the book was called Pirate vs. Robot, and later I toyed with calling it The Addictions. So it wasn’t until really late in the revision process that the idea to unify it with the title Autonomous even occurred to me.

A great deal of popular culture, from Star Wars to Westworld, tackles AI in one way or another. Did you see something missing from the broader cultural discussion about AI that you wanted to address in Autonomous

I think we aren’t talking enough about how we’ll recognize sentient AI when it emerges. What if it looks so different from human intelligence that we don’t notice it’s alive and just keep treating it like a machine? What if it’s in pain? What kind of rights do we give to a form of life that we don’t fully understand? I think too much of the conversation right now is focused on controlling AI, and defending ourselves against it, because we assume it will be a malevolent superintelligence. What if it’s a peaceful weirdo intelligence? 

Of course, all of this is highly speculative. Perhaps the most conversations we need to have about AI involve how we’ll actually build it, and how we can prevent it from replicating biases in the human data it’s learning from. Luckily we have a lot of smart academics like Joanna Bryson thinking about that question right now.

Relating to that question, what are some of the literary and cinematic works that have inspired you as an author? I ask about cinema because movies figure prominently in the background of Autonomous!

A couple of movies really inspired Autonomous that might seem weird. I love Martin Scorsese, and I was thinking a lot about Taxi Driver and GoodFellas, but also The Age of Innocence, when I was creating Jack and Threezed’s lives. Also, The Sarah Connor Chronicles was a big influence, and I think Jack has a bit of Sarah Connor in her. I had already written a draft of the novel when Her and Westworld came out, but I definitely feel like those stories are dealing with exactly the same issues that I am when it comes to AI and it was gratifying to see them.

When it comes to literary influences, there are a ton of things! I am a huge fan of Octavia Butler, whose novels never let anyone off the hook and are such powerful metaphors for colonialism. Carol Emshwiller, Charles Yu, and Joanna Russ are big influences too, both stylistically and in the way they all balance humor with darkness. I grew up reading William Gibson, and I think I stole his tendency to make every character a pleasing shade of matte gray. I also thought a lot about Vernor Vinge’s novel A Deepness in the Sky when it came to the drug in my book, Zacuity, which causes people to become obsessed with work. 

Do you find that as a writer of fiction, you can approach issues differently than as a journalist? What are the advantages, and what are the limitations? 

Absolutely. In fiction, I can explore the motivations of my characters and reveal their innermost traumas and secrets. I can also be extremely opinionated about how science is being used. In my journalism, I focus on the scientific work and discoveries. I try to get readers excited about learning new things about the universe and human history, and that doesn’t generally involve my opinions very much. But in fiction, I can delve into human foibles and ambiguity.

Annalee Newitz is a journalist and a fiction author, writing about the intersection of science, technology, and culture. Her first science fiction novel, Autonomous, was released from Tor in September 2017.

Currently she writes longform essays about science as the Tech Culture Editor at Ars Technica. Previously, she was the founding editor of the science/scifi site io9, and editor-in-chief of popular tech site Gizmodo. She’s the author of the nonfiction book Scatter, Adapt and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction (Doubleday and Anchor), which was a finalist for the LA Times Book Prize. She was also the recipient of a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT.

Annalee's nonfiction has also 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 received a Ph.D. in English and American Studies from UC Berkeley, and her dissertation was published by Duke University Press as the book Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture.

Annalee served as a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and is an appointed council member of the American Geophysical Union.

Born and raised in California, Annalee has traveled widely for her research and loves to visit cities around the world. She spends as much time as possible in Canada, where she has family. Her heart belongs to the beautiful prairies and lakes of Saskatchewan, which feature heavily in her first novel, Autonomous, coming from Tor Books in September 2017.

To learn more about Annalee visit www.techsploitation.com.

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Ilana Teitelbaum has written about books for the Globe and Mail, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Salon, and other places. Her epic fantasy debut, Last Song Before Night, was released by Tor/Macmillan in 2015 under the pen name Ilana C. Myer. The sequel, Fire Dance, is forthcoming in 2018.

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