When intelligent machines turn nasty, the best place to be is in close proximity to Ph.D. roboticist and best-selling author Daniel Wilson. The prolific Portland transplant has been on a roll since breaking out with How to Survive a Robot Uprising, Where's My Jetpack? and other geek humor handbooks funning on future technology.
In 2011, Wilson's novel Robopocalypse introduced the planet to Archos R-14, the super-sly A.I. that initiated war against humans and caught the attention of Steven Spielberg. With multiple Hollywood projects in development and a new novel to promote, Wilson chatted with Blastr on fave film robots, groovin’ to Symphony of Science and what fresh fiendish hell Archos is plotting next.
What’s it like waking up every morning knowing Steven Spielberg is going to turn Robopocalypse into a movie?
(Laughs) Well, it hasn’t happened yet. I always think that my ship has come in and then, a week later, I realize it’s back to work. At the end of the day I’m still just a guy in Portland with a kid and a wife. I never know what to expect, but I’m very lucky to do what I do.
Was Robopocalypse always planned as a multipart story?
Yes, I always planned for there to be more books and set up the first book so I could do a second.
You relocated to Portland, Oregon, from Pennsylvania. How did you land in the City of Roses?
Fittingly, a computer algorithm chose Portland. My wife finished her degree in child psychology and she had to go through a matching process. Portland is what came out of that algorithm. We were ready to live in Seattle or Pittsburgh but were really happy once we got to Portland. I love this city.
Your new novel, Robogenesis, just launched in June. What can readers expect from this resurrection of Archos R-14?
Robogenesis picks up right where Robopocalypse left off. It has a lot of the same characters, and it’s about their attempts to rebuild civilization after Robopocalypse occurs. But it’s a world populated by a host of superintelligent A.I.s and we’re just pawns on their battlefield. It’s a longer book, too. I went a lot more in depth with the characters and took my time, and yet people are still complaining the novel is too short. So I realize I can’t win. In Robogenesis, I play a lot with that fine line between men and machines. I have robots that sympathize with humans and vice versa, and it just takes the entire world up a level in overall complexity. Also, everything Archos is trying to do in Robopocalypse is finally explained in Robogenesis.
With your literary affinity for retina-searing visuals, do you have an itch to direct movies down the road?
All those same visual aspects of the first book you’ll see again in the sequel. I got a lot better at writing those sequences. I naturally write very visually. It’s in my DNA. At some level I’m still a fourth grader playing with G.I. Joes and just describing what I see in my head on paper. With Robogenesis, I got more into the characters and the relationships and the emotionality. As for directing movies, I’m happy to stick with writing and leave the movie making to the professionals.
What has the critical reception to the sequel been so far?
People seem to be loving it. It’s been on the Los Angeles Times bestseller list and it’s getting great reviews from official outlets and also from readers. Reviewers were a bit nicer this time around, I think because there was less hype surrounding the book. Robopocalypse, because of the DreamWorks deal and Spielberg involvement, had a lot of hype and that turns people off, sometimes. I guess I hit the nerd lottery.
Was this book easier or harder to write than Robopocalypse?
I felt like it was harder because I was holding myself to a higher standard and gave myself more time to go over it and make it better and better. The structure of Robogenesis didn’t emerge until I was more than half finished. Suddenly everything lined up with perfect symmetry to support that new structure and it was an amazing transformation. I sold Robopocalypse on a 100-page sample and wrote the rest with DreamWorks and screenwriter Drew Goddard waiting on the pages. I wish I could do that with every book! The pre-viz artwork they fed me was incredible. It was indescribably amazing and useful. And yet time is an indispensable resource for a writer.
The Archos A.I. seems infused with a seductive wit. What was your plan and creative recipe for his conjuration?
Archos is fun to write. He’s basically a godlike intelligence, similar to a Sherlock Holmes or Hannibal Lecter. My goal in writing Archos R-14 was to consider the world from a completely alien perspective, and for me that involved drawing on what I learned in grad school about how machines think. I also listened to a lot of Symphony of Science, these auto-tuned songs that put together geeky, inspirational science quotes from old lectures and TV shows with Neil deGrasse Tyson, Arthur C. Clarke and Carl Sagan. It’s the kind of stuff designed to instill wonder in you. Human evolution and the brain. If you could intellectually grapple with the mysteries of the universe, you’d quickly know how little you know. If you’re like Charlie Gordon from Flowers for Algernon, you don’t worry about much in life, but if you’re a godlike intelligence you can’t get away with that. Archos R-14 is grappling with deep stuff.
Are you happy with how Robogenesis advances the saga you began in Robopocalypse?
Yes. I wrote a book I’d love to read, with world-building in unexpected ways, things like the parasites or the evolution of the spider tanks and the tall walkers. I like everything moving forward at a breakneck pace. It was a unique challenge to make Robogenesis a standalone novel without the necessity of reading Robopocalypse, and being able to introduce and explain that technology in an organic way.
Steven Spielberg’s big-buck Robopocalypse film keeps getting delayed after being cast with Chris Hemsworth and Anne Hathaway. How close is it to “cameras rolling?”
Last I heard, the script has been rewritten and it’s ready to go. Spielberg wanted to make it a more constrained story, smaller and more impactful. To reduce the scope of the story to increase the emotional stakes. I worked with DreamWorks quite a bit in the beginning and at this point, as far as I know, it’s definitely still in development. Spielberg is totally planning to direct this movie. In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly he talked a bit about Robopocalpyse. So I’m a spectator at this point in the process, but I do feel they’re going to get around to making this. It’s fine with me if it takes time.
Do you fear the script falling into the same trap as World War Z, with an alteration of the story that repels fans?
Well, it’s Spielberg, so, no, I’m not afraid. I’m really anticipating what they’re going to come up with. I was funneled concept art early on, so I know a bit of what to expect. The only thing I’m afraid of is that Archos R-14 will be portrayed too similarly to Skynet. Archos does not want to kill all humans -- that’s too simplistic a way to portray an advanced A.I. There is so much pop-culture momentum behind the robot uprising meme that it’s tough to do something more complex.
Were you ever asked to participate in the adaptation?
(Chuckles) No, my screenwriting career is not quite on par with my novel-writing career. There were a lot of amazing screenwriters involved with the Robopocalypse screenplay, and I’m happy to be in their hands.
What was grad-student life like at the world-famous Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University?
It was a lot of really smart people from all over the world. I was the only American in my master's program, and the people that were there were so smart and talented that it was humbling. You immediately realized you’re no longer the smartest person in the room. Instead, you pick a very specific topic of research and hammer away at it until you’re an expert. It was an amazing time. There was a strong level of competition but also a lot of collaboration because we were all in the same hell. It was a very “Real Genius” mix of personalities.
What subject was your Ph.D. thesis on?
Assistive Intelligent Environments for Automatic Health Monitoring. I built smart homes to monitor and help the elderly live safely and independently for as long as possible. So I had my own house instrumented with sensors constantly tracking people. I would throw parties and then go back and look at the data. It was a good time.
After a steady stream of success, and How To Survive A Robot Uprising and Where’s My Jetpack likely headed for the silver screen, how do you stay motivated?
I’m competitive by nature. The day is long and there’s not much to do other than make stuff up. A lot of what I’ve written has been optioned by Hollywood and is being developed at some stage. I just keep writing myself lottery tickets and hope to see one of them pay off at some point.
Is there a Robopocalypse videogame on the horizon?
The videogame rights are with Fox, so yes, there are probably plans for it, if a film goes into production.
What’s your take on the current tsunami of science fiction films and where are we in the product cycle?
I’m kinda sad that big event movies almost always need to have a brand attached, which limits the ability to explore. But what I’m excited about is long-format TV and the potential to explore some truly epic worlds -- and I’m excited to hopefully lead one of those expeditions. A movie is so short, and all the character development has to occur at a breakneck pace. People expect so much now, and television gives you time to tell an amazing story. Sci-fi movies can only get away with one high concept. Terminator got away with murder with both time travel and humanoid robots. To juggle both of those ideas correctly slows you down.
Growing up, what were your gateway influences in genre film and TV that steered your career course?
When I was a kid in Oklahoma, I always had my face in a book. I considered it a form of time travel. I would read books three minutes at a time or eight hours at a time. I was always reading science fiction. My dad took me to the used books store every weekend, and I’d pull down all the basics, Clarke, Bradbury and Asimov and Stephen King. Lots of Stephen King. And I loved the stories in the sci-fi/fantasy magazines, how they were set up like mousetraps. You’d hit the end and POW!, you were blown away.
In your mind, what is the most important advancement the robotics world will make in the next 10 years?
Robotics is an intersection field, and anyone doing basic research is solving very specific problems. I don’t see any single advancement, but there will be enough basic research accumulated that other people will be able to put things together in surprising ways and be able to build on new platforms. Perhaps one huge step is solving a natural language problem that will enable machines to talk to people the way people actually talk to each other. I can see that being partially solved within the next 10 years.
As one of a number of authors and scientists to posit the development of true A.I. as potentially apocalyptic for the human race, do you foresee its creation working out positively?
I love robots and I think they’re the best tool humankind has ever built. I think A.I. benefits a society now and in the future. If you step back from it, the A.I. is not necessarily evil, especially in Robogenesis. The A.I. is far more complex than we can ever hope to deal with. Archos has really complicated goals that involve human beings and are not dominated by the welfare of humans, and that’s really what I wanted to do in Robogenesis, to explore a more complex landscape with more developed A.I. characters.
What are your favorite rampaging robot movies?
Having a robotics background, I tend to focus on the details of the robots and A.I. so I can still love the robots without loving the movies. If I were to pick a movie I love and the portrayal -- it would have to be Bishop in Aliens. Everything about Bishop I love, the way he’s used and misused and portrayed, everything jibes. I love the unique way his insides are visualized and how he’s filled with this weird milk.
Which Hollywood sci-fi film has most accurately portrayed the way you think robotics is going to develop?
That would have to be Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Having an accurately portrayed machine means that the technology needs to support the story. I really liked David, the android boy, and felt like he behaved precisely how a robot would behave, right down to the ending. Showing David at the bottom of the ocean existing in an infinite loop is perhaps the most accurate portrayal of a robot I’ve ever seen.
Apocalypses and post-apocalyptic scenarios are huge in sci-fi right now. As a writer, what drew you to those ideas?
The concept of a robot uprising has a huge history in literature and movies, so it’s tough to avoid it when writing about robots. I spent a lot of time thinking about robots and robot uprisings. After making fun of it in How to Survive a Robot Uprising, I got serious about it. They’re fun scenarios to play out and think about. They engage a primal part of your brain that thinks about surviving disaster.
Will Archos R-14 survive Robogenesis and return for a third round?
Yeah, absolutely. I have plans to write a third novel, and if anyone has an idea on what title to call it, please email me at email@example.com. Obviously it needs to start with “Robo.”
When true robot anarchy arrives, what three things do you grab as you flee Portland, besides your family?
I’d have to say my Glock, my motorcycle and my bug-out bag.