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Author Archive: "Daniel H. Wilson"

The Powell’s Playlist: Daniel H. Wilson

The Powell's PlaylistLike many writers, I'm constantly haunting coffee shops with a laptop out and my headphones on. I listen to a lot of music while I write, and songs do eventually get tangled up with certain characters. My novel Robogenesis is a techno-thriller that largely takes place in the country, pitting high-tech machines against decidedly low-tech human beings. As a result, my playlist ends up being a strange mix of golden-age country songs and chest-throbbing dubstep/trap electronic music. Whichever you prefer (and both is a good answer, too), these are the songs that congealed in my mind as I created Robogenesis in Portland's coffee shops and with the kiss of rain on the nape of my neck as I walked the streets.

1. "Mama Tried" by Merle Haggard
I went and licensed these lyrics from Sony to put inside the novel, as they perfectly explain the journey of the cowboy Hank Cotton as he descends into madness and worships a false god. Hank's mother told him to never pray to a devil, but he disobeys… and for that he will pay a ...


Robopocalypse: The Movie

For my last blog post, let's talk movies. In an extraordinary moment of good luck and good timing, DreamWorks chose to option Robopocalypse, and last November they announced Steven Spielberg would direct. Holy crap, right?

Now, I can't say what will happen in the movie. That falls way outside my lane. So for what it's worth, here are my two cents on robots in my novel and on the big screen:

1. Robots don't hesitate. If drama is the lifeblood of a movie, then dramatic pauses are the heartbeat. The dramatic pause is a distinctly human affectation, whether we're dramatically pausing to savor a victory, due to a moral conflict, or just to deliver a catchy line. Robot characters — especially mobile weaponry — have no such concerns. In Robopocalypse, the hero better stay on his toes because the robots won't stop to appreciate the look of terror on his face.

2. Form follows function. Robots are neat and we all know bigger is better. So, it's tempting to pump up those robot characters and add flashy extras that look ...


Humanoid Robots

In the world of Robopocalypse, humanoid robots called "Safety and Pacification" units are in common use by the military. These unarmed humanoid robots are sent out to patrol the dangerous streets of an occupied country and to serve as cultural liaisons between local armed forces personnel and indigenous peoples.

A humanoid robot is a general-purpose robot that looks a lot like a person, complete with a head, torso, arms, and legs. The "total package" humanoid can walk bipedally, like a person, and use its hands to dexterously manipulate objects in the world. It is human-shaped, but a humanoid robot needn't be indistinguishable from a person.

It was fun to think about humanoid robots in the military while writing the novel, but could it really happen? Well, I believe it's possible. Here's why:

1. There is a one-to-one mapping between the human and the humanoid body. Robots aren't that smart yet, so it is likely that a human will have to control the robot at some point through telepresence. Human-shaped robots are infinitely easier to manipulate because there is a one-to-one mapping ...


Exoskeletons

Robopocalypse is set in the near future — a world in which exoskeletons are commonplace. For those of you who don’t know, an exoskeleton is a human-shaped machine that you wear like a suit of armor to augment your natural strength. Exoskeletons have endless applications, mostly medical and military.

Not everybody has one, but prototype exoskeletons exist. In 2008, I ventured to the Berkeley Bionics Corporation in California and allowed researchers there to strap me into a dead-black titanium exoskeleton that suddenly gave me the power to lift 200 lbs like it was nothing.

When I first saw the HULC (Human Universal Load Carrier), it was hanging limply from the ceiling by straps attached to its shoulders, dangling over a treadmill. It had two spindly black legs attached to a backpack with two rectangular batteries on the shoulder blades and an armored computer in the center of its back. Amusingly, it had radiator fins instead of buttocks.

The whole machine looked like a human skeleton. The legs and hips had joints that mimicked the movement of human limbs. ...


Robot Drivers

In Robopocalypse, everyday technology rises up against us. Our cell phones know where we are, our social networks know who we trust, and domestic robots and appliances lurk in our homes. But at Zero Hour, the biggest threat to humankind comes from billions of self-driving automobiles throughout the world.

So, how real are self-driving cars?

When it comes to driving, humans have a terrible safety record. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), over 2.35 million people were injured in car accidents last year in the United States. On top of that, over 37,000 people were killed — and that’s the lowest number since 1961.

Clearly, we’re not very good at driving. Which is why robots have taken over.

Low level autonomous safety features have been around for decades. Antilock Brake Systems, which sense when a wheel is skidding and reduce brake pressure, were introduced way back in 1971. In 1997, General Motors introduced an Electronic Stability Control system that can sense the difference between the direction a car is ...


Should We Fear the Robots?

First, let me say that I'm excited to be writing a blog for Powell's! I happen to live a few blocks away from the Burnside store, and you can find me in there every few weeks slinking around, quietly turning my books to face out. (Yes, Powell's employees — that was me. Sorry.) But you should know I only flip my books because the people must be warned of the coming robot menace.

Well, not really. I do it so that people will notice my books.

Personally, I don't see much evidence of a growing robot rebellion. Nevertheless, people do have a love-hate relationship with technology (especially the kind that walks, talks, and thinks) — and that's exactly what I'd like to blog about this week. Robots. Whether you love 'em, or hate 'em, or haven't really thought much about them before, they're a growing part of our lives and they're not going anywhere.

I have been learning about robots for a long time. Before I got started writing books, I went to graduate school and studied robotics and machine learning. I ...


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