Robot Dreams Or Human Nightmares?
By Rob Krakoff
Reviewed by Harriet Hart
Yuval Noah Harari, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has written a bestseller titled Sapiens, a widely celebrated work of non-fiction championed by the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates and Barack Obama, and translated into 40 languages. In it the historian predicts a future for humanity in which we have created networked artificial intelligence with a far greater capacity for reason than our own.
Local novelist R.M. Krakoff just published a novel titled Robot Dreams, depicting that future world in a more accessible form than Harari’s 800-page tome. Krakoff sets the stage by telling us that “as governments fell and society transformed in the last century, science continued to march toward ever more sophisticated AI…
From the beginning of technology’s fervor over AI development, there have been few governmental regulations…. Robotic inventions became a Wild West scientific adventure where machine automation seemed to supplant space exploration.” He describes a society in which robotics, intended to make human lives easier, healthier, happier, longer and kinder became more self-aware and ambitious and are no longer content just to serve.
Inhabiting this brave new world of 2101 is an interesting cast of characters including Andre, the likeable android protagonist, and Barbara Manning, a human mercenary and killing “machine” who Andre hires to track down his kidnapped human owner, Clem Wellman, and the carbon –based villains who are holding him prisoner.
Krakoff’s greatest strength is his visual imagination. The book would make an excellent adventure film with confrontational scenes occurring in various exotic locations. The plot keeps Andre on the move and includes conflict and tension. The dialogue is lively, the characters speak as we would expect them to: “I’m toast, Andre. Don’t waste the effort. Just do me two favors. Kill this sonofabitch and when you get the time, call Alexander Joseph and tell him that I loved him…” (Wounded hit woman Barbara.)
Like its predecessor, Dream Hackers, this novel has philosophical depth. It poses the question: What does it mean to be human in 2101? Andre is a machine, built and programmed by humans, but he is evolving and slowly acquiring emotions, like anxiety over his future. He worries about being disassembled into his component mechanical parts. In other words, he fears annihilation. Andre behaves a whole lot better than many of the carbon-based characters in the novel, displaying loyalty, courage, and determination. At one point he asks himself, ‘”Am I really alive?” He has outgrown his original programming and now has self-awareness.
Krakoff has crafted a fast moving futuristic adventure story, which makes the reader stop and think, but it does have a couple of weaknesses. In his desire to create a future world the reader can readily inhabit, the author lapses into lecturing us through Andre, especially in the early chapters. And then, there’s his use of the present tense throughout. In Chapter 2, for example, he writes: “I increase my pace,” and “I call out to him” and “I kneel next to Brenda” and “I turn” and “I search”. I found this annoying and wished he had used the more familiar past tense, which seems like nit- picking until you’ve spent an hour with it.
In Robot Dreams, human readers disinclined to tackle Harari’s 800 page Sapiens get the opportunity (in just 342 pages) to explore a future society where artificial intelligence has taken our jobs and stolen our sense of purpose. Today, we believe we master machines, but in the future they may master us. It’s worth thinking and reading about.