The A.I. threat that everyone’s missing
An interview with novelist and tech entrepreneur Lucas Carlson.
Hollywood gets A.I. all wrong. Silver screen depictions often feature a robot impersonating a human, a prospect that’s about as likely, and about as abused in screenwriting, as discovering humanoid extraterrestrial life. That’s why I found Lucas Carlson’s new technothriller novel, Big Data, so refreshing.
Carlson combines an engineer’s view on the future of A.I. with a cast of characters that can’t stop until the dark secret brooding at the heart of the tale is revealed. It’s a perfect summer read that you’ll burn through in a day or two, and will leave you with a disturbing vision of what tomorrow might look like. The A.I. in the story doesn’t fall into the tropes of so many Tinsel Town tales, and will please technology enthusiasts.
One reason why Carlson manages to avoid the typical pitfalls is because in addition to writing novels, he’s built multiple venture-backed software companies. His business chops also inform Big Data’s cast of characters, startup founders, corporate sharks, and shadowy board members. Carlson was kind enough to answer a few questions about the book and his experience as an author and entrepreneur.
*The author set up a limited Big Data giveaway for readers of this interview, which you can sign up for here.*
Big Data represents A.I. very differently than the traditional Hollywood treatment. What does popular culture get wrong about A.I.? What will real A.I. look like?
The tropes of A.I. have gotten boring and stale. Computers taking over humanity was mind blowing with The Matrix in 1999, but A.I. is more likely to cause bigger existential threats to humanity far before it becomes sentient generalized A.I. in 2045. That’s because we are welcoming huge troves of gadgets into our lives without thinking through the consequences. As we become more dependent on “dumb” A.I. (as opposed to human-esque intelligence), as it becomes responsible for driving our cars and heating our homes, we are creating a symbiotic relationship that can be exploited by literally anyone on the planet. People obsess about which country has atomic weapons and don’t think twice about uploading our lives to be read and abused by scammers in Nigeria and beyond. It isn’t computers we should be afraid of. It’s our own human nature that needs to be managed in a time of incredible changes in the underlying fabric of society.
The characters wrestle with themes like reconciling commercial and social benefit, managing the impacts and changes created by new technology, etc. What are the big ideas that we’re dealing with today as a culture that inspired you to write this specific story?
Bill Gates recently recommended a book, Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, which argues that what makes humans different from other animals isn’t language or using tools… rather it’s our ability to believe in fictions. Everyday fictions, like the ability to “own” property. A dog doesn’t know which yard is “hers” to pee on. Or other fictions, like countries. There is no barrier separating all of the US from all of Mexico (yet), other than the one in our collective minds. Technology doesn’t respect borders. Even the Great Firewall of China is a permeable sieve. Few people today realize how much of a Wild West we are living in online. Persecuting cyber crimes will be impossible until we as a human race come together and accept the fact that old fictions are no longer sufficient for us. Physical borders are increasingly meaningless in today’s world and a global society deserves serious thought.
Why did you choose to capture these ideas in a novel instead of an essay or nonfiction form?
“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” ―Albert Camus
The technical and business verisimilitude in the story reflect your background as a programmer and technology entrepreneur. What lessons have you learned as a founder that have translated to being an author? How about the other way around?
It’s all one job, and it’s the job of life – finding one’s purpose in all the madness. I often pick up new hobbies as varied as hypnosis, buddhism and the game of go. After getting just past skin deep I come to realize that they are all connected. They are all sign posts pointing to the same direction. Everything external happening around you is a metaphor for what’s simultaneously happening inside of you. It’s only when you forget that truth that you start distinguishing between things like entrepreneurship, being an author, being a programmer, being a bum on the street.
What did you learn about yourself or the world through writing Big Data?
When I started writing, I thought that I had to plot everything out beforehand. That if I didn’t plan and prepare, it wouldn’t work out. And I was afraid the whole time I was writing the book. But by not knowing how it would end up, it made the book more fresh as I wrote it.
What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?
“Every novel is just a long form letter to one person.” ―Stephen King
What are the best books you’ve read recently?
Enjoy this interview? Then you’ll probably like my reading recommendations curating amazing books that explore the intersection of technology and culture.
Eliot Peper is the author of Cumulus, Neon Fever Dream, and The Uncommon Series. His books have been praised by Popular Science, Businessweek, TechCrunch, io9, and Ars Technica, and he has been a speaker at places like Google, Qualcomm, and Future in Review. When he’s not writing, he works with entrepreneurs and investors to build technology businesses.