Annalee Newitz on who owns the future

Ownership often feels like a natural law. We all know what’s ours, and sometimes covet what isn’t. Hedge fund managers trade against each other in an endless cycle of one-upmanship. Kindergarteners refuse to share. Some master bathrooms have jealously guarded twin sinks. The pursuit of rational self-interest is what fuels the economy, right? Where would we be without our stuff?

But private property isn’t like gravity or special relativity. It’s a product of human imagination, what Yuval Noah Harari would call a “collective fiction.” Your house is only “yours” because we all agree to abide by a set of rules that assign you dominion over the plot and the building that stands on it. The deed is a ritual object that demands we respect the conventions it represents. If the government wants to build a highway through your neighborhood, their eminent domain seizure will show you just how quickly those rules can be rewritten.

A mountain of legal precedent and rich cultural history frame how we define ownership for physical objects, but we only decided to allow things like ideas, inventions, or digital goods to be considered private property relatively recently, and it turns out that physical objects aren’t always great analogies for the ownership of things like DNA sequences, software, or pop songs. Advances in computing, biotech, and a host of other areas confound the picture further, and raise entirely new questions.

These are the questions Annalee Newitz wrestles with in her debut novel, Autonomous.

Autonomous is an electrifying science fiction adventure that maps out the future of biotech, AI, and robotics. The story is fun, fast-paced, and jam-packed with sharp speculation on everything from patent law to human trafficking. As the diverse, quirky cast barrels through countless unexpected plot twists, Newitz deftly tees up thought experiments that explore the consequences of allowing things like source code and genes to become private property. This entertaining brainteaser of a novel will rope you in with its hackers, pirates, and robots, and leave you wondering whether we are already living with, or perhaps under, real AIs that we just happen to call corporations, financial markets, and legal systems.

The breadth and rigor of extrapolation in Autonomous is mind-bending, and Newitz, a veteran journalist, draws on the expertise she’s developed reporting on science, technology, and the future to construct a vision of tomorrow that stands up to serious scrutiny. She’s an editor-at-large for Ars Technica, founded io9, and has written for a wide array of publications including Wired, the New Yorker, and New Scientist. Newitz’s nonfiction book Scatter, Adapt, and Remember lays out how human ingenuity will help us avoid mass extinction and echoes of this underlying message of pragmatic hope in the face of disaster reverberate through Autonomous.

In the following conversation, we discuss the life and death implications of intellectual property law, the vital roles that journalism and science fiction play in our culture, the future of ownership, and who owns of the future.

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The creation, economics, and control of intellectual property are integral to the future Autonomous portrays. Why is IP such an important issue in this version of tomorrow? What core contradictions are inherent in our definition of IP today and what side effects do they already have?

I started really thinking about this question when I was working as a policy analyst at EFF back in the mid-00s. At that time, folks like Lawrence Lessig and Wendy Seltzer were worried that IP expansionalism was going to undermine free speech (which it did). I worked on a project with Jason Schultz, now at NYU, that was dedicated to challenging overbroad tech patents by asking the PTO to re-examine and nullify patents on ridiculous "inventions" like recording a concert and putting it online. This was kind of at the dawn of the era of patent trolls, and we were trying to fight back. In Autonomous, my character Jack Chen is in some ways continuing that fight we and many other activists started. I wanted to dramatize how these problems of patent trolling and IP hoarding aren't just wonky issues, but truly a matter of life and death. When you consider how pharma and biotech companies use dirty tricks to extend the lifespan of their patents, you can see immediately that intellectual property regimes exert tremendous power over our lives. A guy like Martin Shkreli is just the first of many pharma robber barons that we're going to see.

Taking that a step further, how is technology changing the definitions of private property, money, and ownership? How do our current versions of these ideas fit into historical context? How might they change a few decades down the road?

Maybe a better question is how do ideas of private property and money change the way we build new technologies? These ideas become a prison house that impedes innovation. The quest for profit warps the way we design technology, and leads to situations where billions of people become vulnerable to shady outfits like Cambridge Analytica, the company that used Facebook data to spread disinformation during the recent US presidential election. On the bright side, humans are inventive little creatures and we are always coming up with ways to circumvent rules, whether they are hard coded or part of a clickthrough agreement.

How do these ideas apply to human trafficking and modern slavery, issues that are painfully relevant today and that Autonomous extrapolates? How are the internet, AI, and synthetic biology changing our conceptions of human rights and shaping how we choose to apply or defend them? What should we do today to build a future we actually might want to live in?

One of the most chilling comments I've heard from more than one AI developer is that the goal is to create happy slaves. Of course, usually the people who say this don't mean it literally--they assume that some putative future AI will behave exactly like a servant but without all the baggage of being resentful about their lowly roles in society. As a corollary, you have Elon Musk saying that AI are on the verge of becoming sentient and crushing us all, so we need to program them with failsafes. What will these failsafes be? Some version of Asimov's Three Laws, which force conscious beings to place another being's needs ahead of their own? I'm grateful that ethicists like Damian Williams are already questioning these ideas, pointing out that any being which is "conscious" will not enjoy slavery. Of course we don't know how to define human consciousness and intelligence, as AI researcher Joanna Bryson has pointed out, so it's hard to say what's likely to happen with these issues as we move forward.

Part of me thinks we may never really have AI as many science fiction writers (including me) have depicted it. Maybe AI will be more like a prosthesis for human brains, making us "smarter" but also more vulnerable to brain hacking. Nicky Drayden, author of Prey of Gods, has talked about this idea a lot. Maybe we should be planning for a cyborg future, rather than a future of easily-distinguishable humans vs. robots.

Regardless, I believe that any effort to create robot slaves is bound to affect how we treat each other. You can't have slavery sectioned off into one part of the culture, because slavery is a system that affects everyone. Once we start seeing humanoid beings as slaves, it's only a matter of time before we see other humans that way too. Indeed, slavery is still alive and well in our culture. It takes the form of prisons, of forced labor on fishing vessels, and what amounts to indentured work at tech manufacturing plants. We already treat each other like robot slaves. In Autonomous, I've tried to suggest that it won't be robots who enslave humans in the future—instead, it will be corporations who enslave robots and humans.

What can Autonomous’s treatment of “repos” teach us about the present and future of journalism? As surveillance and disinformation vie to capture our attention and shape our worldviews, what can we do to empower ourselves? Can we be free and were we ever free? What does freedom mean in a world with a ubiquitous digital substrate?

What do you mean by "free"? Can you be free to harass people on Twitter and create free speech zones for racism on Reddit? Apparently, yes. Can you be free to moderate and regulate digital tools that make it easy to automate the process of driving vulnerable groups out of public conversations? Nope. New information tech is going to force us to reevaluate what free speech really means. I think the rise of automated disinformation will push this process along, too. Journalism will definitely survive, and proliferate into new formats. But we will need both new regulations and new kinds of media education to protect people from scams and malevolent agitators.

How has your own work as a journalist and editor influenced your work as a novelist and vice versa? How do your creative and research processes differ? What surprised you most about the experience of writing fiction?

My journalism is integral to my fiction writing process. I get a ton of ideas while reporting on tech and science, and there are a lot of themes that cross from my nonfiction into my fiction. What's pleasurable about writing fiction is that I never have to worry that I'll write something that ruins a person's day—or their career. I can torment my fictional characters as much as I want! I think what surprised me, however, was how much I still felt that my fiction needed fact checking. I ran my novel by several scientists to make sure I wasn't saying anything that would inspire facepalms. Scientists are among my favorite readers, and I consider my science fiction to be the cultural wing of the scientific project. So it's very important for me to get science right, even while spinning crazy futuristic lies about it.

What role does science fiction play in our culture? What role does it play in your life? What sparked the technological thought experiments Autonomous depicts? What inspired its speculative social and political institutions?

For me, science fiction is about hope. Even at its darkest, it provides us with a way to think about our problems in the safe space of our imaginations. I wanted to offer readers a picture of how people cope with oppression and unfair institutions in their everyday lives. Some characters try to work within the system, while others go completely rogue. Still others just want to survive, and simply doing that is a huge accomplishment. No matter how fucked up things get, people will always resist. And they'll do it by telling each other stories, and making connections with each other. To me, friendship is the smallest measurable unit of political resistance. This is something that LA Kauffman captures so beautifully in her book Direct Action, which is about protest movements after the 1960s. So I guess you could say I'm inspired by small alliances between people, and by the big movements that arise to challenge oppressive institutions.

What books have fundamentally changed the way you see the world? What have you read recently that you simply can’t get out of your head? Who are some of your biggest creative influences?

There are tons. Like a lot of politically-minded scifi nerds, I've been a longtime fan of Fredric Jameson. And Judith Butler's early work contributed a lot to my robot character Paladin's gender troubles. My biggest SF influences are probably Octavia Butler, Iain M. Banks, Joanna Russ, and (more recently) NK Jemisin. When I was a kid, I was obsessed with the books of Ursula Le Guin, Lawrence Yep, and Ray Bradbury. I'm also one of those weirdos who loves to read books similar to the books I'm writing or have written, and I adored reading Ann Leckie, Malka Older, and Martha Wells during the whole process of bringing out Autonomous--though mostly I read them after I was finished, so I can't say I was influenced by them so much as in total admiration of their work. I'm also a huge fan of many science journalists, including Rose Eveleth, Ed Yong, Lizzy Wade, Maddie Stone, Sarah Zhang, and Charles Mann. And many, many more. My days are divided between reading scientific journals, science journalism, and science fiction. I can't believe how lucky I am to have a career where I get to do this. I feel like I've tricked people into letting me do what I love. As long as I stay tricky, my life will be pretty good.

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Pick up your copy of Autonomous.

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Eliot Peper is the author of Bandwidth, Borderless, Breach, Cumulus, True Blue, Neon Fever Dream, and the Uncommon Series. He's helped build technology businesses, survived dengue fever, translated Virgil's Aeneid from the original Latin, worked as an entrepreneur-in-residence at a venture capital firm, and explored the ancient Himalayan kingdom of Mustang. His books have been praised by the New York Times Book Review, the Verge, Popular Science, Businessweek, TechCrunch, io9, and Ars Technica, and he has been a speaker at places like Google, SXSW, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Comic Con, and Future in Review.

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