In recent months, not one but two Ars writers have released books, so we decided that for this month’s edition of Ars Technica Live, that we (Cyrus Farivar and Annalee Newitz) would interview each other about our respective tomes.
My book, Habeas Data, covers 50 years of surveillance law in America and chronicles the surprising effects of 10 monumental legal case that have impacted our world.
Newitz’s novel, Autonomous, by contrast, imagines a world set roughly 125 years in the future, where sentient robots are commonplace, and they have to work off their indentured service to become fully self-sufficient, independent beings. (Dare I say, our books are two great tastes that taste great together!)
While one book looks back at the past, and the other looks ahead, we are both trying to grapple with the strange present in which we find ourselves.
Habeas Data really came about when I was having breakfast in Berkeley with my journalism mentor as I was covering the run-up to the so-called “FBI vs. Apple” showdown that emerged in the wake of the December 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack. I explained to this professor how I was learning about an obscure 18th-century law known as the All Writs Act, which allows courts to compel people and companies to do certain actions.
In February 2016, Apple put forward its first formal legal arguments, based on a rejection of a 1977 Supreme Court decisionUnited States v. New York Telephone, the prominent case that relies on the All Writs Act. There, authorities demanded that the utility implement a surveillance tool known as a pen register trap and trace device to investigate a gambling operation.
But, it struck me that what the government was asking for in this case was going far beyond the acquisition of a few days of call records: the Department of Justice was asking for an unprecedented power, for a private company to be conscripted into breaking its own security as part of a government investigation.
The FBI needed Apple’s help, it said, in order to bust into the iPhone that had been used by Syed Rizwan Farook, a dead terrorist in that attack. Just before the two sides went to court, the DOJ told the court that it had found a private company that could help. (Earlier this year, the FBI’s own internal watchdog, the Office of the Inspector General, found that the FBI should have done a better job communicating its own internal abilities to itself.)”
After I explained all this, as I said on stage, Sam Freedman, of Columbia University, told me: that’s the book you should do, explaining all of these cases. (And so I did!)
By contrast, Newitz’s book, as she explained uses the past, but in a different way. In order to “worldbuild” the imagined universe of pharmaceutical pirates and robot slaves, she considered what kinds of technologies that existed 125 years in our past.
“You realize there’s a lot of stuff, including or magazines,” she said. “We still have trains and photography. I felt like [setting the book in the 22nd century] was far enough that I could mess around and make some assumptions but it was close enough that I could ground in discoveries being made now and legal decisions.”
Newitz went on to explore the chilling and underlying premise of Autonomous—that what we “really want from AI is happy slaves.”
Indeed, that’s what the protagonist, Paladin, is all about. He (or she—turns out in Newitz’ world, robots don’t care what pronoun you use) is locked out of his memories by the military organization that created him. Paladin, after all, is indentured for 10 years, and his memories are locked away and owned by his masters.
“The interesting thing for me is thinking about how this organization would express ownership over this robot?” Newitz told me. “How do they make sure that they make sure that Paladin doesn’t just run away? They don’t give Paladin root on his own brain.”
In our hour-long conversation, we also touched on news stories that I’d previously written about people shooting down drones, imagining how Paladin could be owned by anyone (and be given a menial task), what future patent reform protests might look like, and the current differences between passcodes and biometrics when the Fourth and Fifth Amendments are involved.
All in all, we did our best to blend the magic of fiction with the stark realities of journalism.
For more from us, check out the full interview above. And don’t forget to come to the next Ars Technica Live at Eli’s Mile High Club in Oakland, California, on July 11, 2018 at 7pm. You can also follow Ars Technica Live on Facebook.