‘In a Narrow Alley’: Burn-In Isn’t a Novel About Robots A review of Burn-In by P.W. Singer and August Cole By Christopher Ankersen


By Christopher  Ankersen


The scholar of classics Adrienne Mayor concludes her important essay “Biotechne” with the following warning:

 We are approaching what some call the new dawn of robo-humanity. When that day comes, what myths will we tell ourselves? The answer will shape how and what robots learn, too.

Burn-In is just such a myth.  It paints a complex picture, full of unresolved tensions about the relationship between humans and advanced technologies.  While the tale is filled with ambiguities, two things are crystal clear: the future will be dark and dystopic. 

At its simplest, Burn-In is a buddy story, a slightly futuristic retelling of ‘The Odd Couple’. Lara Keegan is a former Marine turned FBI agent.  She harbours wounds from a tour in the Middle East, is nursing a crumbling marriage, trying to raise a young child, all while hiding a darker past.  TAMS (Tactical Autonomous Mobility System) is her new partner—a robot with advanced AI.  Keegan’s job is to take the robot under her wing and show it the ropes.  Her superiors are split: some want her to succeed, others wish she would fail.  The future of policing appears to depend on her mission.   

Rather than plumb the depths of the various plot lines and devices (and dropping spoilers in the process) I want to focus on the key messages that are contained in the book.  There are two levels on which to read and understand this work.  The first is the surface layer.  Here the message is that technology is neither wholly good nor wholly evil.  Keegan moves through various stages as her relationship with TAMS progresses: from hostility, to resignation, to appreciation.  Here the book is well written, with clear, punchy prose, reminiscent of good Tom Clancy.  There is an added dimension here though: this book, like Ghost Fleet, is peppered with footnotes, highlighting the fact that what passes for science fiction is often just the normalization of the current day’s cutting edge. The surface layer provides a clever and engaging action story.   


An Age of Anxiety

It is in the next layer down, though, that the most important messages are conveyed. Here the authors focus on the wider social dynamics extant in slightly futuristic America.  Here we see a country, as Christopher Coker puts it, “ot afraid of technology but rather, anxious.”  This USA of tomorrow is filled with people who have found themselves in a world where “they no longer understood how the machines worked, but they understood they were changing everything” (p. 298).  We have traded trust for convenience and it makes us nervous. 

Keegan has worked with robots before, while in the Marines and her experience has made her jaded.  Keegan is not the only one struggling with trust: the primary antagonist in the story, Preston, has suffered a terrible loss at the hands of machines; he is bent on seeking revenge.  He aims to destroy the entire network, the system that both powers the machines and enables daily life for humans.  Stopping him from doing so becomes Keegan’s mission and, ironically, she cannot accomplish it without relying on machines, including her partner, TAMS. 


Endless potential meets the real world

 The tension between human and machine is not the only unresolved tension within the book.  A major theme is to explore the tension between capability and limitation.  The promise of technology is revealed to be amazing, but everywhere Singer and Cole demonstrate that it is subject to limits.  Even with access to a vast pool of data and seemingly endless piles of cash, machines and networks don’t always reach their full potential.  Theoretical advantages do not fare well at the hands of Singer and Cole. 

Perhaps the biggest limitation raised in the novel is that of human data processing capacity.  Despite having access to a panoply of data at her fingertips, eyeballs, and eardrums, “It all made Keegan’s head ache. It was a familiar pain, that same deep ache in the absolute center of her skull when information overload and adrenaline collided” (p. 18).  But these limits do not just accrue to individuals.  Even high performance teams suffer from throttling.  Information may well be the new oil, but being inundated with it serves only to drown rather than fuel performance. 

This tension lies at the heart of Keegan’s mission—and is the key to the title of the book.  As TAMS itself explains, “A burn – in is defined as ‘the continuous operation of a device, such as a computer, as a test for defects or failure prior to putting it to use” (p. 48).  Never mind the promise or potential, the specs, the spin, the marketing: what are the real capabilities?  Keegan sees her value precisely where the machine fails, or where the data stops: “Gaps in information are an opportunity to be creative” (p. 97). Creativity is the defining characteristic of humanity in Singer and Cole’s universe.  


It’s all about consequences: Intentionality vs responsibility

This freedom to express one’s humanity is another site of tension within the novel.  Such agency connotes intentionality, a will, of cause and effect.  When faced with even horrible circumstances, humans need to take control of the situation.  Mere passivity represents surrender.  And yet that agency, the freedom to ‘do’ and therefore ‘be’, is tempered by fate, constrained by randomness.  One might intend to cross the street, but that doesn’t rule out the chance of being hit by a car, or having a piano drop on one’s head.  Preston, the antagonist, could tolerate that; what he can’t abide is the fact that where technology is concerned, randomness is rarely really present.  Even the most un-human thing (a driverless subway car) was not just an artifact, it was human will made manifest.  He therefore sees it as his mission to punish humans for the mistakes their automatons have made. 

Preston is not the only one who hates machines for what they have done to humans.  Jared, Keegan’s husband, has become the latest victim of economic success through automation, losing his lucrative job as a lawyer, replaced by an algorithm.  As Amy Wendling points out, in capital economies “labour demoted from its status as a meaningful human activity that confers political status and mastery of the natural world, and it becomes a mere nodal point where energy is transferred.”  In Burn-In, Singer and Cole go one step further: labour is now a mere modal point where emotion is transferred.  The only employment Jared can find are ‘gig’ jobs, such as keeping elderly people company via Virtual Reality visits.  We find him on the couch, in his pajamas, lonely, anxious, and hating machines. 

But here we see that Jared misses precisely what Preston does not: it is not the machines that did him wrong, it was the people who created them. Jared and Preston may be victims, but ultimately, they are victims of human agency. 

 But to simply blame the person who pushed the button or typed the code is to miss the point.  As Herbert Marcuse warns, each of us is complicit in the creation and re-creation of the system that leads to this disruption in the first place:

The so-called consumer economy and the politics of corporate capitalism have created a second nature of man…The need for possessing, consuming, handling, and constantly renewing the gadgets, devices, instruments, engines, offered to and imposed upon the people, for using these wares even at the danger of one’s own destruction, has become a ‘biological’ need…”

It is these aspects of Burn-In that let us in on the authors’ secret. Burn-In, billed on the cover as ‘a novel of the real robotic revolution’ is not a book about robots at all.  As Singer and Cole let slip, the real question is not the future of networks and machines, but “the future of our existence” (p. 214). 


Christopher Ankersen, PhD is Clinical Associate Professor and leads the Global Risk specialization at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.  He is a Research Fellow at the CDA Institute.


Adrienne Mayor, “Biotechne,” Aeon. 2016.  https://aeon.co/essays/replicants-and-robots-what-can-the-ancient-greeks-teach-us

Christopher Coker, Waging War Without Warriors (Boulder, CO: Lynne Reiner Press, 2002): 5.

Amy Elizabeth Wendling, Karl Marx on Technology and Alienation (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009): 1.

Herbert Marcuse, An Essay on Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969): 14. 


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