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Provenance: if Alfred Hitchcock teleoperated robots...

Recommendation: An enjoyable stand-alone suspense novel that explores teleoperation and the old joke that on the internet no one knows you’re a dog.

robots: Teleoperated spiders

Provenance is the latest book from Ann Leckie, whose Ancillary Justice series- also called the Imperial Radch series- swept the Nebula and Hugo awards. Provenance has been nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award, one of two nominees with a significant robotics theme.

An insecure ingenue in the tradition of Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca, Suspicion, or Notorious classic movies gets involved in a major geopolitical scandal over fake antiquities: What if her planet’s equivalent of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Liberty Bell were forgeries (and not particularly good ones)? Provenance is not a continuation of the Imperial Radch series, but it is set in the same universe and time frame; indeed, the protagonists on planet Hwae are not wild about the Radchaai in general and specifically not thrilled with them committing all of humanity to a treaty with the Geck, and other aliens, without asking.

There is a thoughtful review of Provenance over at! which focuses on historicity, the history analog of Stephen Colbert’s truthiness, where an object is a historical relic to the degree people believe it is, not whether it is actually authentic. The review cleverly connects Leckie’s historicity theme to Philip K. Dick’s Man in the The High Castle. Certainly Amazon's wonderful version of the Man in the High Castle has emphasized the fake reproductions theme, with Brennan Brown’s portrayal of the fussy antiques dealer Robert Childan catapulting a minor character into a major fan favorite.

While Provenance's plot revolves around historicity, the science narrative revolves around teleoperation. Everyone, human and alien, uses robots called mechs to accomplish mundane tasks or manage space ships. The mechs have converged on a spider-like morphology with multiple legs and multiple camera mounted on articulated eye stalks. Like tarantulas, the legs often have claws for feet, adding to the sense of creepy otherness. It is nice to see function win over form- the multiple legs and eye stalks have definite advantages versus the standard humanoid surrogate typically found in fiction. One advantage to the spider shape is the flexibility in using the legs as arms and adapting its shape and locomotion to the task at hand— essentially the spider mechs are highly polymorphic or many-shaped.

Similar to John Scalzi’s recent Lock In and Head On Near Future books, the plot twists and turns because the protagonist can’t be sure who is teleoperating a mech. In both Provenance and the Near Future Series, the characters seem to be operating in a world where fraud and impersonation is suddenly legal. It certainly isn’t legal now and hard to believe it would be later. As legal expert Ryan Calo (who featured on the RTSF podcast earlier this year) told me recently, the real legal question for the future is whether the robot manufacturer would be held liable for not preventing the impersonation or making it sufficiently hard to engage in that sort of deception.

Unlike the Scalzi books, Provenance assumes that the teleoperator is manually controlling the robot without significant computer assistance. Control is so difficult that pilots have to be specially trained and one of the major characters is highly sought after because he is an expert teleoperator, adept at controlling multiple mechs simultaneously.

This misses a practical issue of using artificial intelligence to reduce the cognitive workload. Why would a teleoperator have to directly control the legs for locomotion? Walking is a reactive schema that is subconscious; once learned, it is delegated to the lower parts of the central nervous system for execution unless a person needs to specifically monitor and direct the movement (e.g., walking along that log across a stream). Even now, telecommuting robots are offering autonomous navigation functions such as returning to a docking station or going to a particular room to free up the teleoperator to look around, converse, and— perhaps most importantly— not have to be particularly proficient at controlling the robot.

In a universe where sentient AI’s have declared their political autonomy and are demanding a seat at the inter-species treaty convocation, the lack of practical AI in teleoperation is a noticeable inconsistency. It’s not annoying enough to put the book down but undermines the world building.

In real robotics, teleoperation systems strive for semi-autonomy, that is, for the operator to be able to delegation portions, or all, of the tasks to the robot to perform on its own. The robot wasn’t capable enough to conduct the entire mission, so a human had to be involved- hence semi- autonomy. In the early days of robotics, semi-autonomy took one of two forms: traded control or shared control.

Traded control is essentially taking turns. In small drones, it is common for the drone to come with software that lets the pilot push a button and the UAV will take off or land by itself. Shared control is where both agents, human and robot, are actively engaged. A simple form of this is adaptive cruise control: the driver is driving but the car adjusts the speed on its own to stay a fixed distance behind the slower car in front.

In theory, the two modes- traded and shared- are very different. In real life, the distinction is blurry. The person is always responsible so traded control is often “delegated but I have to keep an eye on you” control, so it is really a passive shared control where the human is monitoring performance and the robot. With drones, the pilot is always expected to have their hand on the controls to intercede in case the UAV goes wonky. Remember the Tesla crash (ok, the most recent one)? Even though the car was in autonomous mode, the driver was expected to monitor and react in time to any errors. Researcher Missy Cummings confirmed what all of us who work in human-robot interaction suspected, no one really delegates to the car and then just sits there and watches it like a hawk for a mistake- instead, they start checking their text messages.

Teleoperating multiple robots without AI assistance is fanciful. In Provenance, one of the main characters is particularly skilled at controlling multiple mechs, but in real life just monitoring multiple autonomous robots can be cognitively demanding. Mike Goodrich at Brigham Young has explored what he calls neglect tolerance— how long an operator can ignore one robot so that they can check on the progress of other robots. But in most domains and with most robot, there is no neglect tolerance because it often takes two people to control one robot. Most of the robots used at the Fukushima Daiichi response and cleanup are teleoperated by two operators, one to drive, one to look.

But despite the quibbles over teleoperation, the spider mechs and particularly the Transformer Geck version of spider mechs are pretty cool and do keep the book moving along.

Is Provenance as good as Ancillary Justice? No, but Ancillary Justice is a once in a lifetime tour de force. Provenance is a worthy read, closer to the Wayfarers series in tone and a Hitchcock movie in terms of plot, but Leckie’s literary stiletto quietly draws blood as it forces the reader to consider how much of history, and our own personal history, is based on a consensual hallucination of what is real and what matters.

- Robin

For an audio version of this review, click below...

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