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Exit Strategy (2018) Review: The Internet of Things is Murder if You're MurderBot

Robots: humanoids, tanks, drones, appliances

Recommendation: If you’ve read the other MurderBot diary entries, what are you waiting for? If you haven’t, start with All Systems Red, as the series needs to be read in order.

Martha Wells completes the wildly entertaining MurderBot Diaries series in Exit Strategy, continuing with a cynical? dystopian? dysfunctional? sadly realistic? view of software engineering, cybersecurity, and the Internet of Things.

It is the fourth of the novella series and it ties up the story arc begun in the Hugo and Nebula Award winning All Systems Red. The only less than gushingly positive review I’ve seen for Exit Strategy complained that each book in the series was the same: MurderBot maintains a running snarky commentary on humans and the contradictions of life while fighting the machinations of an evil corporation. Uh, dude: That’s precisely what I, and apparently everyone but you, was counting on. But MurderBot is more than just humor and mayhem, Wells adds character studies to the fast moving plots. Indeed, Exit Strategy entered Lois McMaster Bujold territory when I, like MurderBot, discovered that I cared about minor characters that I didn’t know I cared about (Yes Gurathin, I’m talking about you).

The action in Exit Strategy is brought to you courtesy of an Internet of Things world that is the sum of all fears. Cameras and microphones are everywhere so that hotels and restaurants can mine conversations and social data for a constantly renegotiated price. Everything is hackable, from transport pods to drones; the suspense is in who is going to hack them first. It’s a future where robots or their evil masters could pull all off those tropes from horror movies and Ex Machina where the doors slam shut and the life support is turned off, but don’t because the governors on robots work just well enough and most people are too absorbed in other things, or are not smart enough, to bother.

Kind of like now, only set in space. As a computer science professor, every morning I get in my new car, knowing that it could be hacked by some pimply teenager who outwitted the best of Detroit’s “I used to be a factory worker but now have been retrained as a programmer" cadre. I am just grateful that my iPhone finally connects to the car’s entertainment system, a programming feat of such complexity that it took Ford years to accomplish. At least I will be able to play my audiobooks until The End.

So is there an Internet of Things in real robotics? Yes. Mobile robots have almost always used a network for remote control either by a human, because there’s not much use for a robot that you stand next to, or because the requisite compute power for perception was generally too intense (or physically too big) to be onboard. Notice that the direction of the information flow was predominantly inward, from humans, bigger controllers, or computers to the robot. In the 2010’s, that direction of information flow flipped. Roboticists began to explore using the Internet in the opposite direction: the robot itself would reach outward into the Cloud. It was called “Cloud robotics” until the IoT meme acquired the cachet of easy start-up money. Anyway, cloud robotics began to explore how robots could initiate searching for missing information (e.g., get a map of the area that the mobile robot has been asked to navigate through) or to learn new things by finding images on the web (e.g., what is a “cat” since you’ve tasked me to search for a cat). So far, most of the work falls into the category of “if the system was smart enough to know that it needed to look for something, it probably already had that data or links loaded in.” But progress is being made.

And speaking of progress, Wells expects to have a full length MurderBot book out in 2020. Waiting that long is going to be murder! In the meantime, let’s hope real roboticists make progress in avoiding her vision of cybersecurity, sloppy software engineering, and the Internet of Things. And if you aren’t a subscriber to the RTSF YouTube channel, sign up and check out the RTSF interview with Martha Wells here, plus the cute pictures of her reading All Systems Red to a group of my robots.

- Robin

For a video version of this review, see below...

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