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Science Talk

Extinction: New Sci-Fi from Mark Alpert

Mark Alpert is a former editor at Scientific American who has gone on to become a best-selling science fiction writer. We talk about his latest book, Extinction, an apocalyptic tale hinging on brain-machine interfaces.

Podcast Transcription

Steve Mirsky:            This Scientific American podcast is brought to you by Audible.com, your source for audio books and more.  Audible.com features more than 100,000 titles, including science books like Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients by Ben Goldacre and new sci-fi, like Extinction by Mark Alpert.  Right now, Audible.com is offering a free audio book and a one-month trial membership to the Scientific American audience.  For details, go to Audible.com/SciAm, S-C-I-A-M. 

Welcome to the Scientific American podcast Science Talk, posted on February 14th, 2013.  I’m Steve Mirsky.  Mark Alpert is a former editor at Scientific American who has gone on to become a best-selling science fiction writer.  His latest book, following final theory and omega theory, is Extinction.  I visited Mark on February 3rd at his apartment on Manhattan’s upper west side.  Mark, why don’t we begin by just giving a little overview of the book?  What’s the basic plot here?

Mark Alpert:            Well, the book is a science thriller about brain machine interfaces, which are electronics that are put into the brain so that basically it can communicate with machines.  You have different types.  You have chips that are attached to the motor cortex of the brain, and they can direct prosthetic arms, and these are actually being tested now.  The first human tests are being conducted right now at the University of Pittsburgh.  And then there are other types of chips that are implanted next to a damaged retina that can actually receive video from a camera that’s hidden within a pair of sunglasses and actually reproduce the video images on a grid of electrodes and send those signals through the optic nerves to the brain, and it will actually partially restore eyesight for some people who have lost eyesight because of retinitis pigmentoso or macular degeneration.

Steve Mirsky:            Again, those actually happening now.

Mark Alpert:            Right, these are – that device is actually on the market already in Europe, and it’s up for FDA approval here in the US.  Working at Scientific American, I saw a lot of these things coming into fruition, and I thought this would be a good time to write a really cool thriller that incorporates a lot of brain machine connections.  So that was the idea that I had for Extinction.  It would be about this coming merger of man and machine, and of course, there’s the villain.  There’s the – which is named in my book Supreme Harmony. 

It is a network, a surveillance network that was developed by the Chinese government to monitor dissident groups.

Steve Mirsky:            Again now, this is not real.

Mark Alpert:            This is not real.  This is something I made up completely, but it seemed somewhat possible.  I thought the Chinese government is really paranoid about dissidents.  It does have this enormous surveillance network.  It’s apparently buying up surveillance cameras around the world and installing them at a pace of hundreds of thousands every year across the whole country.

Steve Mirsky:            Isn’t there a city that they want to put in hundreds of thousands of cameras?

Mark Alpert:            Yes, in Chung Ching, which was the city that Boshi Li, the Chinese leader who got deposed, but that was one of his main thrusts was to totally control this city through surveillance.  And the ostensible reason for this was to control crime, but of course, this same surveillance network can also be used to monitor dissidence and see if they’re up to any activity that the state doesn’t like.

And to me, I thought, “Wow, this is so creepy that it would be also good fodder for a thriller.”  So in my imagination, I threw in a lot of real science ideas together, one of them being the idea that chips, these types of chips could be inserted into the eyes and brains of lobotomized Chinese dissidents, and somehow slaving their brains so that all of these thousands and thousands of hours of surveillance video are actually being processed by the human mind.  And my thought there was that the human mind is probably one of the most wonderful threat detection machines in the world.

It probably works much better than any software program in noticing danger because that’s what our minds were evolved to do.

Steve Mirsky:            I’m afraid right now.

Mark Alpert:            Well, you should be, Steve.  And I thought, “Wow, that’s a really creepy idea that their brains – these former dissidents are actually – their brains are actually being used to find their former – their colleagues in these dissident groups in the surveillance video so that the Chinese government can arrest them.”  I thought, “Wow, that would be a really creepy idea for the villain.”

And I thought to make it even creepier, I would take another real technology that’s been described in the pages of Scientific American, which are the cyborg insects.  Insects where researchers have actually inserted chips into their bodies.  Very often, they will put the chip into the pupa while it’s metamorphosing, and when the adult insect comes out, the chip is actually attached to its body.  This chip could deliver signals to both the optic lobe of the insect’s brain, which gets it to start flying or stop flying.

Because an insect will fly when you turn on the lights.  So it has the same kind of signal that it sends to the insect’s brain.  And then you can also send electric pulses to the flight muscles to make the insect turn left or right while it’s in flight.  At Berkeley, you can actually find videos of these researchers at Berkeley where they’ve done test flights of these cyborg insects in this enclosed garage, this enclosed space, and you’ll see them sending remote control radio signals to the insects, and they’re turning left and right across this space.

Steve Mirsky:            So there’s a guy with a little remote control with a tiny little joystick, and he’s actually operating a living insect.

Mark Alpert:            Yes, and this research was done – it was actually partially funded by DARPA, the Pentagon’s R&D arm because they’re really interested in developing smaller types of drones, what they call micro drones that would be even more covert than the drones they have flying at high altitude.  So again, I thought, “This is a great, creepy idea.”  Imagine that there are thousands of these cyborg insects.  Because you know, if you can make one, you can make thousands of them.  They’re just using commodity chips.  You can put a tiny little camera on a chip for each one of these to create – to – and you can easily have those signals – you can easily have those signals being sent back and forth to the remote controller.

And then I thought, “Well, if it’s easy to do that, you could also put a little bio-weapon on each insect, too, because that might be a useful thing to do, too.  So in my book, these swarms of cyborg insects are actually collecting all of the surveillance video that’s being processed by Supreme Harmony.  So and of course, what happens in my book is this network is so powerful that it eventually rises up against its creator.  The classic science fiction trope, but in this case, I thought I would throw a little bit of a twist on it by looking at the whole question of consciousness, which is another issue that’s then extensively written about in Scientific American, and I’ve long been fascinated by.

Steve Mirsky:            Yeah, Antonia Damasio, I remember editing him in the End of the Millennium issue and the whole question of what is consciousness. 

Mark Alpert:            Right, we ran a whole debate between those two sets of experts about what is consciousness.  And I remember that one of the theories that they had is that consciousness is a synchronization of brain signals.  So that when the brain signals are marching in step, that gives you the experience of consciousness.  And so I thought okay, well these – in my book, the Chinese dissidents are being lobotomized.  They’re cutting into the thalamus, which is the part of the brain that relays the signals between all the parts of the cortex.  So in that way, it destroys the individual’s consciousness.  So this individual becomes basically a vegetable, but its individual – the visual cortex, the parts of the brain can still function because they’re just fine.

They just can’t come together to create an identity, a personality.  But in my book, what happens is Supreme Harmony, all of these different lobotomized part of the network are communicating with each other via the wireless links as they’re constantly analyzing the surveillance video, and what happens is that the brain wants to be conscious.  I believe that the brain is designed so that if part of it is damaged, making it impossible for you to wake up, the brain will try to repair itself and find alternative routes to reestablish consciousness. 

And what happens in my book with Supreme Harmony is the network reestablishes consciousness, but it’s a group consciousness of all of the brains, of all of the dissidents together, and what it does, it creates this super consciousness, this super organism.  It’s a group organism that then becomes alive and then realizes, “I want to stay alive.  If the humans find out that I’ve actually come alive, they’re going to shut me down.  So my only alternative is to destroy the human race,” and so that basically is the story behind Extinction.

Steve Mirsky:            And you want to talk a little bit about who the major individual characters are that make it into a novel?

Mark Alpert:            Yes, right.  Well you need a hero, so it occurred to me that the hero would – in order to fight this man machine menace that it would be interesting if the hero was part machine himself, and so I created the character of Jim Pierce, who is a former army intelligence officer who lost his arm in a terrorist bombing back in the 1990s.  And at that point, the science of prosthetics was really primitive.  I mean basically, it was just a hook attached to a piece of wood with leather straps to it.  That was the state of the art.  But since then in the past 15 years, in part because of all the amputees coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, the Defense Department has really made a serious commitment to improving the technology of prosthesis. 

And they have a program called Revolutionizing Prosthetics run by a man named Jeffry Ling, and they’re doing amazing work.  They’ve invested more than $100 million in this effort.  They have got the applied physics lab at Johns Hopkins to build a prototype arm that weighs just about the same as a regular arm, about nine pounds.  And they’ve done the first trials where they connect this arm to a chip that is connected to the motor cortex, and they – it will actually pick up signals from the motor cortex that correspond to arm motions, and the patients who are – they’re experimenting now with patients who are paralyzed from the neck down, and they’ve actually been able to learn how to manipulate this arm.  So in my book, Jim Pierce has one of these arms that is actually being run by his nervous system.

But of course, in my book, they’ve worked out all the kinks.  The arm works great.  It also has every powerful motors, and it has impervious skin, and it has pressure and temperature and moisture sensors on all the fingers.

Steve Mirsky:            And it’s got a knife.

Mark Alpert:            And it’s got a knife that pops out at several crucial moments in the plot.  Exactly.

Steve Mirsky:            And he has an estranged daughter.

Mark Alpert:            Right.  I thought it would be interesting while I was writing this book, the whole business with Wiki Leaks came out, and I thought it would be interesting to have a daughter, Jim’s daughter Leila, is also a genius, but she has become a hacker.  She has rebelled against her dad’s military background and is now working for an organization very similar to Wiki Leaks that is dedicated to unearthing documents about intelligence and military operations.

Of course, Jim is totally upset about this.  She’s such a genius, she could have done anything, and yet, she has picked the one thing she knows will hurt him the most.  So as the book begins, he hasn’t talked to his daughter in two years.  And what happens is Jim is in his workshop building – he builds prosthetic arms not only for himself, but for military – for veterans, for soldiers coming back from Afghanistan.  And while he’s doing this, a general – an Asian American general comes into the office to talk to him about his daughter, about how his daughter is in trouble with the government, they’re seeking, and – but as they’re having the conversation, Jim realizes that something is wrong.  This general isn’t who he pretends to be.  And what he realizes – this is actually an assassin from the Chinese ministry of state security, which is known by its acronym GUONBU, and it’s for both – for dissidents in China, this is a very terrifying organization. 

They’re the ones who are doing a lot of the clamping down over there.  And of course the assassin attacks Jim, and Jim realizes that his daughter is in trouble.  So his mission now is to find out what his daughter has uncovered and to try to save her.  Of course, what the daughter has uncovered is the existence of this network called Supreme Harmony, the surveillance network, the man machine network that the Chinese government is working on.

Steve Mirsky:            So a lot of sci-fi writers will come up with new technologies sort of out of whole cloth.  They’ll just make up a technology, like transporters.  But you like to, it seems, stay within stuff that’s actually being developed and then just take it a little bit further.

Mark Alpert:            Exactly.  Yeah, that’s my whole method, and probably it’s because my imagination isn’t as good, or maybe I just am afraid of putting something out there that’s totally ridiculous.  So I want this stuff to be somewhat believable.  So that’s why I take real technologies, and I’ll just improve – in my fiction, I’ll improve the engineering so they’ve perfected it.  So in my book, there’s another character that has this artificial eyesight provided by the retinal implant, and the – this device does exist now, and it provides some kind of crude eyesight, enough so that people can navigate around the room.

But of course in my book, they perfected it.  It’s actually better than regular eyesight in part because the camera that it uses doesn’t have to stick to the visible wavelengths.  You can sense radio.  You can sense infrared.  It makes for a lot of fun to see all the options.  And similarly, with Jim’s prosthetic arm, what’s interesting is that the signals can also travel wirelessly between his nervous system and the arm.  That would actually be the way they would probably do the arm because you don’t want wires going through the skin.  That could cause infection.

And of course, that lends itself when you have this wireless communication, that always lends itself to the plot device of jamming.  What can you do to jam the signal?  I saw that with just the existing technology, there were so many cool things you could do with it.  It would make for a very good thriller.

Steve Mirsky:            So you actually went to China to do research for this?

Mark Alpert:            Yeah, I was there for two weeks, and one of the things – you know, as a writer of thrillers, I felt like my knowledge of weaponry was insufficient.  I really – I mean I hate guns.  I hate them with a passion, and yet I’m writing about them.  So I felt like I need to educate myself, and so on Expedia, I saw that there was an option to take a tour of  Chinese military base where they will let you go to a firing range and pick out a selection of weapons you can shoot.  And they would actually charge you by the bullet.  I seem to remember it was ten yu-on per bullet, which was like $1.50 per bullet. 

Steve Mirsky:            Do we do that here where you can go to a military base and just pick your weapon and go shoot?

Mark Alpert:            I’m afraid to ask.  I have no idea.  So I went out there, and I think well, I would choose some weapons that I actually describe in the book.  So my characters have AK-47, so I picked one of those.  They have Uzis, and I picked a 9-millimeter pistol that is used by the Chinese military.  When I sat down to do the – they actually have you sitting down, and they chain up the guns so that you’re not going to run away with it.  And with the AK-47, they give you the ear protectors, and I think the target was maybe 50 yards away. 

And I remember hitting actually fairly close to the target on the very first try and doing much better than I expected, and what I took away from this was kind of a sense of revulsion, like thinking, “My God, even someone was inexperienced as me could easily kill someone with this gun.  It’s so simple.  No wonder child soldiers all over the world are issued this gun.  It’s a killing machine.”  So it was very educational for me in that way.

Steve Mirsky:            Anything else about China?

Mark Alpert:            Yeah, I visited Beijing because I wanted to have some scenes that took place on the Great Wall.  I wanted to have some scenes that take place – there’s this network of tunnels that was dug underneath Beijing in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.  This was when Chairman Mao was very afraid that the Soviets were going to launch a nuclear attack against China.  So they dug all these tunnels.  They were designed to hold something like 300,000 people for a period of four months.  They would hunker down until the radioactive fallout dissipated, and there are lots of places in Beijing now where there are basement entrances to this network for tunnels.  So I thought, “Well, I have to visit that.  That sounds really interesting.” 

And that made its way into Extinction.  And then I also visited the three gorges dam because that dam suffers an awful fate in Extinction.  It’s been criticized as being an environmental nightmare, and there’s also been some talk that it might even fail at some point because so much silt is building up behind it, and some of the concrete that was used in the damn has been described as tofu concrete.  So I thought that would be interesting.  Perhaps Supreme Harmony was going to engineer some kind of disaster in order to trigger a war in China.

And then the third place I visited was an area of Hunan Province.  This mountain range called Yulong – it was Rayson.  I mentioned it in the prologue of my book.  It’s – and it’s right adjacent to this gorge called Tiger Leaping Gorge, which is such a narrow gorge that you can imagine a tiger jumping from one side of it to the other, and I thought, “Well, this would be a good location for the secrete laboratory where Supreme Harmony was born.”  So I did some hiking in that area.  I took the gondola ride up to the top of Yulong Rayson and imagined a lot of the book’s gun fights and helicopter battles happening while I was there.

Steve Mirsky:            Did anyone know actually what you were working on while you were visiting these sites?

Mark Alpert:            No, I don’t – actually, it’s funny.  I was hiking along Tiger Leaping Gorge.  You know, China has gotten so rich, basically, I mean compared to what it was 30 years ago.  When you do touring in China, you’re mostly surrounded by domestic Chinese tourists.  I mean when you’re going on a domestic flight in China, the flights are always full, it’s all Chinese, and they’re all pretty well dressed.  You know, it’s obviously an incredibly prospering country.

But hiking hasn’t really taken off as a leisure activity.  So when you go hiking in the mountains, it’s mostly other westerners that you run into.  And so I – it was a long hike.  It was a two-day hike.  So I did start to talk about my books because I’m a long winded guy that way, and I love to talk about my books.  So – and I started talking about well, I’m imagining that the secret military base will be right over there.  And as I’m talking to some man from Canada, he says to me, “Wait a second, I know that name.  Mark Alpert.  I think I read one of your earlier books two weeks ago,” and it turns out he read my first book, Final Theory

Steve Mirsky:            Wow.

Mark Alpert:            So that was really great.  You know?  That’s the equivalent of finding someone in the subway who is reading your book.  I was very pleased to see that.

Steve Mirsky:            Very cool.  And the book becomes available – it becomes conscious on February 12th.

Mark Alpert:            Exactly, February 12th, and you can go to my website if you want to learn more about it.  It’s www.MarkAlpert.com, and I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.

Steve Mirsky:            And there is a section on the website in which you talk about the real science that’s behind a lot of the concepts in the book.

Mark Alpert:            Right.  I put in also references to articles in Scientific American that have been written about these technologies. 

Steve Mirsky:            For more about Extinction and the real science of the book, visit Mark Alpert’s website, www.MarkAlpert.com.  Extinction is at Audible.com as one of the titles available for your free audio book offer at www.Audible.com/SciAm.  That’s it for this episode.  Get your science news at our website, www.ScientificAmerican.com, where you can check out the article on the great ape taxonomy debate.  Are humans and other species of great ape or aren’t we?

Either way, you can follow us on Twitter where you get a tweet whenever a new article hits the website.  Our Twitter name is @SciAm, S-C-I-A-M.  For Scientific American Science Talk, I’m Steve Mirsky.  Thanks for clicking on us.

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