A commercial airliner passes through a temporary wrinkle in spacetime en route from Tokyo to San Francisco. Its passengers arrive seemingly on time, only to discover that they have actually been transported 20 years into the future. How each passenger copes is the subject of a new online short-story writing contest and related science fiction anthology recently launched by the XPRIZE Foundation, the nonprofit behind more than a dozen competitions over the past two decades aimed at spurring innovation in a number of scientific disciplines. XPRIZE tapped two dozen top science fiction writers—including roboticist Daniel Wilson, astrophysicist Gregory Benford and mathematician Hannu Rajaniemi—to tell the first-person stories of ANA Flight 008’s passengers and their long-delayed homecoming

The writers were asked to focus on how future technologies—some familiar but greatly advanced, others inconceivable in 2017—impact each passenger’s life. XPRIZE has also reserved a seat on the flight for the general public: through August 25, aspiring sci-fi writers can submit entries for a chance to fill seat 14C and have their work showcased in the anthology.

Scientific American spoke with Wilson about “Iterations,” his account of passenger 13F (also known as Malcolm), who arrives in San Francisco to find that his wife has remained committed to their relationship throughout his disappearance—sort of. Over the years she has grown unsettlingly close to a disembodied artificial intelligence persona created in Malcolm’s absence, using his personality and memories. Wilson, best known for writing about robot uprisings and technology’s negative effects on the future of humanity, says it was a refreshing change to help one of his characters find a silver lining in a moment of personal chaos.

[An edited transcript of the interview follows.]

Credit: Daria Kirpach XPRISE

What interested you about the XPRIZE science fiction anthology and storytelling competition?
Joining the XPRIZE was an opportunity to put my two cents up alongside some of my heroes in science fiction and in science. It’s an optimistic vision of the future, which is not something that I naturally gravitate to. When you’ve got “-pocalypse” in the title of your work [such as the 2011 novel Robopocalypse] it’s pretty clear you’re headed toward a dystopia. But coming from a science background, I’ve seen firsthand how the people building the future are inspired by science fiction, both positive and negative portrayals. I had a friend at Carnegie Mellon who was obsessed with how the Terminator was able to change its gait after its legs were blown off. It learned how to crawl in those moments after it had been damaged. And so he dedicated his study of humanoid robots to gait repair. That’s why I love science fiction. When we write these stories, we’re giving the world a vocabulary to talk about these different futures.

Where did your idea for Iterations came from?
I’m obviously interested in humanoids, autonomous vehicles and all of the big burly robots that you can see and run from and shoot with a shotgun. But people overlook the related natural language processing, speech and gesture recognition, and other human skills—because they don’t really understand how hard those skills are to replicate in a robot. The vanguard of artificial intelligence is starting to interact with people on a day-to-day basis in a way that we completely take for granted, because talking and listening are some of the first things we learn to do as humans. Everyone has just accepted personal assistants on our phones, and we’re rapidly accommodating intelligent devices in our houses through the preponderance of [Amazon’s] Alexas, Google Homes and Apple’s [HomePods].

I really wanted to examine where that relationship could go. But the larger thing I wanted to look at is how we judge the future. If you really did jump ahead 20 years, how would you judge whether it was a pessimistic or optimistic viewpoint? My feeling is that we use technology to survive, and as long as it’s fulfilling that goal it’s positive. I kind of wanted to play around with what’s optimistic, what’s pessimistic, what’s a utopia, what’s a dystopia, and whether or not we can really judge from our perspective here 20 years before. When my character shows up 20 years in the future he says, ‘This is sick, this isn’t right.’ But the people in the future say, ‘You don’t get to judge that—you weren’t here for all of the little changes, all the iterations between where you’re from and where we’re at.’

Why did you focus so much of your story on artificially intelligent assistant technology?
When I was an undergrad studying computer science and AI, I tried to build a chatbot as my senior thesis project. I gave it all of the first-order logic—you could tell it stuff and it could understand things like relationships between objects. The problem was it had no memory, no life, no experience. My advisor in graduate school used to dream about instrumenting a newborn baby and just recording the baby’s whole life, and then using that as training data for every machine in the future to give it a context of reality. What if you spent 20 years teaching an intelligent assistant, showing it picture books and having conversations and having a life with it, building memories and experiences. Then what does it turn into? That’s the main technology I wanted to explore, and how all of those iterations add up. My goal when I write science fiction is not to predict the future, necessarily. My goal is to do realistic, convincing world-building that supports whatever the emotional arc of the story is. Obviously, all the science fiction in this story revolves around the thing that provides the emotional punch to the story—which is Malcom’s relationship, with his wife moving on without him.

How does your science background influence your writing?
It’s been 10 years since I received my PhD in robotics at Carnegie Mellon, and I don't remember all of the math I learned. It’s more about having that scientific mentality and thinking concretely. One thing I like about robotics is that when you start to try to give a robot human ability, you have to look at humans as if you’re an alien anthropologist coming to Earth without ever having seen a human being. Then you start to realize that we’re really complicated. People are constantly moving—creating all of these tiny emotional cues with our faces and with our gestures and with our stances. Whenever you put yourself in that position as a roboticist I think it kind of changes how you see people, how you see characters that you’re writing. It adds to character and motivation when you really break people down from the ground up, and ask how and why people are doing what they’re doing. [As a roboticist], how can you replicate what they’re doing? That sounds very creepy when I say it out loud, but it’s something you have to get your head around.

Does science ever get in the way of a good idea for a story?
I’ve had stories that I couldn’t tell because quantum entanglement didn’t work the way I thought it did after I talked to physicist. I don’t see that as a negative—I see that as something that is an opportunity to build a strong story. When you make a really convincing world, and people aren’t worried that as a writer you’re going to fall off the trapeze, they can just let go and trust the story and suspend their disbelief. I wouldn't try to cheat that. In my short story “The Blue Afternoon That Lasted Forever,” it’s all about pinprick-sized black holes, and it’s about red-shifting and blue-shifting as light bumps up energy states as it gets pulled into a black hole. I had to work with a physicist to figure out what that would look like, what that would sound like as objects got sucked up into the sky and hit the speed of sound and created sonic booms. It was hard and took a long time, but every time I found some new little detail it made the story that much more powerful. And I learned that you don’t ever want to be around when a black hole shows up; that’s a gnarly scene.

What aspect of humanity do you use robots to tackle in your new novel?
When I was writing Robogenesis I fell in love with a certain period of time: Russia around the time of Peter the Great. I grew up in Oklahoma. I’m a Cherokee citizen; I’ve always been interested in clashes of civilization and how technology affects that. When civilizations collide, there have been certain periods in history where nations have upgraded their technology overnight just to survive. The Clockwork Dynasty [which debuts August 1] imagines that there’s this race of human-like robots that have been around for millennia. They’re serving all of the great empires of antiquity while blending in and hiding among humanity. They don’t know where they came from or who built them. Part of the story is set in the modern day, where these same machines are running out of power and are cannibalizing one another to stay alive. One of them teams up with an anthropologist who goes on an adventure to figure out who made these robots and how to save them. It’s pretty epic and has a lot of robot characters doing a lot of crazy stuff across history. I’ve got robots fighting in colonial India against armored elephants.

Will we see more of that optimism in your upcoming work?
I never really set out to write dystopia. I love robots—I love to think about them, I love to study them and for a long time I loved to build them. But when I set out to write my first novel, robots already had all of this cultural baggage. The killer robot meme was impossible to ignore. In my writing, I just took the bull by the horns—let’s acknowledge the killer robot meme and then try to subvert the story and make it into something more complex. My latest novel isn’t dystopic at all. The Clockwork Dynasty is more about examining the wonder of technology, and the wonder of what our ancestors might have accomplished technologically that has been forgotten. I use science fiction as a scalpel to take apart human characters and examine them, and robots are really useful for that.