The Science behind The Siege

The Siege by Mark Alpert

I’m a science journalist as well as a novelist, and in 2007 I edited a story for Scientific American titled “A Robot in Every Home.” Written by Bill Gates, the Microsoft pioneer who helped establish the modern computer industry, the story argued that robotics is the next great world-changing technology that will revolutionize our society. Gates’s arguments made a huge impression on me and eventually inspired me to write The Six -- the first novel in this series -- and now its sequel, The Siege.

The Snake-bots and Swarm-bots described in this book aren’t science-fiction fantasies. Robotics researchers have already constructed rudimentary versions of these machines. For example, scientists in Norway have built a snakelike firefighting robot that’s designed to wriggle into burning buildings and spray water on the flames. This ten-foot-long, 165-pound machine, appropriately named “Anna Konda,” uses hydraulic motors to bend its segmented body and propel it sideways like a snake. Meanwhile, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed a medical Snake-bot called HARP that’s compact and flexible enough to delve into a patient’s chest and perform heart surgery. (It’s been tested in pigs, but not yet in humans.)

Scientists are also making fast progress at designing networks of small, agile robots that can coordinate their movements and act like swarms. In 2014 researchers at Harvard University demonstrated a self-organizing swarm of 1,024 simple machines called Kilobots. Less than an inch-and-a-half wide, each Kilobot can move on pin-like legs and sense the positions of its closest neighbors. Working in concert, the robots in the swarm can swiftly assemble into any shape the programmers specify.

Later the same year, a team from the University of Pennsylvania showed off the amazing aerial abilities of a new quadcopter -- a four-rotor hovering drone -- that weighs only 25 grams and fits in the palm of one’s hand. Swarms of these micro drones can fly in formation, perform complex maneuvers and deftly avoid colliding with one another. Given all these rapid advances, it seems likely that researchers will soon introduce robotic swarms very similar to the ones described in The Siege.

And the positronium laser, despite its wacky science-fiction name, is another real technology. Positrons, the positively charged antimatter counterparts of electrons, are produced fairly frequently, whenever certain radioactive isotopes decay. But positrons don’t last long -- they combine with electrons to form short-lived atoms of positronium, which vanish in a flash of gamma rays when the electrons and positrons annihilate each other. Recently, though, researchers realized that under certain conditions they could synchronize the annihilation of positronium atoms to create a beam of gamma rays sharing the same frequency, direction and phase -- in other words, a laser beam.

A gamma-ray laser would be a powerful weapon, capable of destroying targets hundreds of feet away. Naturally, the U.S. Defense Department is paying for much of this research. (It’s also funding studies of the hovering micro drones).

The scientific concepts and theories presented in The Siege are real too. The concept of “the uncanny valley,” for example, is becoming very familiar to robotics researchers as they build machines that are more and more humanlike. The theory propounded by Sigma near the end of The Siege -- that evolution inevitably leads to greater complexity -- is an actual hypothesis that’s hotly debated among biologists. And physicists have speculated that the whole universe might well be a manifestation of cosmic software, with the laws of physics serving as its programmed instructions. I wish I could say I have the imagination to make this stuff up, but I don’t. The ideas are already out there, and some of them might even be true.

Last, the settings in The Siege are real. White Sands Missile Range is an actual U.S. military installation, as is Joint Base McGuire. (Its full name is Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, because it’s a merger of Air Force, Army and Navy facilities.) The USS Intrepid is indeed docked at the Hudson River pier near West 46th Street in Manhattan, and there really is an American Eagle Outfitters store in Times Square. The Unicorp company is fictional, but its laboratory is based on the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York.

I’d like to thank the IBM officials who let me tour the lab, and also my colleagues at Scientific American who let me steal so many good ideas from them. The magazine is an excellent resource if you want to learn more about robotics, artificial intelligence, evolution, quantum physics, and the exciting but scary future we’re all rushing toward.