The Intersection of Humanity
Interview with Steve Bates
By Carin Chea
In an era where AI (artificial intelligence) is becoming increasingly prevalent by the day, it’s inevitable to wonder:
Would flesh-and-bone writers, like myself, become extinct? Would human workers as a whole become a defunct aspect of society, tossed away like yesterday’s leftovers?
Thankfully, author Steve Bates has begun tackling these questions (and much more) in his newest science-fiction novel, Castle of Sand.
An award-winning author and journalist, Bates’ gift as a master wordsmith is undeniable, though what is as profound as his talent is his thirst for knowledge and truth. This comes as no surprise, as the author is also a former reporter and editor for The Washington Post.
After chasing the news for decades, Bates seems to have effortlessly made a successful transition into fiction writing, having already received accolades for his first book, Back to You.
Now, with AI on the forefront of so many minds – it is even a major talking point for the WGA strike – Bates’ thought-provoking, interstellar Castle of Sand has arrived at exactly the right time. His writing (and timing) are impeccable.
What was it like being the editor for The Washington Post? I admit, I’m awe-struck and nervous right now, since I’m interviewing greatness!
I was one of many editors. Most of my shifts were night city editor on Friday and Saturday nights. It was a fascinating time and position where you’re sitting around waiting for something to happen.
You get a lot of really high-profile decisions that need to be made, but I spent more time being a reporter in Virginia. I enjoyed it because, when things were slow, there were always fascinating people to write about.
The city was moving also outward into the rural cities that were otherwise sleepy and countryside.
I’d call out the spokesman for the police department a few times a day and ask them “Is there anything going on?” I’ll never forget this, one time, this sergeant said, “Cows don’t kill people.”
Have you always known you would be a writer?
Yes, even from a young age it fascinated me. I tried to make up my own little newspaper in elementary school and charge a quarter for it. I always wanted to be a storyteller.
The transition to fiction has been challenging but rewarding. You almost have to re-wire your brain to write fiction after years of writing the news.
You started off as a reporter for the most widely circulated paper in the Washington area, then became an editor. What made you transition into science fiction writing?
I always loved reading science fiction. As I got further along in my news career, I got that itch to tell stories in a more provocative way. Good science fiction is all about ideas, and I started getting all these ideas.
Before I knew it, I had dozens of them and they turned into short stories. Over time they got longer. It was a challenge, putting together 80,000 words that work together after years of writing a couple hundred, or maybe 2,000 words here and there.
Where exactly did you get all your ideas for your science fiction?
Reading a lot of science fiction as well as non-fiction gave me ideas. I also caught up on the technology of the last few decades.
I was reading these works by the people reputable in their fields (scientists, physicists, and astronomers), and they all said: There really is proof that alternate universes exist. It’s largely considered very possible by a significant percentage of these experts.
As a writer, I took that and it gave me a sense of liberty to go on and think, “What does this mean?” and “How does this change the fate of our species?”
Tell us about Castle of Sand and what inspired it.
I’ve been fascinated and concerned about the interaction between AI (artificial intelligence) and our species. There is great competition in the business world to come up with faster and better and more effective machines.
If you’re a student, you can generate a term paper through these things, and the professors may or may not determine that you’ve written it yourself or if a chatbot wrote it for you.
That’s happening now, but what’s the next step? It’s the next generations of AI that can start to mimic the human brain that can reason and become sentient. Will these guys be our friends? We have to think about that.
We see a number of governments starting to say, “Maybe we should hit the pause button on all this. Maybe we should come up with legislation first.” Even tech people are agreeing with this.
If we don’t do something pretty soon, the potential for rogue AI is there. People looking for ways to keep the genie in the bottle, and it may happen, but there is such a commercial incentive to come up with newer and better AI.
I suspect it’s going to move ahead at its own pace. Are we ready for this? It’s one thing to be talking to Siri and asking who won the game, but another thing to talk to a conscious AI.
That seems to be a prevalent theme in Castle of Sand.
There a couple of themes. AI forces us to ask what it means to be human. Will it force us to take on a new form?
I don’t think it’s possible for there to be a convergence. We already have people who are mending their bodies with machinery and there are machines that can teach themselves. The process has already begun.
The other theme is: Civilization is fragile and we need to be reminded of that. The ancients thought they were indestructible and then they swept away forever. Now that we’re facing powerful AI and nuclear proliferation, can our species last long?
I have a main character, Maria Ramos, who is like Joan of Arc in that she doesn’t seek out fame. She wakes up with six other humans on a remote planet with an AI just before a disease wipes out everyone on earth.
Hubert (the AI found this spaceship) and these six humans have landed it on an earth-like planet, and he informs Maria that it’s up to her to maintain the human race.
They’re trying to re-create the species on a hostile planet. She’s placed in this position and has to make a decision.
Life and civilizations are fragile, but sometimes people are plucked out of nowhere and made into heroes. Like Maria, who was just a soccer mom from rural Maryland, and yet here she is.
Where do you think AI will take us in the not-so-distant future? What are your thoughts on the various AI programs that are now capable of doing our writing and creating for us?
It’s like so many disruptive events in history that have thrown people out of work. It’s going to be very uncomfortable. There are already chatbots that are writing routine news articles for papers.
Really? I actually didn’t realize that was a thing.
The AI is trained to skim press releases, find the key points, and create a meaningful news article. They do this for newspapers and magazines, especially for financial columns, sports events.
AI is becoming sentient. Some experts say it’ll happen a year from now, some say 5, 10, 15 years from now. I don’t know if we can get a handle on when exactly that’ll happen.
What do you want your readers to take way from your work?
Individuals can make a difference even if it’s not something they might choose on their own. People are placed in situations that are important, whether you see someone who collapses at the grocery store and you perform CPR, or you testify on Capitol Hill.
Like Maria Ramos, who ended up heading on a spaceship to an unknown planet and didn’t ask for it. You’re put in a position where you can do something amazing, or you can just watch as things happen to others.
I believe we all have a spark within us, that if we were put in a situation like this, we’d rise to the situation and do the right thing. I’m not saying anyone’s perfect, but I think we all have that spark within us that compels us to do the right things for the betterment of society.
It’s what we as individuals do that will determine our fate and future. AI is important, but we have to take care of our own business before we turn to AI.
Who would play your protagonist if Castle of Sand was to become a series?
Jennifer Lopez would be great as Maria. I don’t know if we can afford her though.
What’s your favorite AI movie out there?
You’ve got the Dune universe where AI is outlawed, but it’s sneaking back in. That might be my favorite. The more classic one would be 2001: A Space Odyssey.
For more information, please visit SteveBatesWriter.com.
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