Small Wars Journal

SWJ Book Review – Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution

Fri, 07/03/2020 - 12:06am

SWJ Book Review – Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution

John P. Sullivan

Burn_In Cover

P.W. Singer and August Cole, Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020 [ISBN: 9781328637239, Hardcover, 432 Pages]

Rapid technological change presents profound challenges to all sectors of society.  Technology is a disruptive force that can be harnessed for non-zero progress or used as a driver of fear and oppression. These potentials are the topic of P.W. Singer and August Cole’s exploration of rapidly emerging Artificial Intelligence (AI). Robotics, drones—such as unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and semi-autonomous vehicles—and near ubiquitous surveillance (images, facial recognition, and a range of sensors)—are also examined. Exploitation of big data culminating in a fragile, extractive, just-in-time society ties these together.

Burn-In, deriving its name from the rigorous and continuous testing of technology prior to deployment in a real operational environment, explores the rise of robotics and the social upheaval that follows through the lens of an FBI special agent assigned to the Washington Field Office.  Special Agent Lara Keegan is a former Marine combat ‘robot wrangler’ assigned to a counterterrorism squad.  After interdicting a jihadi attack on Washington’s Union Station, she is enlisted in a special program to train a new ‘partner.’  This partner is a network-connected humanoid robot known as TAMS (for Tactical Autonomous Mobility System).

Emerging Technology and Conflict

The human-robot partnership between Special Agent Keegan and TAMS allows the reader not only to explore the ethical and practical factors of forging human-robot teams, but also to explore the social dynamics of robotics on social, economic, and political systems—including crime, economic displacement, mass protest, and the rise of domestic terrorism.   Here we see the development of neo-Luddite activism and extremism.  The  rise of rightwing extremism, as well as anti-robotic terrorism alliances among jihadis, and both leftwing and rightwing extremists exploiting cyberspace and triggering physical effects from cyberattacks are encountered as Special Agent Keegan and TAMS uncover a conspiracy and actual attacks meant to recreate a series of ‘biblical plagues’ in the Washington, DC/National Capital Region.  Virtually instigated accidents, floods, hazmat incidents, and attempts to commit mass murder are pursued by the team.  The duo use real-time surveillance, tied to sensor networks, and global databases to build their case.  They ultimately capture the main protagonist an anti-AI attacker linked to what appears to be a global amalgam of rightwing white supremacists, Neo-Nazis, leftwing Neo-Marxists, and environmental activists that converge to attack the new-drone, robotic, and Al-enabled economy. 

The book also adroitly addresses the issues related to use of both lethal and non-lethal force by the human-robot team, as well as the specific issues faced when encountering child soldiers. Identity politics, political intrigue, empowered tech entrepreneurs, and bureaucratic competition among the security services (FBI and CIA) as well as among the various law enforcement agencies policing the National Capital Region illustrate the competition to use and exploit technology. 

Fiction (FICINT) as a Tool for Assessing the Future Operational Environment

Burn-In is not only an enjoyable, science fiction thriller-crime procedural combination, it is also a well-researched and vetted primer on future war and future crime (and the blurring of those two environments).  In this sense, Singer and Cole are able to use fiction as a means of distilling complex emerging technological concepts to lay readers and specialists in diverse disciplines alike.  This creative use of scenario-based futures analysis can become a powerful tool for strategic foresight and planning organizational responses to potential challenges.[1] 

FICINT (Fiction Intelligence) is the use of fictional scenarios to explore future operating environments.  Essentially, FICINT blends fiction and intelligence to provide context and enhance understanding of future wars toward managing future warfighting.[2]  Here scenarios and narratives (related to social factors , operational environments, organizational features, and emerging technology) derived from open sources (OSINT or SOCINT – Open Source Intelligence and Social Intelligence) can be used to inform future commanders and their staff. 

This approach becomes a valuable means of preparing future analysts, operators,  and decision-makers for emerging conflict trends and potentials.  Training, materiel, weapons development and acquisition, personnel recruitment and training are all potential beneficiaries of this approach.  Beyond that, defining the types of future technologies and their application at strategic, operational, and tactical levels—as well as the interplay between these  echelons—can benefit from FICINT as a training tool and as drivers for wargaming and tactical training scenarios.

A pertinent example of this definitional role is found in the discussion of AI found in Burn-In’s adaptive use of endnotes to provide conceptual depth to its fictional scenarios.[3]  These additional details augment the main text and provide a blueprint for further research.  For example, a detailed definition of AI (Artificial Intelligence) is provided in the notes for Chapter 2 (p. 394).[4]  The challenges of new technologies (including autonomous weapons systems) presents emerging ethical, legal, and operational challenges for both military and policing applications.  Burn-In provides a valuable entrée to these difficult foundational issues.[5]


Burn-In is an exceptional account of the future of domestic terrorism and crime.  It provides an accessible entry point to exploring not only the issues related to employing autonomous robots and AI, but also the social and political (and ultimately cultural issues) especially those grounded in trust—related to using autonomous weapons system and human-robot teams.  These issues are features of our near-tomorrow.  And, as Burn-In describes, they are complex and raise critical issues about the nature of not only technology, but of trust and confidence in our political system and the police that protect society based upon the consent of the communities they serve.  

Burn-In joins Singer and Cole’s Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War a novel that explored the near-future of cyber-enabled naval warfare; it is hoped that they will continue their FICINT sagas to  explore the dimensions of future transnational organized crime, crime wars, and criminal insurgencies in the global south and their intersection with the those addressed in Burn-In and Ghost Fleet.

Burn-In is a tool for anticipating and navigating those complex endeavors and is a valuable text for professional military education for military officers and senior NCOs, police officials in tactical, investigative and middle management (command) and executive roles, as well as legal specialists and academics in security sector reform and emerging legal studies.  It is also an enjoyable text for anyone interested in policing and future conflict.


[1] Strategic foresight is an assessment of alternative futures contexts for strategic decision-making to anticipate threats, risks and opportunities and identify ways to manage those potentials.  See, for example, “Introduction” (to Strategic Foresight and Global Shifts). World Economic Forum,  n.d., Shell Oil was a pioneer of scenario-based futures analysis.  See Angela Wilkenson and Roland Kupers, “Living in the Futures.” Harvard Business Review. May 2013, and “Shell Scenarios,” n.d.,

[2] See M. Cavanaugh, “Op-Ed: Can science fiction help us prepare for 21st-century warfare?” Los Angeles Times. 28 May 2018, and August Cole and Jacqueline E. Whitt, “‘FICINT’: Envisioning Future War Through Fiction & Intelligence (Indo-Pacific Series),” War Room (United States Army War College). 22 May 2019,

[3] Each of the novel’s 19 chapters and reference section are augmented by detailed references providing technical, cultural, social, and operational depth to the scenario provided.

[4] See Note 12 (p. 394) for background and references on the various contested definitions of AI, including US Department of Defense definitions. See also Michael E. O’Hanlon, “The role of AI in future warfare.” Brookings. 29 November 2018,

[5] See “New technologies and IHL.” Special Issue of the International Review of the Red Cross (IRRC), No. 866, as a starting point on these issues. Also see, Hayley Evans and Natalie Salmanowitz, “Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems: Recent Developments.” Lawfare. 7 March 2019,  On policing and AI see, John P. Sullivan, “PERSPECTIVE: Exploring Potential, Navigating Challenges for Al and Homeland Security.” Homeland Security Today. 6 June 2018,









About the Author(s)

Dr. John P. Sullivan was a career police officer. He is an honorably retired lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, specializing in emergency operations, transit policing, counterterrorism, and intelligence. He is currently an Instructor in the Safe Communities Institute (SCI) at the Sol Price School of Public Policy, University of Southern California. Sullivan received a lifetime achievement award from the National Fusion Center Association in November 2018 for his contributions to the national network of intelligence fusion centers. He completed the CREATE Executive Program in Counter-Terrorism at the University of Southern California and holds a Bachelor of Arts in Government from the College of William and Mary, a Master of Arts in Urban Affairs and Policy Analysis from the New School for Social Research, and a PhD from the Open University of Catalonia (Universitat Oberta de Catalunya). His doctoral thesis was “Mexico’s Drug War: Cartels, Gangs, Sovereignty and the Network State.” He can be reached at



Thu, 09/23/2021 - 9:49am

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