Q&A with Ted Bell

  • June 12, 2012

Ted Bell tells us about artificial intelligence, a world run by machines, and the transcendence of 'thrillers' to the literary stage.

Alex Hawke must catch a villainous megalomaniac, a man obsessed with horrifying experiments in cyberwar, in Phantom, the new espionage thriller in Ted Bell’s best-selling series. The first and most bizarre event nearly becomes a monumental catastrophe when something goes awry at an American theme park, wreaking havoc on visitors looking for nothing more than a sun- splashed holiday. In a different part of the country, a USAF F-15 pilot, escorting another jet in the skies over the Midwest, inexplicably loses control of his plane, endangering the lives of several people and deeply puzzling those following his mission on the ground. Then, in the misty calm of a California evening, the world’s premier scientist in the field of artificial intelligence gets a strange phone call ― and departs for a stroll from which he never returns.

It’s up to Hawke and the brilliant former inspector Ambrose Congreve to find out what’s happening. But how does one identify ― and fight ― an enemy that can’t be seen? Is there really such a thing as an ultra-intelligent machine, a cyberweapon that can shift the geopolitical balance of power? The hunt for answers takes Hawke from Palo Alto to the Russian frontier to Cambridge University and the glistening Mediterranean aboard an armed super-yacht, seeking to unmask the scientist behind these extraordinary events and going nose-to-nose with an enemy unlike any he’s fought before.

Phantom reads like a work of science fiction, but in the afterword, you outline research that shows a doomsday scenario of a world run by machines that might be closer to reality than most of us realize. How does humankind protect itself from its own development?

That’s the big question. Utopian scientists believe that the machines are evolutionary. Imbued with humanist traits and moral compasses. And that safeguards can be built in. Dystopians dismiss this as naive. They think war with the machines is inevitable and that we will lose. God only knows.

How did you become interested in this subject?

I became fascinated with the life and work of Ray Kurzweil, the great futurist of our age. I am always searching for new and unique villains on the horizon, worthy adversaries for my hero, Alex Hawke. The Terminator was science fiction. My villain, Perseus, is science fact.

You examine the difference between raw knowledge, consciousness and a conscience. Artificial intelligence has the knowledge and a consciousness, but not a conscience. Would you say that a conscience is what makes us human? Is it possible to endow artificial intelligence with a sense of right and wrong?

Discussed above. If Kurzweil is correct about AI being pure evolution, a sense of right and wrong is entirely possible in superhuman machines.

Perseus (the Artificial Intelligence) considers itself to be God, but it was created and ultimately is destroyed. It did not have control over its own destiny nor did it have the power to create. What does this say about the nature of God? Or, rather, what people perceive as the nature of God?

Perseus is to God what single-cell amoeba were to mankind: the beginning. Supremely intelligent beings will bring mankind ever closer to a God-like state. Evolution’s ultimate destiny.

Why do you think readers continue to be entranced by larger-than-life characters like James Bond and Alex Hawke? Most of us cannot relate to gun-slinging, continent-hopping, millionaire secret agents, yet we are drawn in, all the same. Is it pure entertainment? Or do we inherently see something of ourselves in these unattainable characters?

Of course it is entertainment. But all of us sense the heroic in each of us. It’s an enduring fascination as old as literature itself.

What about Nell? She starts out as a strong female character, a sharp police officer who is willing to risk her life for her assignment. I was a little disappointed that in the end she turns into the stereotypical love interest for the hero. Can you defend her choices?

Yes, I can. Does falling in love somehow diminish a strong female character? Or a male one, for that matter? I think not. Falling in love is the stereotypical human condition.

Do you see thrillers as just a way to escape ― a fun read? Or do you think there is room for them on the literary stage? Can they teach us something or give us food for thought to sustain us after the covers of the book have been closed?

I certainly hope so. I try to offer my readers more than simple escapism. Whether I succeed or not is up to them to decide. Edgar Allen Poe wrote mystery and horror. And found room on the literary stage. John Le Carré and Stephen King have amply demonstrated that any genre may be transcended.

I have to ask: Is there a future for Alex Hawke on the big screen? If so, who would you cast in the role?

Alex would appear to have a rosy future. For the last few years we have been in serious discussion with major studios, and three or four A-list actors keep returning to the table. Time will tell, but I wouldn’t bet against him.

Mandy Huckins holds an M.A. in English from the University of Charleston in South Carolina. A resident of the Washington, D.C., area and the wife of an Air Force officer, she works for the Combined Federal Campaign-Overseas.

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