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Technology can liberate us but you have to give it time, says pop star-turned-inventor will.i.am as he releases the futurist fantasy novel WaR: Wizards and Robots
Will.i.am isn’t an easy interviewee. Over the course of an hour, the Voice judge persistently flits from effervescent to icy, from mildly irritated to intensely annoyed, from fits of giggles to bored enough to blank me for a bowl of cashew nuts. We meet at 10am on a Monday, in a beige hotel conference room with expansive views over the Thames. By 11am, I feel like we’ve done battle, which is apt.
We’re here to discuss the pop star-turned-inventor and TV presenter’s latest venture, WaR: Wizards and Robots, an action-adventure novel aimed at tech-minded teens, co-written with the renowned futurist Brian David Johnson. Johnson sits between us, which is just as well.
WaR is awash with epic battles. Some take place centuries ago, in a Slovenian castle ruled by wizards and invaded by robots. Then we time-travel to a dystopian future where some robots still exist, but the world has been all but wiped out by an indeterminate evil called the Spawn. The most engaging action takes place in Florida in the near future, where we find WaR’s protagonist, Ada, a fiendishly clever schoolgirl and engineer. Wizards, robots and humans regularly rub shoulders, always to explosive effect.
WaR has its flaws. It’s overwritten, its language laughable for teens today, never mind in 2052. “Forget your computer and come hang out with some real people,” urges one of Ada’s mates. “Dance to awesome tunes and flirt with some really hot guys.”
Yet halfway in, I was hooked. Not by the story, but by the technology driving it. Ada inhabits a world of surveillance drones, smart homes, holograms and social robots that already feels within reach. When she pulls up the hood of her jacket to cycle home and it hardens into a helmet, I want to know when I can buy one. “It’s a ways yet,” Johnson says. “But it is based on the science of smart fabrics — a weave connected to tech that makes it dense when it moves. Research is going on, but it requires more investment.”
Will and Johnson met when both were employed by the tech giant Intel. Johnson was its chief futurist, Will its director of creative innovation. Will left in 2013 to set up an artificial intelligence company, now focused on voice activation. Johnson is an inventor and author who built some of the robots that feature in WaR, notably its historian hero, Kaku. Where is it now? “In my office,” Will says proudly.
And what does it do? “It just stands there. It’s, er, more of a sculpture.”
“In 1970, the concept of smart glass didn’t exist. Touch-glass that allows you to communicate with anyone, anywhere in the world? No way! Now it’s so commonplace, we no longer notice it, but it continues to evolve.”
The premise for WaR is that magic is simply science we have yet to comprehend. “Look at wizards and connect Harry Potter — shazam! — to the genie,” Will says, suddenly fired up. “If this was 1980, that’s not real. Today, abracadabra is real. ‘Hey Siri...’ is the genie in the bottle. Turns out those ancient Arabs were freaking right! ”
Strip away Will’s riddles and he is right. In WaR, smart glasses are back. I say I didn’t see that one coming, and Will rolls his eyes and sighs. “In 1970, the concept of smart glass didn’t exist,” he says. “Touch-glass that allows you to communicate with anyone, anywhere in the world? No way! Now it’s so commonplace, we no longer notice it, but it continues to evolve.
“How long until the tech we describe in the book arrives? It depends which companies make it real. Apple did it with glass. Maybe Nike will do it with smart fabrics. This haste for innovations to come to market isn’t healthy. It’s the watchers of the egg complaining the egg isn’t boiling fast enough.”
Still, as holders of patents for tech innovations, Will and Johnson could be accused of fanning the flames. Will has even involved his mum. He bought her a smart home for Christmas — partly, it transpires, to find out how she got on. “Will-eee, I lurve it!” he shrieks, mimicking his mum. Johnson, who knows her, looks dubious. “I think she’s humouring you,” he says.
“She does!” Will insists. “When she’s out, she gets a notification that someone’s at the door and can speak to them on screen. She knows what time the kids come home. She likes the fact that the lights come on when she walks in with bags and that if she runs out of milk, someone sends it.”
“Basically, you gave her Castle,” Johnson laughs.
Castle is Ada’s smart home in WaR.
The book’s most endearing character is Kipp, a personality-packed robot pet that can discuss the death of a parent or teen relationship troubles while clinging to the handlebars of a bike. Like WaR, he’s flawed. Unlike WaR, he has a sense of humour. I loved Kipp, but Will doesn’t want to discuss him. “Kaku is the hero,” he says. “He’s a super-intelligent historian who cares about people. Let’s create technology that shares data and empowers communities, instead of making companies like Google and Facebook even richer.”
Will spoke at Davos earlier this year and donates big sums to charities such as the Prince’s Trust, to teach tech to disadvantaged kids. He is passionate about information being available to all. He’s less forthcoming about his band, Black Eyed Peas, once chart-conquering superstars, now possibly on hiatus. Even Fergie, their lead singer turned solo artist, seems confused as to whether she’s still a member.
“For us, BEP is a village of creatives, not just the front face,” Will says, neatly sidestepping naming Fergie. “Macy Gray has been a member, so has Nicole Scherzinger. Leonardo DiCaprio was almost a member. Hans Zimmer is part of our crew. Now we have AR developers working with Marvel. We have VR guys working with Oculus. We shape-shift into different forms.”
I question whether The Voice, the TV talent show on which Will has been a judge since 2012 and which has failed to find a single new star, empowers contestants or purely rewards its highly paid panel. “Say that again!” Will snaps.
Er, the power: isn’t it always with the judges? “No. That’s not The Voice. Once again, how long are you willing to wait to see results?
“Because people’s threshold is so short, they don’t see what’s manifesting between the coaches and the contestants. This book took six years. It’s a long time, forever for a kid. Maybe it’s gonna click for some of those contestants now. Maybe careers will take off in two years. People are impatient.”
Seven years ago, Black Eyed Peas rocked the Super Bowl and downloads were devastating the music industry: a long time in tech, an eternity in pop.