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Audio drama Burner Face explores life in Seattle in the 22nd century

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An AI-generated Seattle Skyline — Image courtesy of John Gauntt
An AI-generated Seattle Skyline — Image courtesy of John Gauntt

The team that produces Burner Face, the award-winning science fiction podcast set in Seattle one hundred years from now, is gearing up for a second season. The first could already be considered an absolute treat of audio storytelling, one that weaves exposition and dialogue into a plot that invites listeners into a fun and thought-provoking vision of a potential future.

The sci-fi elements of Burner Face are introduced smoothly enough that I can leave out specifics, but there are layered premises in just the first episode. To keep it brief, in the 22nd century, Seattle's economy, health care system, and degrading climate is regulated by Plato, an artificial intelligence (AI) housed in a powerful quantum computer.

If that weren't enough, the setting features a new nanotechnology called "neural silver," which has fused natural and artificial intelligence to grant non-human beings, both digital and physical, higher cognitive abilities, like self-awareness and spoken language.

The three main characters cover all those bases. There's a human, Boon, who drives what's essentially a sky taxi; Celeste, his digital twin sister; and Vincent, a talking cat. Together, they run an illegal mobile casino where patrons can swap out face shields (a safeguard against surveillance) and rent any face they like.

From there, says Burner Face creator John Gauntt, the podcast asks, "What could go wrong?"

Taming Pandora's box
Gauntt is also the host of Augmented City, a nonfiction series about "the intersection between artificial intelligence and urban life." His degrees in both computer science and English literature position him somewhere between techies fixated on data and artists mired in the ephemeral.

"Human language and human culture can now directly program computers, which can be scary as shit," Gauntt said. "But also it can be liberating."

He spoke of AI in much the same way we might speak of climate change, or perhaps Pandora's box — as something that isn't likely to reverse course. The smart way for us to adapt to the rise of AI, Gauntt argued, is not to try to "enslave" it, or become slaves to it. It's better to "domesticate" it, he said, with all the careful training that implies, so it can be a companion rather than a rival — or worse.

To change the way we think about AI, though, "we need storytellers to get ahead of this," he said. "Because we actually do have superpowers as humans that AI doesn't even come close to."

He listed precise characterization as one example, and offered Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper specifically, since in that painting, each disciple is positioned in a way that reflects their roles in scripture.

Readers familiar with the history of the science fiction genre might now be thinking of the shelves upon shelves of stories that have already dealt with questions of augmented reality, nonhuman intelligence, and identity in an increasingly digital world. But Samuel Butler and Mary Shelley didn't have Midjourney or ChatGPT to help (and they certainly didn't have climate projections).

What the approach to the Space Needle could look like in 2121 — Image courtesy of John Gauntt  

Though the Burner Face team has been limited to the use of 21st-century technology, they have been practicing what Gauntt preaches in their creation of season 2, at least to the degree that they can. They recently showcased a video trailer they created with both human and AI contributors, in order to introduce more potential fans to the podcast, and pursue answers to certain questions:

"How do you organize a team where one of the main contributors isn't human?" Gauntt posed. "Basically, how do you bring an artificial intelligence tool onto a team [and] run a project?"

Humans, then, likely worked on what Gauntt called the "spine" of the project, or the story's characters and the linear plot as presented in audio form. But for the multimedia presence necessary for most modern publications' widespread success — a website, a comic series, animated videos, and the like — the team invited contributions from AI.

Midjourney, for example, likely generated something like concept art, which was no doubt refined by human artists on the team before publication.

"And the fact that it's AI has about as much relevance as the fact that one of the team members might be Queer," Gauntt said.

In other words, he perhaps wants an AI perspective on a story about AI. But the podcast's breakdown of traditional boundaries doesn't stop at talking cats. Gauntt said it applies to boundaries of all kinds.

"When I talk about fluidity, it's not just gender fluidity," Gauntt explained. "It's everything fluidity. It's where the boundaries between physical and virtual life, and work, and play have basically been obliterated."

We have yet to be able to reliably consult a cat, but in the meantime, the Burner Face team is looking for contributors with a nuanced perspective on and experience with gender, which can certainly function as a boundary at times.

"I'm gonna be looking for people who can help me develop more genderfluid characters — not only human, but also android ones," Gauntt said.

Whatever themes Burner Face season 2 ends up exploring, season 1's first episode might be worth a listen for Vincent on his own. Those who tune in are sure to be left with something to chew on, and that's the intent.

You can listen to Burner Face anywhere you listen to podcasts, and at https://www.burnerface.com, which has an interactive map of 2121 Puget Sound, a curated research database, additional art, and more.