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Robots have long enchanted and intrigued people, especially since Isaac Asimov posited the three laws that robots had to obey in his novel I, Robot. HAL, the intelligent computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey went further, showing an intelligent machine capable of feelings and madness. And science fiction has continued in this vein over the years, as technology and robotics become more familiar.
Rodney A. Brooks, director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, presents a manifesto on robots and robotics. With the usual style of this type of vulgarization, he looks at the issues and possibilities these technologies hold. Yet I can only be skeptical when I read a statement such as: "My thesis is that in just twenty years the boundary between fantasy and reality will be rent asunder." Researchers in artificial intelligence, and especially machine translation, have been bantering about such time frames for at least two score years. In fact, he never comes anywhere close to proving this "thesis" in this book.
Brooks begins by giving an overview of the technological advances that have brought humanity to its current state. Beginning with the earliest tools used by the Neanderthals, he works his way forward to the automata of the 17th century, the steam engines of the 18th century, and finally the "artificial creatures" of the 20th century.
Brooks spends a great deal of time discussing robots built in the past few decades, especially those he was responsible for. In this narrative he introduces some of the key issues that robotics researchers must confront, such as perception, behavior and metaphor. These are all things we take for granted but which are extremely difficult to program. Humans, for example, can recognize other humans or animals in a few milliseconds; teaching a robot to see a human being as anything more than an obstacle is a daunting task indeed.
Aside from robotic toys, the beachhead for getting robots into the home is cleaning robots. Researchers have found that the biggest hurdle for this type of robot is not the cleaning mechanisms themselves but rather the systems that ensure that the robots cover the entire area to be cleaned. Brooks envisions that homes will have a cohort of small, hockey-puck sized robots called pucksters that wander around aimlessly collecting dust. He says that this is "the immediate future of line in our homes". Yet he either chooses not to address certain key issues, or just ignores them. How will these pucksters interact with pets? What about small children? And what if you need to get up at night to go to the bathroom - to you really want these things moving around, causing potential danger underfoot? Brooks' Jetsons-like image of the future smacks of too many comic book ideas and wishful thinking, and a lack of pragmatics.
Only in the final chapters does this book live up to its title in what seems to be an afterthought (and an echo of the book's prologue). Brooks examines the ways technology can be integrated with the human body. From the already-venerable pacemaker to more recent devices, such as cochlear and retinal implants, technology can be a boon to the sick or disabled. These applications will have far more resounding effect on humanity than the author's pucksters, and it's a shame that he gives them short shrift with little more than a cursory examination (especially since both the title and cover of this book lead the reader to expect a closer look at this question).
Perhaps the focus on robots that carry out banal tasks would have been interesting in the time of the Jetsons. Today, this is all becoming commonplace, and this book offers little more than an inventory of the way things are, rather than what they may become. Brooks' future is not very far off, and, in the end, he offers little insight in to what awaits us in this domain.