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Copyright

Title: Robo sapiens
Authors: Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio
Publisher: MIT
Copyright: 2000
ISBN: 0-262-13382-2
Pages: 239
Price: $29.95
Rating: 90%

Ever since Isaac Asimov wrote his robot series of science fiction novels (though Czech writer Karel Capek coined the word first, in his 1920 play R. U. R.), people have looked at robots as both a threat and a blessing. The threat is that robots would be come conscious and act on their own volition; the blessing is that robots could accomplish many boring, repetitive and dangerous tasks for us.  

Robots have long been anthropomorphized - the basic idea many people have is that of Robby the robot from Lost in Space: a machine that looks a bit human, with arms, legs and a head with eyes and mouth, but still bears the mechanical trimmings that show it is clearly made of steel and silicone. While many robots retain that simulated human look, today’s models take on many shapes. 

Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio have created a unique book about robots. Robo sapiens examines the wide variety of robots that currently exist, or that are being designed in research labs around the world. They traveled far and wide to show - through beautiful pictures - what tomorrow’s robots will look like.  

After a brief introduction, laying out some of the issues involved in robotics, and what the future may hold, the book is basically a catalogue of robots. Each model is presented with pictures, specs and a brief interview with its creator. We see robots such as the Honda P3 (now called the Asimo), which looks like a man wearing a space suit, and which can walk and dance. Or DB, the dynamic brain, a robot capable of juggling three balls. Or the unique Kismet, which can exhibit a wide variety of facial expressions. 

But robots do not all attempt to reproduce human shapes and forms. The most common robots today are industrial models, which assemble parts, weld or paint, and which look like the machines they are. The book briefly examines robots of this type, as well as the robotic arms that surgeons use to perform delicate operations, though does not examine them in depth. This is a shame, because these robots really exist, and are used daily in factories and hospitals around the world. They give the best example of how robotics can be applied in everyday life. 

Robot designers do not attempt to reinvent the wheel. Many robots, as seen above, resemble the human form, and others are patterned after animals: for a variety of reasons (notably their stability on uneven surfaces) snakes, lizards and insects are excellent models for robots.  Robot III, a hexapod robot, is designed to move like a cockroach, whose six legs give it a great deal of flexibility. And Spyder, named after the homonymic creature it mimics, is designed to move using the smallest possible amount of energy. These robots may have many applications in the future - one can imagine small insect-shaped robots scouring the rubble of fallen buildings looking for survivors, or exploring caves or pipes, and sending data back to their controllers. 

One of the most striking developments in robotics in recent years is the incredibly complex models that are sold as toys. Sony’s Aibo, the dog-like robot, or robot-like dog, is one example, but the most spectacular is certainly Lego’s Mindstorms. This tiny programmable robot uses combines a powerful programming language with the flexibility of Lego bricks, allowing children (and adults) to create complex robots with little effort. 

While Robo sapiens is little more than a catalogue of robots, it is quite a catalogue. With beautiful National Geographic-style pictures, and interviews with the creators of the different robots, it ends up being more than the sum of its parts - a thorough overview of the state of robotics today, and a presentation of what we can expect to see tomorrow.

-- Kirk McElhearn  

Kirk McElhearn (kirk@mcelhearn.com) is a freelance writer and translator living in a village in the French Alps. You can find out all about him at his web site, http://www.mcelhearn.com.