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Almost Human: Making Robots Think Paperback – August 24, 2009

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Gutkind (In Fact) spent six years as a self-described "fly on the wall" at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute, watching a group of scientists—mostly grad students—try to develop human movement and decision-making capabilities. The machines he encountered came in a variety of shapes and sizes, from dog-shaped toys programmed to play soccer to a Hummer equipped with sensors that enable it to drive itself. As that Hummer indicates, the institute's research isn't confined to the lab: Gutkind follows his roboticists to abandoned mine shafts and the northern edges of Chile, where they use the world's driest desert to test machines developed to find signs of life on the surface of Mars. Gutkind's reporting captures the individual quirks of the scientists—like one researcher who only shaves on Sundays to save time during the week for his research—but his low-key tone can mute the excitement of their successes, especially given the fail-fix-try-again nature of most of their projects. Yet even though his story lacks the drive of books like Soul of a New Machine or Hackers, it gives a solid sense of what's going on in the field. 15 illus. (Mar.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

Creative nonfiction guru and seasoned immersion journalist Gutkind observes that just as computers changed the world in the 1990s, robots will "transform technology" in the future. To find out who is behind the growing robotic surge, Gutkind spent six years observing life at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute, a "hypertechnological pressure cooker," where work is frenzied, frustrating, "inspiring, compelling," and addictive. Gutkind presents vivid profiles of roboticists, including graduate students, the "strong and vital force" behind the group's innovations. Audacious pranksters, shy geeks, and wry wits, they fall into rivalrous groups, the engineers versus the "code monkeys." Scenes at the institute alternate with entertaining reports on RoboCup competitions (soccer is an excellent mode for robot testing) and dramatic accounts of an ambitious project in Chile's Atacama Desert, a stand-in for Mars. Creating autonomous robots is a daunting task that arouses renewed appreciation for the fact that "a human being is the most sophisticated system in the universe." Gutkind's incisive and provocative dispatches from the robotic front will help prepare us for the next machine wave. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (August 15, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393336840
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393336849
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,175,457 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Lee Gutkind, recognized by Vanity Fair as "the Godfather behind creative nonfiction," is the author and editor of more than 25 books and founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction, the first and largest literary magazine to publish narrative nonfiction exclusively. He is Distinguished Writer-in-Residence in the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University and a professor in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication

Gutkind has lectured to audiences around the world--from China to the Czech Republic, from Australia to Africa to Egypt. He has appeared on many national radio and televisions shows, including The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (Comedy Central), Good Morning America, National Public Radio's Talk of the Nation and All Things Considered, as well as BBC World.

Gutkind is the recipient of grants and awards from many different organizations, from the National Endowment for the Arts to the National Science Foundation.

A prolific author, his most recent books include An Immense New Power to Heal: The Promise of Personalized Medicine and an anthology, At the End of Life: True Stories About How We Die.

His new book, You Can't Make This Stuff Up, is described by Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief and Rin Tin Tin, as the "essential and definitive guide to creative nonfiction . . . engaging, useful, indispensable and inspiring."

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

32 of 36 people found the following review helpful By E. Vershum on May 3, 2007
Format: Hardcover
An example of what goes wrong when an author without any expertise in a field attempts to write a "popular" science book. This is about the robotics program at CMU. It follows the "popular" format - focus on the personalities as a framework for the science. But the spark and drive of the people doesn't come across at all, because the author has no feel for the subject. There is no larger context, since the author was only at CMU to observe, and knows nothing about any other robotics work besides what the people there may have said. There is no bibliography or index.

An egregious error 1/2 way through the book was nearly a showstopper for me ("Linux is the language in which some of the robotics programs are written. The reason Apple computers are not used extensively here is because Apple's can't interface with Linux."), but I plodded through the rest.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Vahagn Karapetyan on June 8, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The book might be a bit misleading with its title because you don't really get the impression how the robots described in the book are even remotely close to being human but it does an excellent job when it comes to describing the world that roboticists live in. It portrays their struggles and frustrations and then their celebration at even the slightest hint of success.

However, if you are someone that expects a book that mainly focuses on the concept of artificial intelligence and discusses all the abstract theories associated with the concept then you might be looking for the wrong book. There are little bits of info on the aforementioned topic throughout the book but the main focus of the book is about the experiences of the roboticists, not the theories behind the kind of work they do.

Overall, it is a great way to get a good picture of the robotics culture in the United States and get to know some famous individuals and institutions in the field.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Steve M. Myers on September 19, 2009
Format: Paperback
It seems poorly written, and it is not what I expected. The author talks far too much about people rather than "making robots think". There is not all that much on actual robots and a lot of filler. There has to be a better book on this subject.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Randolph Crawford on February 16, 2010
Format: Paperback
This book has cured me of my interest in building robots in the wild.

I've been a professional computer scientist for 25 years and worked in several different R&D arenas. I read "Almost Human" thinking I might want to work in robotics. Now that I've read the book... Well... I'm having second thoughts.

Gutkind does a competent job of reporting the work of students and staff in CMU's Robotics Lab as they develop several robotic systems, primarily the Mars rover robot Zoe. While half of the projects Gutkind describes are more appealing (e.g. RoboCup soccer team play using Aibo kit robots), the book devolves into a protracted slog to finish the development of Zoe in the desolation of the Chilean desert. Not surprisingly, the boredom and exhaustion that eventually envelop the team is vicariously shared by the reader after plodding through page after page on the team's soul-deadening 'race' to build the robot before the desert's isolation destroys their will to live. In the end, the CMUers seem not to have enjoyed nor benefitted from the experience except to be one step closer to earning their degrees. Likewise, this reader shared their sense of boredom and lost passion. Instead of accompanying a team of intellectual explorers on an odyssey of discovery, I came away feeling that I had survived a Death March.

In my opinion, the 'Zoe' half of this book will not be a fun or illuminating read for most folks interested in robotics. But for me, 'Almost Human' was worthwhile nonetheless.
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Format: Hardcover
"Back in my day, we didn't have these fancy icons. All we had were 1's and 0's and sometimes we didn't have any 0's....". Yes, I'm a dinosaur who has been developing software-based products for almost 30 years and although the hardware has changed, and the languages have evolved, the creators still devote their lives to their creations. In this book, Lee has captured the essence of what we geeks refer to as the "zone". The willingness to forsake everything else to bring life to their silicon offspring. Whether an autonomous mobile robot or the latest "killer app", there is no linear path to a successful outcome (so eloquently described in the title of chapter 15).

I especially recommend this book to managers who may not understand the way software is produced and have uttered the phrase "when will that program be finished?". (LOL!)
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