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Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us Hardcover – February 12, 2002
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The world of HAL and Data, of sentient machines, is fast approaching. Indeed, in some ways it has already arrived, as humans incorporate bionic technology and as humanlike machines increasingly take on the work of humans.
Rodney Brooks, a professor of engineering at MIT, has been involved in this transformation for decades. He has helped design robots that reason, at least after a fashion. The machines are as yet primitive, but, Brooks writes, in five years the boundary between what is now fantasy and fact will be breached, and intelligent machines will come into their own. With them will come a host of ethical problems, as we wrestle with the implications of Asimov's laws of robotics and with the very real possibility that we have created a new kind of slave. There's no way of getting around this future, it would seem, and, adds Brooks, our species will change in the bargain: "With all these trends we will become a merger between flesh and machines."
Antitechnologists may shudder at the story line, but readers interested in the gee-whiz possibilities of the digital age will be fascinated by Brooks's vision of what is and what will be. --Gregory McNamee
From Publishers Weekly
Brooks, a leading "roboticist" and computer science professor at MIT, believes that robots in the future will probably be nothing like such all-knowing brain machines as 2001's HAL, nor will they resemble the sleek cyborgs of other Hollywood nightmares. Rather, they will be simple, ubiquitous, curious little machines that will have more in common with humans than one might think. Brooks, and his fellow researchers, suggest that the focus of much AI and robot research has been to develop superhuman devices that operate at the highest intellectual levels. Much better, he says, to make a lot of simple, cheap robots that can perform only a few tasks, but do them well. Brooks begins with a brief but comprehensive overview of the field of research into AI and robotics, then dives quickly into his and his fellow enthusiasts' work as they engineer one strange, insect-looking (and weirdly human-acting) metallic creature after another. Occasionally, Brooks's involvement with iRobots (he is chairman and chief technical officer of the robot company) shifts the book into an advertisement for upcoming products. Brooks points the way toward a future where humans work in tandem with and even begin to resemble a host of his fast, cheap creations not a science fiction utopia, but a future where people have a lot more and better tools to work with.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.
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Told with the expertise of a ongoing participant Rodney Brooks is clear and especially well informed well beyond his clear knowledge of activity on MITs campus. He describes activity from Standford and CMU to Cornell and, of course, his own AI Lab at MIT. He also discusses succinctly the Japanese robotic effort and recent products by Sony.
For anyone wondering about emerging trends, the potential of robotics, or the potential of artifical intelligence (AI) this book is a treasure.
Each chapter includes a rich bibliography. My only issue
with the book is that it could have benefited from more illustrations and photos.
Dr. Rodney Brooks is a robotics entrepreneur and founder of Rethink Robotics and iRobot Corp. He was a robotics professor at MIT and the former Director of the Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Laboratory there. He earned a degree in pure mathematics from Flinders University and a Ph.D. in Computer Science from Stanford University. He has published many works discussing computer vision, artificial intelligence, and robotics.
Brooks is very optimistic about the capabilities of technology. In the beginning of the book, he states within twenty years (from 2002), the distinction between technology and biology will no longer exist. Our technological fantasies will become a reality. We will have robots with emotions with a greater level of intelligence than humans. Will have biology and technology fuse together in order to give humans enhanced abilities.
For most of the first half of the book, Brooks discusses much of his experience with technology, robots, and AI. The general trend for his robots was to create situated AI that is more and more human like. He first began to create robots that acted like humans by moving and interacting with its environment. He later created robots that exhibited unique features of human by using facial expressions and different sounds in order to interact with humans. Finally, he discusses what types of robots can potentially be useful to us, most of them are for physical labor. I find it interesting that most of his ideas in this section do not seem to have any inspiration from human characteristics. This part of the book is a little dated.
In the next two chapters, Brooks discusses what makes us different or not different from technological machines. He explains that humans portray some level of “beingness” on other creatures, expressing empathy towards them when they are harmed. We do it with each other and with animals. Brooks found we sometimes do it with the robots he created. His belief is that we are mere machines and there is no single factor that is special about us that separates us from a robot.
In the next chapter, Brooks looks at three ends that technology could lead to. The first end is damnation. Robots could become many times more powerful than us and self-sufficient. This could lead to robots no longer needing us and deciding we are a nuisance. The second end is Salvation. We could implement robotics into our own bodies, possibly becoming completely artificial. This could greatly prolong our lives, perhaps indefinitely. The last end is nothing much changes in the future. Brooks believes that this is the least likely of the three. Technology has been developing at an increasing rate and there is no evidence that it will slow down.
In the last chapter of the book, Brooks finally gets to the topic that the title of the book hints at, transhumanism. Many of us already of surgical, electronic implants in our bodies or robotic limbs. Brooks believes this type of surgery will continue to develop and will not only be used for medical purposes. Someone may decide to replace their legs to run faster, replace their eyes to have night vision, or enhance their brain for increased intelligence to communicate with each other simply by thinking. Initially, this will be a highly debated issue, but over time, it will be more accepted. The acceptance will grow at a faster rate than other issues. The ones who do accept it will most likely live longer, passing on the acceptance to the next generation.
Robots will have a profound impact on our lives. I agree with his overall thesis of the book. Humans are simply machines and are not fundamentally different from robots. We will eventually implement a large amount of technology into our bodies. These additions will be thought of as part of our bodies and may become indistinguishable from them.
'Flesh and Machines' is well-written for a work of its type, with some welcome humor and wit interspersing the text. Substance-wise, I found most of the book to be insightful, intelligent, and, at times, downright fascinating. However, the book's discourse is, in my perception, hampered by several instances of incorrect logic, assumptions, or just plain narrow thinking. Normally these might not have been so disruptive, except that the author criticized these very same flaws in various people and doctrines cited within the text, lending an air of double-mindedness to the author's arguments (for instance, the book opens with the author mentioning his knack for identifying assumptions and then transgressing them, before himself making several blatant assumptions in the book). (Then again, who amongst us is without such imperfections and contradictions?) Still, I found 'Flesh and Machines' to contain enough solid logic (and imagination) to make it otherwise worthwhile, if not quite enjoyable (for me, at least). More than once, I agreed wholeheartedly with Mr. Brooks, as well as learning quite a bit.
So, a big thank-you to the book's author, subjects, and publisher. I have benefited from your work.
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