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Note: A second review by another reviewer follows this one.
I am thinking; therefore I exist.
But there's one part of life I have missed.
Could it be that my skin
Made of plastic and tin
Is the reason I haven't been kissed?
Readers don't have to share MIT Professor Rodney A. Brooks' vision of the future to love reading Flesh and Machines. The book is the imaginative work of a skilled yet genial provocateur. Dr. Brooks never seems to run out of appealing personal anecdotes, beginning with an adolescence in which he "grew up a nerd in a place [Adelaide, South Australia] that did not know what a nerd was." That was a decade before he encountered Hans Moravec. "Hans was a true eccentric," he declares. Brilliant, innovative, and nuts. He was a tremendous influence on my life, once I got to Stanford and met him."
After digesting that assessment, even those readers who don't know Moravec's path-breaking work in robot mobility and vision or his unforgettably disconcerting book about robots as our evolutionary successors, Mind Children, recognize that challenges lie ahead. Instead of sitting back in plush chairs, they lean forward, eager to challenge every step of Dr. Brooks' argument. Chapter by chapter, his well-organized stories and well-crafted language prod them relentlessly towards a brash prediction of, as the subtitle states, How Robots Will Change Us. Chapter by chapter, they reconsider their own position, never quite accepting the author's view but never quite able to dismiss it, even as it veers toward the radical.
In the end, after having seen artificially intelligent behavior emerge from a colony of insect-like robots; after having seen people respond socially to machines that display human-like emotion -- even when they know the underlying technology in detail; after wondering what makes humans special or if robots can be special in the same way; after all of that, readers follow Dr. Brooks out on a limb. They watch him leap into a future in which robotic implants give ordinary people extraordinary sensory capabilities, even Internet-mediated telepathy and telekinesis, and they almost -- almost -- believe it will all be possible.
Some robotics enthusiasts like science fiction,
like Isaac Asimov's books for example. Others,
want a no-nonsense, equation-packed work detailing
fundamental mathematical theorems. Still others,
want a how-to handbook to build up their own monster
in the garage or basement. This book is none of those.
Personally, I like a good non-fiction read about
technology-related topics, especially when it is
written by one of the leaders of the chosen field.
As Director of MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory,
unquestionably Rodney Brooks is such a leader, but
it is not just his title and position that gives his
writing such credibility. He has a vast set of actual
experiences in the field to share, as he does.
Brooks can be controversial. Even those in his
chosen field (themselves eccentric, perhaps) have
not always welcomed his views. He is something
of a maverick, describing one of his design heuristics
as looking for the one assumption common to all
prior work, and refuting it. His book does a great
job of capturing this high-spirited approach to science
While society continues to deal with the effects and
after-effects of the information revolution and even
the industrial revolution, Brooks writes to warn us of
the coming robotics revolution and biotechnology revolution.
Robots such as those he has designed and continues to
design will change our way of life, he feels.
Certainly not a collection of dry definitions, the
book does, when necessary, define important terms
for clarity and preciseness. Associated with his
robots, or creatures as he sometimes calls them, he
describes two important concepts - situatedness and
"A situated creature or robot is one that is embedded in
the world, and which does not deal with abstract descriptions,
but through its sensors with the here and now of the world,
which directly influences the behavior of the creature."
"An embodied creature or robot is one that has a physical body
and experiences the world, at least in part, directly through
the influence of the world on that body."
Mostly, he presents actual experiences from his life, work
with graduate students, operating a robotics company, participation
in putting an autonomous robot on Mars, directing (arguably) the
world's greatest AI laboratory, etc. And it all is all quite an
My favorite quote: "...and have come to the conclusion that work in abstract
reasoning has as its only interface to the world conference
papers written by researchers."
Brooks reveals that his favorite robot called Genghis is a
six-legged insect-like creature. In fact, in the Appendix
he presents details of the inner workings of Genghis.
Unlike his previous insect-like robots, his current work employs
human-like robots. Unlike others, he is not predicting a take-over
of humans by the robots we have created or will create. I won't
spoil the ending, go get the book and read it yourself. If you're
like me, my feeling is that you won't be able to put it down.
Brian Short lives in Tempe, Arizona with his wife, son, dogs,
and robots. Brian has a BS in Computer Science from Colorado
State University and MS in Computer Science from Arizona State
University. Brian's graduate work concentrated on formal logic,
logic programming, and artificial intelligence. Brian's experiences
include 6 years in the US Navy (as a computer technician), as well
as employment with Hughes Aircraft, Motorola, and Orbital. Way back
in 1977, as a teenager, he worked for Ohio Scientific, a very early