Robo Sapiens: Evolution of a New Species

Peter Menzel, Photographer, Faith D'Aluisio, Author, Charles C. Mann, Editor
Peter Menzel, Photographer, Faith D'Aluisio, Author, Charles C. Mann, Editor MIT Press (MA) $38 (240p) ISBN 978-0-262-13382-1
Reviewed on: 09/04/2000
Release date: 07/01/2000
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""Today's robots... are explorers, space laborers, surgeons, maids, actors, pets."" What do they look like? How do they work? And what's next? Tech photographer Menzel and journalist D'Aluisio worked together on Material World and Man Eating Bugs. Their latest collaboration joins terrific photos of robots--176 color pictures of them--to short essays, sidebars and interviews explaining what each robot can do, how it works and what problems it was designed to solve. Several researchers tell D'Aluisio that true artificial intelligence (AI) is coming soon--a couple even believe that smart machines will someday wipe out humans. But this volume doesn't really add up to an argument about our mechanoid future: instead, it's an informative--and handsome--view of some current work in robotics, from out-there AI research to practical (and profitable) surgical technology. Menzel and D'Aluisio divide the machines they chronicle into six groups: the first two sets try to copy human abilities, while other sorts of 'bots function more like machines in industry or in science education. Many gizmos have special abilities of obvious, even lifesaving, practical use: ""Ariel the crab-robot... walks pretty well underwater""; eventually, it will detect and clear mines. ""Rosie,"" a remote boom crane robot, can help control damage from a reactor meltdown. Other constructions simulate human and animal actions, like running and walking--a field called ""biomimicry."" More impressive yet are robots designed to investigate psychology and cognition; some of these are learning--and teaching their creators--what it means to be human. MIT researcher Cynthia Breazel introduces us to Kismet, a Kermit-the-Frog-esque 'droid whose big-eyed, goofy ""facial expressions"" (in her words) ""tune the human's behavior so that it is appropriate for the robot--not too much, not too little, just right."" (Sept.)
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