Robots “R” us

Why are roboticists building machines in their own image? "Robo Sapiens" introduces a homemade population and the egos behind the bots.

Topics: Business, Books,

Robots "R" us

The evil machine is humankind’s favorite collective apocalyptic fantasy: from robotic femme fatale Futura of Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” to the rebellion of HAL in “2001″ to the dystopian visions of “The Matrix” and “Terminator,” we love the shivering idea that by building robots, we are in fact constructing our own demise. Imagine if artificially intelligent robots decided they didn’t like pandering to our pathetic flesh and turned against us: It’s a titillating fantasy, far enough away to seem unlikely to happen in our lifetime yet close enough to draw that acrid taste of fear.

“Robo Sapiens: Evolution of a New Species” takes this notion and runs with it. Journalist Faith D’Aluisio and photographer Peter Menzel have assembled an accessible guide to the field of robotics that’s part photo essay and part primer, with a healthy dose of fatalistic futurism. They start out with a bang — the shocking cover image of an eerily fetuslike robot head is possibly the most disturbing photo ever to appear on a coffee-table book — and manage to turn interviews with more than 100 of the geekiest humans around the world into a curious peek at the future that will satisfy both the layperson and the engineer alike.

The question that is at the crux of “Robo Sapiens” is posited right upfront, as a comparison with the evolution of aviation: “We accelerated from the Wright stuff to the right stuff so quickly that the question inevitably arises: How long — or how short — a time will it be to the next step, Robo sapiens?” To answer this, D’Aluisio and Menzel offer 230 pages of photographs and question-and-answer interviews with many of the world’s preeminent roboticists, nearly half of whom are Japanese.

The book starts with the most futuristic visions first, profiling the roboticists who are trying to build humanoid robots that will look like us, talk like us, walk like us. There’s the Honda P3, which resembles a Storm Trooper and has just barely learned to walk; Cog, a juggling robot built by famed roboticist Rodney Brooks of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab; and Kismet, a robot head created by Cynthia Breazeal (also of MIT), which is learning a series of human facial expressions. “Robo Sapiens” also introduces us to the world of biomimetics; to roboticists who are modeling their machines after snakes, spiders, monkeys or cockroaches (which are, oddly enough, a popular species of robot); and to more pragmatic robots, such as the Mars-exploring Sojourner or Red Whittaker’s remote-controlled creations that explore nuclear disaster zones. For good measure, the book also looks at robotic arms, legs, jaws, guns, dinosaurs, welders, surgical instruments, vacuum cleaners and soccer teams, and wraps it all up with a few pages of toys.

Although the meat of the book is technical descriptions of many of these creations, it’s fantasy that glues the book together. Imagine a world in which humans are part robot and robots are part human, where biology and machine have collided to create a nation of cyborgs and machine intelligence has become dominant. This is where science fiction meets the science of robotics and is what, most likely, will sell this book. As Menzel writes in his introduction, “We believe that our dreams are not just dreams, they are sneak previews.”

The “robot pundits,” as Menzel and D’Aluisio humorously tag them, milk these science fiction scenarios the most. You’ve probably heard their names before, since they are the roboticists most often quoted in the press — Kevin Warwick, the cyborg professor who fiddles with implants and predicts the human demise; Hans Moravec, who believes that robot intelligence will surpass human intelligence by 2050; and Hugo de Garis, who hopes to be known as the Father of the Artificial Brain but still wants to “raise the alarm” about the dangers of wise computers. Like the rest of the tech press, “Robo Sapiens” happily metastasizes the colorful visions of these pundits into some provocative prose.

After all, how can one resist the inherent imagery in Moravec’s predictions? “Robots will do the equivalent of evolving from ants to humans in less than a single human lifespan,” D’Aluisio synopsizes Moravec’s vision. “These über-robots … will be the offspring of humankind. Except that unlike most offspring they will not gradually replace us. Instead, we will become them. We will launch huge clouds of robots into space, he says. They will circle the stars, feeding off solar energy. But humans will not stay behind. Instead, we will convert our minds into digital form and upload ourselves into the clouds. Living for eons, our unrecognizable descendents will percolate the galaxy as digital entities: Robo sapiens.”

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It’s a Technicolor vision worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster, and one that Menzel and D’Aluisio happily paint in the beginning of this book. Unfortunately, this vision is still more imagination than scientific reality. Menzel argues that we are already partway toward the creation of a race of Robo sapiens, but most of the roboticists he interviews have a longer view toward that achievement. Some say that in 20 years we’ll have a rudimentary humanoid robot; others say it will take at least 50 years, if it ever happens.

Other than the odd laboratory accident (such as a robot arm that doesn’t know when to stop squeezing), today’s robots are also laughably safe. They don’t have even the mind of a mouse, let alone that of a devious human; in fact, the dream of famed roboticist Rodney Brooks (one of the stars of Errol Morris’ excellent documentary “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control”) is to build a robot “with the intelligence of a six-month-old baby.” Artificial (or “machine”) intelligence is still far away, if it’s even possible at all (a point that is debated by many of the roboticists quoted here).

Those who pick up this book in the expectation of fueling their sci-fi fantasies will probably be disappointed. There are a few visions worthy of William Gibson or Neal Stephenson — such as the robotocist who is trying to build tiny robots that float like dust in the air, or Warwick’s experiments with chip implants — but most of the stuff in development in labs falls sadly short of what you might have seen in your dreams. There are mechanical arms that are still learning how to hold an object without breaking it, legs that are still attempting their faltering first steps, robot faces that are trying to master the art of the smile. The much-lauded Honda P3 robot has been 10 years and millions of dollars in the making; all it can do is open a door and climb a staircase — pre-programmed moves, nothing more.

Roboticist Mark Tilden, one of the most vivid characters in the book and the creator of skittering, buglike robots, describes the creations of most of his colleagues as “puppets,” which have no autonomy or real intelligence, but are instead simply pre-programmed or remote-controlled toys. “You should always watch out for what I call Wizard of Oz demonstrations,” he sniffs. “‘Pay no attention to that graduate student behind the curtain — I am the great and powerful roboticist of Oz.’”

Robotic arms or machines that can take a few steps are nothing to be sneezed at, of course — the fact that one can even teach a machine to walk like a human is incredible. And it is, of course, possible that some evil genius will invent an artificially intelligent robot within the next few years. But if you believe these researchers, “Terminator” is still many generations away.

And thank God for that. Why do these roboticists feel the need to work toward what could potentially be the destruction of humankind, anyway? Writes D’Aluisio, “Watching the first atomic blasts in the southwestern desert, J.R. Oppenheimer said that sin had come to physics. Oppenheimer’s group at Los Alamos was building atomic weapons to defeat Hitler. Warwick is plunging ahead with research that he thinks will contribute to the end of the human race in the name of … well, what?”

It seems that the realm of robots is the ultimate God complex: man creating machines in his own image, unraveling the secrets of his own mind and musculature in order to replicate it in a body that is under his control. And it is, incidentally, almost always a man — of the 100 or so roboticists profiled in this book, only a handful are women. Joseph Weizenbaum, creator of the Eliza bot, likes to call the field of artificial intelligence an epidemic of uterus envy; he may not be half-wrong. Most roboticists seem to want to build “a faultless Commander Data, wearing an apron, who pushes a broom and fetches you a beer,” as Tilden explains. Do we really need to invent the Stepford wife? No wonder the field is so bereft of women.

In their defense, robot researchers explain that by building humanoid robots with machine intelligence they are trying to unravel the secrets of life itself. “Why build a sociable robot?” asks D’Aluisio. “The real reason, Scassellati [a grad student working on the Cog robot] said, was to learn something about the functioning of Homo sapiens. Every tiny step on the long road to building this bug-headed, wrestler-torsoed robot, in other words, was an additional bit of knowledge about what it means to be a human being.”

The humanoid robot is a pricey form of egotism; and unfortunately, too many roboticists profiled in “Robo Sapiens” (especially the Japanese researchers, oddly enough) seem fixated on replicating themselves rather than doing something ultimately useful with their research grants. As eminent roboticist Shigeo Hirose sighs, “If a roboticist sees a man washing clothes in a river, he would try to make a humanoid that could approach the river and scrub the clothes. If an engineer sees this, he would make a washing machine, a very simple rotating machine.”

The roboticists in pursuit of a humanoid robot justify their research by talking about the projects’ utility; but it’s questionable whether these God games are really worth the time and energy spent on them. The senior engineer of the Honda P3 robot speculates that if it’s ever finished, his ambulatory robot worth a king’s fortune will be “useful.” How? “We may be able to make this robot walk on a flat surface in a large area, like a gymnasium. The robot could be operated, like playing a game.” Meet the billion-dollar soccer player: the world’s most expensive entertainment.

In fact, the most interesting projects in this book are not the humanoid robots stuffed with the latest, greatest artificial intelligence, even if they do represent the greatest technical achievements (and therefore the most frightening future). Instead, I was most transfixed by the robots that serve a specific purpose — like Sojourner, which explored the terrain of Mars, or Robonaut, a remotely controlled creature that can fix the outsides of spacecraft. These creations may not be as colorful, but they are doing something besides learning to crawl in laboratories.

The richest material in the book is found in short segments in which D’Aluisio and Menzel talk about the human reaction to robots. Three of the most vivid interludes include a profile of one of the middle-class Japanese families that forked over $2,500 for Sony’s AIBO dog (an honor they had to participate in a raffle to win), an interview with a guard who works in a museum that features a guide robot and a piece about the Robot Wars. Unfortunately, these few current social critiques are dwarfed by the huge number of Q&A interviews with the roboticists themselves, many of whom are surprisingly dull. Although these geniuses may be making great strides in locomotion principles or cognitive science, after the 20th straight interview with a roboticist developing yet another way to make a robot walk, the dryness of the text will start to make your eyes water. Not all roboticists are fascinating personalities. (This, perhaps, explains the popularity of those robot pundits.)

Ultimately, it is the photography that pulls the book together. It must have been a daunting task to produce dozens of portraits of geeky engineers working proudly by their inventions; to Menzel’s credit, much of the photography here captures the essence of the machines and their creation. When you consider that he is taking pictures of geeks standing in front of tangles of wires in their labs, it’s amazing that he has produced as many evocative images as he has.

Someday, 100 years from now, we may look back at “Robo Sapiens” and consider it a humorous, antiquated vision of the future, much like Disney’s Tomorrowland or the Jetsons; or we may look at it as a document of a demise that came more swiftly than we expected. After all, D’Aluisio and Menzel predict that “the dawn of our postbiological future may arrive sooner than we imagine.” Or, as Ed Williams, the technician in charge of a crablike robot that trawls the bottom of the sea floor, puts it: “Robots can’t do much now, but airplanes couldn’t do much in 1910.” The Concorde of robots is yet to come.

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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