Dr. Fred Bortz

Review of Flesh and Machines How Robots Will Change Us

by Rodney A. Brooks

(Pantheon Books, 2002, $26.00, 288 pages)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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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, coverMind 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.

Fred Bortz is an author of eight science books for young readers, including Mind Tools: The Science of Artificial Intelligence.

A second review by another reviewer follows.

Another perspective on Flesh and Machines by Rodney A. Brooks
Reviewer: Brian K. Short (k7on@earthlink.net)

(Used on The Science Shelf by permission of the reviewer, who should be contacted for permission to publish elsewhere)

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 and engineering.

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 embodiment.

"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 enjoyable read.

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 micro-computer manufacturer.