Sunday, January 16, 2011

Book Review: We, Robot

A while back, I reviewed Mark Stephen Meadow's book Tea Time with Terrorists. Since that time, I got to spend a couple days hanging out with him in Mexico, and he sent me a copy of his latest work, We, Robot to check out.

Needless to say, they are pretty different books in terms of subject matter. If there's a common thread though, its that when the author sets out to understand something, he goes out and finds people who know, where ever they might be.

We, Robot is a rather unique look at our progress in robotics. The book looks at a number of famous Sci-fi robots, from The Jetson's Rosie to the Terminator T-1000 to Avatar's avatars. He then compares them to progress of different projects in the robotics world, asking how close we've come to the original sci-fi vision, and of what differs, why.

It's a fun tour of some of the field's better poster-bot/children, and the interviews with some of their creators are quite interesting.

The real gold for me though, was in some of the conjecture and philosophizing that Meadows does in considering implications of robotics near future. This is especially true when looking at the borders between hardware and software which he sees little distinction. I'm of the same school of thought, but it's surprising how many people deem them completely different.

For example, when considering the implications of privacy and giving one's personal information up to 'trusted' parties, he asks us to consider whether we'd accept a "Rosie"-like robot from Google, provided for free, if in exchange we understood that it would mill about the house in spare time, learning about our personal habits and behavior and such. Is this really so different than G-mail? Really, it's not, when you think about it.

There are a lot of great nuggets of food for thought along these lines. I found myself dog-earing the corners of a lot of pages with the intent of going back to think about more deeply.
At this year's CES, I saw a surprising number of toys and gadgets blurring the lines between digital and physical worlds. Robots will be one of the conduits between those spaces sooner than we think. This book is a good tour of both the state of the art, as well as a tour of some of the unanswered questions.

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