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Almost Human: Robots Aren't About to Kill Us, Because They're Less Reliable Than Windows 95

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Lee Gutkind's 2007 book Almost Human: Making Robots Think offers an optimistic view of the world of robotics: no, robots will not revolt against their human masters any time soon, mostly because nothing in the field of robotics ever seems to work the way it's supposed to, if at all, if ever. He follows a group of robot scientists affiliated with Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh who are exploring the cutting edge of robotics and exploring the notion of "autonomy" -- but mostly drudging through one single ever-present question: why isn't this working?

The book's narrative tracks several of major figures in the field: William "Red" Whittaker, a charismatic entrepreneur who uses his students at CMU as the primary builders of his robots; Manuela Veloso, a rare prominent woman in the field, who's the driving force behind the Robot World Cup soccer competition; and David Wettergreen, the lead person on a NASA-funded project testing a science robot in the Atacama desert so that in the future it might be deployed to Mars.

It's a reasonably engaging narrative for all that, but the sad truth is that the book would be a lot more fun to read if these things worked better; instead, the book has page after page describing the engineers, mechanics, scientists, and programmers eschewing sleep to debug their robots. It's welcome to read Gutkind's reassurance that the Robocalypse is nowhere near, but the reader begins to feel the scientists' ennui. One of the scientists eventually admits that's by design: if they only worked with technologies that already worked, they wouldn't drive any progress. It's only when things break that they are in a position to learn what it takes to fix them.

Still, amid all the frustration of the lack of success, it's easy to miss just how far robots and robot science have already come. A bit more perspective would be helpful. (Of course, that, too, might be a little frightening.)

Rating: 75

Crossposted on Remingtonstein.