Flesh and Machines explores the startlingly reciprocal connection between humans and their technological brethren, and explains how this relationship is being redefined as humans develop increasingly complex machines. The impetus to build machines that exhibit lifelike behaviors stretches back centuries, but for the last fifteen years much of this work has been done in Rodney Brooks's laboratory at MIT. His goal is not simply to build machines that are like humans but to alter our perception of the potential capabilities of robots. Our current attitude toward intelligent robots, he asserts, is simply a reflection of our own view of ourselves.
Brooks, a leading "roboticist" and computer science professor at MIT, believes that robots in the future will probably be nothing like such all-knowing brain machines as 2001's HAL, nor will they resemble the sleek cyborgs of other Hollywood nightmares. Rather, they will be simple, ubiquitous, curious little machines that will have more in common with humans than one might think. Brooks, and his fellow researchers, suggest that the focus of much AI and robot research has been to develop superhuman devices that operate at the highest intellectual levels. Much better, he says, to make a lot of simple, cheap robots that can perform only a few tasks, but do them well. Brooks begins with a brief but comprehensive overview of the field of research into AI and robotics, then dives quickly into his and his fellow enthusiasts' work as they engineer one strange, insect-looking (and weirdly human-acting) metallic creature after another. Occasionally, Brooks's involvement with iRobots (he is chairman and chief technical officer of the robot company) shifts the book into an advertisement for upcoming products. Brooks points the way toward a future where humans work in tandem with and even begin to resemble a host of his fast, cheap creations not a science fiction utopia, but a future where people have a lot more and better tools to work with. (Feb. 20) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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February 12, 2002
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Excerpt from Flesh and Machines by Rodney A. Brooks
Dances with Machines
What separates people from animals is syntax and technology. Many species of animals have a host of alert calls. For vervet monkeys one call means there is a bird of prey in the sky. Another means there is a snake on the ground. All members of the species agree on the mapping between particular sounds and these primitive meanings. But no vervet monkey can ever express to another "Hey, remember that snake we saw three days ago? There's one down here that looks just like it." That requires syntax. Vervet monkeys do not have it.
Some chimpanzees and gorillas have learned tens of nouns, a few adjectives and a few verbs, expressed as signs or symbols. They have sometimes put these symbols together in new ways, like "water bird" to refer to a duck. But they have never been able to say anything as sophisticated as "Please give me the yellow fruit that is in the bag." That requires syntax. Chimpanzees and gorillas do not have it.
Irene Pepperberg has raised and trained Alex, the famous African grey parrot for over twenty years, first at the University of Arizona and more recently at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Her results have been stunning and have rebuffed those who deny that any animals other than humans have any component of language. Alex has forced the naysayers to be much more careful in exactly what capabilities they deny for animals, even birdbrained animals. Alex is able to hear words and speak them. He can answer questions like "How many round green things are on the plate?"?even the first time anyone has ever said the two adjectives "round" and "green" in sequence to him. Alex has been heard to say as his trainer is evidently leaving for lunch, "I'm just going out for lunch and will be back in ten minutes." But this is just Alex parroting (and thus the word) what he has heard the trainer say in these circumstances before. Alex has never said, "I see that you are going out for lunch. I expect you'll be back in ten minutes." That requires syntax. Alex does not have it.
Beavers gnaw down trees to build dams that back up rivers to produce pools where more of the grasses they eat can grow. Birds build nests from twigs, grass stems, and other things they find, such as pieces of wool. But neither of these are technologies in any true sense. If the situations are not completely stereotyped, then the animals are unable to generalize their evolutionarily built-in plan to accommodate the novel circumstances.
Chimpanzees, on the other hand, use different tool sets in different social groupings. The chimpanzees at the Gombe Preserve in Tanzania select long twigs, strip off leaves and protrusions, and then dip them into ants nests and pull out edible ants. The chimpanzees in the Tai Forest of the Ivory Coast do not know how to do this, but unlike those from Tanzania, this social group builds anvils from stumps and rocks, then uses a wooden or rock hammer to break open nuts. The different groups learn how to use these tools within their social groups, but there is very little invention of new tool use. The same tool-use patterns have been observed in the same groups for decades now with no innovations. And no chimpanzees have built tools that have survived over archeological times. Chimpanzees and other animals do not really have anything that remotely suggests human technology.