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Author: Ryan Johnson
Title: Peter Menzel and Faith D'Alusio's Robosapiens: Evolution of a New Species
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
August 2001

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Source: Peter Menzel and Faith D'Alusio's Robosapiens: Evolution of a New Species
Ryan Johnson

vol. 4, no. 2, August 2001
Article Type: Book Review

Peter Menzel and Faith D'Alusio's Robosapiens: Evolution of a New Species

Ryan Johnson

Peter Menzel and Faith D'Alusio, Robosapiens: Evolution of a New SpeciesCambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000

As technology continues to advance, visionaries will continue to push the envelope in developing tools for all aspects of life. One of the cutting edge technologies today is robotics. A field with its conceptual origins in fiction (Kapeks, R.U.R. and Asimov's I Robot), much of what the innovators are working towards still sounds like science fiction. Roboticists are currently trying to develop robots in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and purposes. There are examples of everything from full sized humanoid robots to battlebots included in this volume.

This is, in many ways, a coffee-table book. The photographs are beautiful and the text is well written with a minimum of jargon, well suited for the nonspecialist. The real core of the book are Menzel's photographs. The images capture the various projects in all their glory, bringing the robots to life so to speak. He shows the possibilities that lay in robotics for artificial life. The accompaning text, mostly interviews with the roboticists, detailed the limitations of the technology as well as the future potential of their work. While not the first to walk, the Honda P3 is currently able to not only walk on level ground, but also up and down stairs. Each operation is a separate program for the robot's computer and it does not switch from program to program without operator assistance. Similarly, there is no ability to recognize changes in its environment and respond to them, currently it can only follow preprogramed instructions.

Robots are attempts to mimic nature. Like the Honda P3 mimics a person walking, other robots mimic other functions. DB or Dynamic Brain is a robot used in a study examining brain function at the Advanced Telecommunications Research Institute near Kyoto, Japan. DB can dance and juggle and has "learned" these skills by mimicing people until it gets the movements correct. The machines uses statistical learning which means it has a statistical model of how its sensory data are generated and then uses learning algorithms that exploit this knowledge to assure statistical convergence to good learning results. DB replicates the way people learn movements better than any other system in the world, but has no ability for other types of learning.

Not all robots mimic human actions or behaviors. Many are based on animals either to study animal behavior or to accomplish specific tasks. Ariel, created by the Massachusetts based firm iRobot, is based on a crab and is capable of operating both on land and underwater and can continue to move if inverted. It is designed to locate mines, though still in development, it could eventually save the lives of thousands of people, if it works. Not all robots have lofty purposes though. Battlebots, now seen duking it out on the Comedy Channel, are the modern equivalent of the Roman Gladiator sent out to do battle to the death for the glory of its masters and the enjoyment of the crowd.

Many of the roboticists suggest that their work will someday take a place in society as independently functioning entities. Kevin Warwick, best know for implanting a chip in his body turning himself into the first cyborg, suggested that artificial lifeforms will eventually subsume humanity. Others see real dangers either from the competition between humanity and its creations or by the use of the various technologies in military applications. Even though they see dangers in their work, the possibilities outweigh those for the researchers. Arthur C. Clarke, in a blurb called this book "one of the most mind-stretching - and frightening" he had ever read. For someone interested in the cutting edge of technology this is a wonderful survey of many of the possibilities that robotics offers. While the possibilities are there, so are the difficulties, many of the examples did not work correctly or took a great deal of care and coaxing for even tenative operations. Ariel, the mine hunting crab, for example,

Ryan Johnson