From: MacIntyre, Steven [Steven_MacIntyre@GENEVACO.COM]

Sent: Thursday, April 25, 2002 3:01 AM

To: 'CliffTRobot@ATTBI.com'

Cc: 'BlueMozart@AOL.com'; MacIntyre, Steven

Subject: A Book Review For Cliff

 

April 14, 2002, Sunday

 

BOOK REVIEW DESK

Even Tin Men Get the Blues

By Dick Teresi

 

FLESH AND MACHINES

How Robots Will Change Us.

By Rodney A. Brooks.

Illustrated. 260 pp. New York:

Pantheon Books. $26.

IN 1982 I was sitting in my office trying to convince a British biologist of

the sobriety of the science magazine I edited when my publisher, a woman

wearing a sheer silk scarf in lieu of a blouse, burst in with a large,

flatulent dog on a leash. ''I want you to clone Grundy,'' she said,

indicating the Rhodesian Ridgeback. By way of compliance, I wrote ''Clone

Grundy'' on my desk calendar. She spun and left. The biologist had just

recovered from this interruption when the publisher burst in again. ''Forget

Grundy,'' she said. ''I want you to clone Bob.'' Bob was her husband and the

owner of the magazine. I crossed out ''Grundy,'' wrote in ''Bob.''

Twenty years later, cloning human embryos is almost routine, though it

remains unethical to apply the technology to magazine publishers. So when

Rodney A. Brooks, director of the M.I.T. Artificial Intelligence Laboratory,

tells me that in 20 more years we will have robots with feelings and

consciousness, I'm not going to argue with him.

''Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us'' is a short, stimulating

book written by one of the major players in the field -- perhaps the major

player -- about the state of robotics and its short-term future. It also

offers surprisingly deep glimpses into what it is to be human. Brooks

appears to have gained a boundless appreciation for human beings by

attempting to copy them.

Traditionally, robots have been built with three loops: a perception

circuit, an action circuit and a ''cognition box'' to provide a worldview

and to mediate between sensors and motors. Brooks challenged this model by

eliminating the cognition box. At a talk, he drew diagrams of bigger boxes

for perception and action -- based on the portion of animal brains devoted

to each -- and made them overlap. He then ''put cognition in a little

cartoon cloud representing the thoughts of an external observer of the

complete system of the robot -- world, perception and action.''

This was radical thought, if not outright heresy. As it turned out, Brooks's

robots didn't need a brain to exhibit intimations of consciousness. The key,

he writes, is to get the robot to react to its sensors quickly. Take

Genghis, Brooks's six-legged robot. It is outfitted with six pyroelectric

sensors, identical to motion sensors that turn on the lights in your

driveway. In Genghis, the sensors are tuned to the infrared band emitted by

the warm bodies of all mammals, and connected to the robot's motors. If a

mammal, say a human, passes in front of Genghis, it moves toward the

infrared radiation. When the mammal stops, Genghis stops. To observers, it

appears Genghis is stalking prey. But stalking implies intent, and Genghis

has none. When Brooks pointed the sensors backward, Genghis walked away from

mammals. Genghis has no internal notion of forward or backward.

Brooks takes issue with the robotics pioneer Marvin Minsky, who has

concentrated on cognition and has belittled the problem of seeing, since

''even stupid people could do it well,'' in Brooks's words. From a robotics

point of view, he suspects that playing chess and solving algebra problems

might be easier to fabricate than visually distinguishing ''between a coffee

cup and a chair'' or walking around obstacles, things that a 4-year-old

child can do. He believes that so-called higher functions derive from the

ability ''to see, walk, navigate and judge.''

Brooks gives us a tour of the marvels of the human vision system and the

difficulties in building them into a robot. One of his brainstorms was

figuring out how to make his robots negotiate a crowded room. He realized

that a robot did not need an ability to avoid obstacles, but could be

programmed ''to seek paths through empty space.'' Zen Buddhist monks spend

several lifetimes learning to grasp the void. Brooks's robots do it as soon

as they are switched on.

His book is full of surprises. Given Genghis's illusory stalking and

Brooks's now famous statement that we ''overanthropomorphize humans,'' I

assumed he was galloping toward the conclusion that consciousness does not

exist. But no. He says consciousness may be ''the result of simple mindless

activities coupled together.'' Our senses and muscles are part of who we

are.

Brooks doesn't paint a bright line between conscious and unconscious, but

implies a continuum of conscious behavior from nuts and bolts to humans,

just as we infer increasing consciousness from lobsters (O.K. to throw in

boiling water) to dogs (non-boilable companions) to chimps (almost human).

When the chess-playing computer Deep Blue beat Garry Kasparov, he said it

played as if it ''had a plan.'' But Deep Blue was qualitatively no different

from chess computers of the 1960's; it was just much faster.

Brooks predicts that we will soon see an explosion of humanoid robots

(first, probably, as house servants) and that we will award them human

rights. He is a persuasive writer, but I worry about his marriage. He cites

his ''darling wife, Janet Sonenberg,'' in the acknowledgments, then says

later that a human is ''a big bag of skin full of biomolecules.'' Good luck,

Ms. Sonenberg.

He is no historian. He finds robotlike machines in antiquity and the

Renaissance, but denies there was any technology in the Middle Ages. In

fact, the Byzantine Empire and the medieval Islamic world were in love with

technology. Tenth-century Baghdad boasted animatronic amusement parks with

singing birds and roaring lions. One of Brooks's themes is that we will

accept robots when we give up the notion of man's specialness, and he trots

out the old saw that the first step came with Copernicus: ''The church could

not accept that the terra firma on which mankind stood could not be the

center of the universe.'' In truth, the church placed the earth at the

center only in the sense that a drain is at the center of a sink: the

detritus gathers there. The intellectual historian Anthony Grafton says hell

was the center of the universe, with the earth circumscribing it. God was

way up above. He was special, not man. You could look it up.

Otherwise, Brooks is thoughtful. He acknowledges the theoretical obstacles

to building robots as smart as their creators. Still, I envision a future

civilization of intelligent robots. They will engage in endless debates over

their origin and the means of their evolution: Natural selection?

Lamarckism? Random drift? A few rusty, gray-bolted robot priests will ignore

all this, chanting two words under their breath: ''Rodney Brooks, Rodney

Brooks, Rodney Brooks. . . .''

Dick Teresi is writing a history of ancient and medieval non-Western

science.

Published: 04 - 14 - 2002