Almost Human: Making Robots Think

March 22, 2010
Author:
Lee Gutkind
Publisher:
W. W. Norton & Company (8/15/2009)

American Library Assoc. | Creative nonfiction guru and seasoned immersion journalist Gutkind observes that just as computers changed the world in the 1990s, robots will “transform technology” in the future. To find out who is behind the growing robotic surge, Gutkind spent six years observing life at Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute, a “hypertechnological pressure cooker,” where work is frenzied, frustrating, “inspiring, compelling,” and addictive.

Gutkind presents vivid profiles of roboticists, including graduate students, the “strong and vital force” behind the group’s innovations. Audacious pranksters, shy geeks, and wry wits, they fall into rivalrous groups, the engineers versus the “code monkeys.” Scenes at the institute alternate with entertaining reports on RoboCup competitions (soccer is an excellent mode for robot testing) and dramatic accounts of an ambitious project in Chile’s Atacama Desert, a stand-in for Mars. Creating autonomous robots is a daunting task that arouses renewed appreciation for the fact that “a human being is the most sophisticated system in the universe.”