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Robot Futures 

By Illah Reza Nourbakhsh, MIT Press

Forget the scary scenarios and dire special effects of our Apocalypse Summer at the cinema. This book is really frightening about a future that's coming on fast, and we're really not ready for it.

According to the author, a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon, we aren't necessarily on a direct path to Robbie the Robot or Data the android. But we are "on the road to a strange stable of mechanical creatures that have both subhuman and superhuman qualities all jumbled together, and this near future is for us, not just for our descendants."

Some of the most powerful robots aren't even physical in any familiar sense. They operate mostly or entirely in cyberspace, gathering and analyzing information, then making decisions and acting on them. Some are already on the job, learning consumer preferences but also manipulating choices and even setting different prices that individual consumers will pay for the same product online. Add inputs like cameras, and robots can predict what a consumer will like based on the make of the car pulling into the fast food parking lot.

Physical robots can be any shape or size and can do anything from disaster rescue to spying. As microprocessors and sensors get smaller and more energy efficient, all kinds of robots for amusement as well as mischief become possible, and as costs drop and designs are standardized, Nourbakhsh says they will become ubiquitous — with a 3-D printer to make your own, maybe even uncontrollable.  

More complex robots will also be possible because all the information doesn't have to be stored within it — the robot's brain can link to the immensity of the Internet. Some of the traditional issues will arise, though: When robots look like people or even like dogs, is cruelty to robots an issue? How do you react when you can't tell a robot from a real person on the phone?

Nourbakhsh communicates a lot of information in this small book. He also produces future dialogues and scenarios that do what stories do best — show us the possible effects of these technologies in the real world. These are perhaps the most effective — and scariest — pages.

The most important effects of the robot future may be unintended consequences of decisions made by individuals, companies and other entities without sufficient regard for the public good. The author suggests ways of thinking this through and making more considered decisions. Knowing what we're likely to face is the motivating first step, so this book should be widely read by all who care about the future — the one that started yesterday. Meanwhile, there's also a website: robotfutures.org.

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  • By Illah Reza Nourbakhsh, MIT Press

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