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Tales from a Robotic World: How Intelligent Machines Will Shape Our Future by Dario Floreano and Nicola Nosengo

(The MIT Press, 2022)

Reviewed by Ksenia Shcherbino

Tales From A Robotic World: How Intelligent Machines Will Shape Our Future is one of those books perfectly poised between fiction and non-fiction where it is hard to tell science from science-inspired fantasy. I must admit I kept fact-checking through the whole book, and it was a breath-taking exercise. For a month it became my carry-around treasure. It was a conversation opener with new colleagues at work. It was a research companion when doing a presentation on new technologies in the office. I debated with friends about the advantages of swarm robots over humanoid AI and urged them to watch YouTube videos on various zoobotic (animal-like robots) prototypes playing parlour tricks. In one word, I was converted.

There are lots of things we miss in our daily news scrolling, and unfortunately science and technologies often get buried under the weight of politics, business, gossip and sports, all the routine that leaves so little space for things new and exciting. Yet robotics is a part of our daily life, however incremental, and its share is increasing rapidly, from surgery to surveillance, from farming to pharmacology. In Tales of the Robotic World Dario Floreano traces possible ways of how it will change our lives in the next couple of decades. And he is just the right guide: one of the pioneers in evolutionary robotics, roboticist and engineer, author of articles and books on almost every aspect of robotics, director of the Laboratory of Intelligent System and the Swiss National Centre of Competence in Research. Together with his co-editor, Nicola Nosengo, a science writer and communication consultant, they weave one of the most interesting tapestries of the field.

Tales of the Robotic World is, as the title suggests, a collection of stories about robots and their presence in our lives told in a non-linear way switching between the future and the present. To a certain extent, it is similar to Chen Qiufan’s and Kai-Fu Lee’s recent collaboration, AI 2041 where science fiction stories are followed by an explanation of their scientific inspiration. Floreano and Nosengo take a different approach: their transition between current research and future application is seamless. One might argue that their stories lack narratorial and emotional depth of the Chinese collection, but their technical and rational explanation is flawless as they draw from research papers and interviews with real people about real things.

As with any collection, I had my favourites, including “Our First Martian Homes” that discusses plantoids, plant-based robots that would grow roots into the Martian soil, extract energy and water, and create the infrastructure necessary to build habitable shelters. It seemed like a particularly far-stretched fantasy until I read that this technology was suggested by Barbara Mazzolai back in late 2000s. I always found humanoid robots too evident and boring, but the idea of robots as living, growing systems of roots made me re-evaluate my perception of technology and robot bodies.

In a similar way, challenging ideas about robot bodies and capabilities are laid out in “A Day in the Factory of the Future,” set in a Vietnamese toy factory in 2049. At the moment, robots still play a limited role in many industrial processes due to their inability to handle soft, fragile or deformable materials. Kapandji test, administered to human patients during rehabilitation, becomes a kind of Turing test for dexterity, and some researchers, notably Oliver Brock, made considerable progress in making a robotic hand pass it. Others are working on soft manipulators inspired by the animal world: small octopus-like suckers activated by pneumatic valves, passive gecko-like skins that stick to objects, or appendages similar to an elephant’s trunk that open so many possibilities for implementation. In the future, the story suggests, robots would be able to reassemble themselves to suit production needs on the spot.

Discussion of a robotic body is extended to the human body and how developments in robotics would bring around wearable devices both for rehabilitation (exosuits) and commercial consumer-level products. As Conor Walsh, the founder of the Harvard Biodesign Lab, says, “Drones were premium, high-end expensive systems in the beginning, but then the cost dropped quite rapidly. Wearable robots are more complicated because they interface with the human body, but the core technology is not so different.” Yet this interaction with human bodies opens a new dimension in the discussion of relationships, including sexual, with robots, as in “Love and Sex with Robots” that explores the first marriage between a robot and a human, concluded in Boston, USA, in 2071, and how it might represent an ethical dilemma in the future.

A different type of story is focused around using robots that are helping humans to battle the effects of climate change and other by-products of human technological activities: it makes sense to use technology to cope with them. “Robots in the Lagoon” that opens the collection describes the anti-flooding defence in Venice as a reconfigurable swarm system, hundreds of robots swimming across the lagoon, checking and fixing the submerged foundations of buildings and constructing dams on the spot to stop tides when needed. “The Really Big One” explores how various robotic technologies, from drones to robot search and rescue teams, can be deployed in tackling the aftermaths of earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural disasters. Disaster robotics appeared as a research field in late 1990s. And although at present the use of robots in disasters had a mixed success, mostly due to lack of coordination and lack of routine application, there has been a steady progress as well. Flying robots are now a standard presence in disaster operations, and there is much hope that other types of robots will join them soon.

Predicting the future, particularly where science and technology is involved, is a difficult task. Tales From a Robotic World landed me a heavy reading list and with a deep feeling of satisfaction. It’s a must read for anyone who is interested in how technologies shape our world.

Review from BSFA Review 21 - Download your copy here.


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