Gutkind (In Fact) spent six years as a self-described "fly on the wall" at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute, watching a group of scientists-mostly grad students-try to develop human movement and decision-making capabilities. The machines he encountered came in a variety of shapes and sizes, from dog-shaped toys programmed to play soccer to a Hummer equipped with sensors that enable it to drive itself. As that Hummer indicates, the institute's research isn't confined to the lab: Gutkind follows his roboticists to abandoned mine shafts and the northern edges of Chile, where they use the world's driest desert to test machines developed to find signs of life on the surface of Mars. Gutkind's reporting captures the individual quirks of the scientists-like one researcher who only shaves on Sundays to save time during the week for his research-but his low-key tone can mute the excitement of their successes, especially given the fail-fix-try-again nature of most of their projects. Yet even though his story lacks the drive of books like Soul of a New Machine or Hackers, it gives a solid sense of what's going on in the field. 15 illus. (Mar.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Godfather of creative nonfiction, Gutkind (English, Univ. of Pittsburgh; In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction) narrates a tour deep underground into the creative subculture of robotics research and development. Drawing on years of observational curiosity at Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute, both in the lab and in the field, Gutkind explores the people and ideas behind machines developed to do the impossible: operate autonomously. This so-called bleeding-edge robotics is illuminated through stories of success and failure, tension between engineers developing bodies and the coders programming their artificial intelligence, motivational cross-pollination between seasoned veterans and young grad students, and performance tests chock-full of moments of elation and depression. Readers are given a strong sense of the drama inherent in the discipline, whether advancing incrementally or by leaps and bounds. Because the book at times reads either like marketing material for Carnegie Mellon's robotics program or a "blook," i.e., a blog made into a book, interest is not always sustained. Recommended as inspirational reading for robotics practitioners, whether high school students, grad students, faculty, or practicing professionals.
James A. Buczynski, Seneca Coll. of Applied Arts & Technology, Toronto
A fascinating look inside a place where sci-fi dreams are being made real. Gutkind (English/Univ. of Pittsburgh; An Unspoken Art, 1997, etc.) spent six years visiting the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute and observing its denizens-human and mechanical. Roboticists are a breed apart, usually young, male and intensely focused. The High Bay, a large area on the ground floor of one of the Institute's buildings, is full of whirring, clanking machines and their programmers, hunched over laptops. Gutkind follows several stories, including an expedition to Chile's Atacama Desert, where a team sends a wheeled rover nicknamed Zoe through exercises intended to test its ability to search for traces of life. Conditions in the Atacama approach those of the Martian surface, and the toll on machines and morale is high. Nearer home, another Carnegie team led by "Red" Whitaker builds machines designed to enter and map coalmines-a mission inspired by the too-frequent mining disasters of western Pennsylvania and its neighboring states. Whitaker is also the driving force behind an entry in the DARPA Grand Challenge, a cross-country robot race in the Nevada desert, funded by the U.S. military. A gentler but equally competitive event is the RoboCup, a robot soccer tournament in which international teams program toy dogs to shoot and score. Manuela Veloso, one of the rare women pioneers in robotics, is the leading spirit of the tournament, in which teams are encouraged to swap effective bits of computer code so that innovations spread as rapidly as possible. The author catches the up-all-night intensity and geeky personalities of the young grad students who currently dominate robotics, and the visionary zealof their instructors. The drama of the Atacama expedition forms the backbone of the book, and its triumphs and frustrations give a good sense of how the field is growing in spite of tremendous barriers yet to be overcome. High tech at its most exhilarating. Agent: Andrew Blauner/Blauner Books Literary Agency
A compelling account that reveals how far [roboticists] have come, but how far they have yet to travel to create machines with human sensibilities and gumption. David Temple
David Temple - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“A compelling account that reveals how far [roboticists] have come, but how far they have yet to travel to create machines with human sensibilities and gumption.”