Almost Human: Making Robots Think

Overview

“A crazy suspense story about these kids at Carnegie Mellon and their leader making robots . . . fascinating stuff.” —Jon Stewart
In the High Bay at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon, Segways scoot across the floor chasing soccer balls while other robots hunt for treasure. Nursebots, developed to care for hospital patients, mingle with a robotic Lara Croft lookalike. Lee Gutkind immersed himself in this frenzied subculture and, in Almost Human, introduces us to Zoë, Groundhog, Grace, and Sandstorm—robots ...

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Almost Human: Making Robots Think

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Overview

“A crazy suspense story about these kids at Carnegie Mellon and their leader making robots . . . fascinating stuff.” —Jon Stewart
In the High Bay at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon, Segways scoot across the floor chasing soccer balls while other robots hunt for treasure. Nursebots, developed to care for hospital patients, mingle with a robotic Lara Croft lookalike. Lee Gutkind immersed himself in this frenzied subculture and, in Almost Human, introduces us to Zoë, Groundhog, Grace, and Sandstorm—robots designed to help, or in some cases replace, humans—as well as to the colorful cast of researchers attempting to create language to talk not only to machines but also to one another across their disciplines.

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Editorial Reviews

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.— 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.”
Publishers Weekly
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.
Library Journal

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

Kirkus Reviews
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
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393336849
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 8/24/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 1,193,161
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Lee Gutkind is the founder and editor of the literary journal Creative Nonfiction and a pioneer in the field of narrative nonfiction. Gutkind is also the editor of In Fact and Becoming a Doctor, the author of Almost Human, and has written books about baseball, health care, travel, and technology. A Distinguished Writer in Residence at Arizona State University, he lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Tempe, Arizona.

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Table of Contents


Introduction: The Rookie Revolution     xi
The Atacama
Wild Ride to Base Camp     5
Big Red     7
Groundhog     24
Bummed and Elated     35
A Lack of Vision     48
Autonomy
RoboCup     61
The Color of Thinking     78
Asimo and Friends     95
Frustration     100
The Challenge     120
Fresh Blood     131
The Ops
The Grasshopper and the Ant     145
Fallback Positions     162
The Desert Makes Us Wacky     176
Peeing on a Rock     193
Downtime     206
Two Versions of Reality     219
Making history
Nathalie     227
Pirate's Cove     237
Hardware vs. Software     255
In the Field     265
The Barest Beginning     270
Acknowledgments     281
Notes     283
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