By some credible estimates, 90 percent of all the scientists who have ever paced the world's laboratories are alive today, and the proportion must be as high for writers of popular science. Which is as it should be. From the decoding of the human genome, to the discovery of water on Mars, to the invention of computer chips the size of molecules, there's a host of modern marvels whose stories beg to be told.
But as they take on these new subjects, science writers must assume a certain responsibility. Though technology has always had its dark side, today the darkness threatens as never before; with the incalculable opportunities of the PC and the Internet come not only sore wrists and fat behinds, but also fraud and vandalism on a colossal scale; with emission-free nuclear power comes ageless nuclear waste; with industrial prosperity comes global warming; and on and on. It is no longer enough to be an advocate of a new technology, or even an explicator of it. Writers must think through the full spectrum of future possibilities, no matter how happy or dire.
Wherein lies another, almost opposite, hazard: The pace of technology is so fast that authors can be made the fool before their books reach store shelves. Think back to less than 20 years ago, when you unpacked your first XT computer. If you had been asked to guess how it would change the world, how preposterously wrong would you have been? Do you bother to guess about the future of science any longer?
In Robo Sapiens, an overview of the present and future of robotics, photojournalist Peter Menzel and documentarian Faith D'Aluisio face both challenges by letting the inventors of various robots speak of their ambitions, expectations and fears. The excellent photography and design - Menzel is the creator of the photo-essay Material World - brings the robot, and the dialogues, vividly to life.
Robots are already superior to humans in many ways. They are more accurate than people, require no lights, work 24 hours a day, and they never get sick, go to the bathroom or form unions. As one inventor says in the book, robots are saints.
Today's great spark-spewing industrial robots are only the beginning, though. The Grail is the intelligent, autonomous robot. All of the inventors here assume that robots eventually will be able to assess unforeseen situations and learn from their experience. They will be able to care for themselves on distant planets and assume tasks of profound difficulty on earth. Though roboticists differ on the way such machines will come into being - and on exactly what intelligence is - the hope is that this research will also provide new insights into the human mind (and what can go wrong with it).
But intelligence is also the rub, as the authors make clear. Many scientists see robots far surpassing human intelligence within the first half of this century. Some think robots will also develop consciousness - which will impel them to replicate in huge numbers, presenting a grave danger to our species.
This raises a basic question about the nature of human intelligence: How is it possible that these scientists devote their every living breath to the development of what could be the agents of our demise? We might applaud the scientists' ingenuity, their imagination - but their intelligence? Or perhaps we should take this as an important clue to what they will impart to robots.
In any case, the scientists in Robo Sapiens are divided over what kind of emotional states their creations might be capable of, if any. Some say that since robots will be born into a society created by people, that social consciousness will naturally integrate itself into the machines' make-up. Others say it is impossible for us to foresee the emotional composition of robots because of the abyss between their nature and ours. Still others say that the sheer intellectual capability of the machines will make their provenance almost irrelevant. Instead, the robots may well become indignant at their subservient roles and dispense with us altogether.
As robots evolve toward the human, humans, with our corneal implants, artificial limbs and, someday, brain chips, are also assuming robotic characteristics. The authors coined the phrase "Robo sapiens," meaning both "a hybrid species of human and robot with vastly superior intelligence to purely biological mankind," and "the dominant species in the solar system of Earth" by the end of the century. Their hope is that as robots become more socialized and people become more technologically enhanced, the two will peacefully meet.
It is an interesting dream, but one that is difficult to share. We humans will certainly have an increasing need for robots, just as we have rapidly developed an addiction to computer chips. But by most accounts in this book, robots will have a diminishing need for us. They have been brought into the world specifically for toil; when they free themselves of it, what would be the source of any altruistic impulse toward humans?
Some scientists answer - or avoid - the question by claiming that robots will be such fast studies they will not only develop their own culture, but in the process they will subsume ours as well; thus they will remain, so to speak, humane. But knowledge does not imply influence. Studies of prairie dog colonies, for example, have not much changed our approach to urban planning. The engines of human evolution have been reproductive and self-preservatory instincts and their concomitants, many of them unsavory and bloody; what could possibly compel intelligent robots to assume the complex of contradictory characteristics that have been the outcome (so far) of that long and painful process?
Our culture is a several-thousand-year-long attempt to come to terms with our human frailties. Robots will never write the equivalent of the Bible or a Shakespearean play; they would never feel the impulse. Robot culture will be based on robot history and robot struggles (if robots ever come to struggle) - which will be very different.
Consider the billions of people, the millions of years and the innumerable interactions and accidents that have made us what we are; there is no algorithm that could reproduce or simulate our species. There will always be a profound gap between our species and the robot, whatever our common features.
Even if we share the authors' hope that robots will retain warm memories of their early years in our labs, that is hardly a secure basis for an indefinite happy cohabitation. And what if by accident some of the nastier human frailties - a propensity for genocide, say - make their way into the robots' code? How much more difficult might they be, and how great their resentment?
The authors tell us that the word "robot" was coined in a 1920 play R.U.R, which ends in a robot uprising that wipes out the human race. In the April 2000 issue of Wired magazine, Bill Joy, cofounder and chief scientist of Sun Microsystems, wrote a much-discussed article titled "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us," which warned that commercial forces are compelling us to develop systems that will bring calamity. If we are not convinced by R.U.R's visionary playwright, Karel Capek, it is more difficult to ignore Joy, who not only has helped forge our technological lives, but whose warnings run contrary to his vast interests.
Menzel and D'Aluisio conclude that "with good luck, we might lose some of the poverty, fear and desperation that has always been the human lot. With bad luck, we may eventually destroy ourselves." In other words, we don't know what the hell is going to happen.
After reading some of the more frightening testimony in this book, one hopes that we are wise enough to leave as little to luck as possible. Still, the authors should be applauded for their refusal to be false and foolish prophets.