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Splinter Cell
for Xbox
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Vonage Digital Voice Phone Service
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March 10 , 2003 | books

Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us is the latest book by Rodney Brooks, Director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. The author’s affiliation is telling. It informs the reader of Brooks’ academic and research accomplishments and, in addition, it prepares him/her for the enthusiastic, techno sophisticated view of the world for which the MIT is well known. Both premises are accurate. Flesh and Machines is a well researched book on the history and development of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI). Brooks utilizes a jargon-free vocabulary to develop his arguments, and illustrates them with ‘real life’ examples taken mostly from his personal experience. Thus, in spite of its fairly esoteric topic, Flesh and Machines is of easy access to all, even those with no prior knowledge of the subject.

Unfortunately Flesh and Machines falters where so many other science and technology books have failed before, in its overly simple conceptual treatment of technology. Pop high-tech books’ unbridled technological visions of the future are often accompanied by scant treatments of the social transformations that create, and accompany it. Technologies are neutralized as tools, emptied of content or context. From this perspective artefacts are produced in the lab, by engineers and other geeky types, and are then consumed by the public at large. Period. Flesh and Machines is no exception. The feeble analysis of the social dimensions that accompany the high-tech society it postulates is not only worrisome but somewhat disturbing.

Key to understanding of Flesh and Machines is Brooks’ definition of robots. He avoids the salvation or damnation dichotomy, that presents robots as the path to immortality or towards serfdom, by adopting a broader than usual definition of robots. Robots are not only mechanical beings (“machine-machines”), but also the entities that result from the merger of humans and machines (“man-machines”). In Brooks’ view, the human elements will not, so to speak, be lost, but rather augmented thus remaining always one step ahead of the machine. Flesh and Machines deals with the evolution of both ‘species’.
For the sake of argument Flesh and Machines can be divided in three major sections. In the first Brooks recounts the history and evolution of the field of AI and details his contribution to it. In the second, the author projects the short term future of robotics, and portrays some of the features of the society that will embrace them. Finally, in the third and last part, Brooks turns to the ageless issue of the difference between humans and machines, and discusses the merger of robots and humans as the ‘third way’.

Brooks’ contribution to the development and transformation of AI is noteworthy in more than one way for it challenged (and continues to do so) many of the sacred and unquestioned principles of artificial intelligence research.

At a time when many were approaching artificial intelligence through the modeling and manipulation of symbols following logical rules, that is, creating complex worlds in which all behaviors are accounted for, Brooks developed a biological approach to AI. This biological framework takes as a starting point that intelligent creatures—human or not—are situated and embodied, that is, they are autonomous, rather than being controlled by a third party, and exist in an environment, constantly reacting to it. Thus, cognition does not result from withdrawing from the task at hand and analyzing it with step by step, but from direct, lived, immediate experience of the environment. Intelligence cannot be separated from its lived experience.

Brooks then went a step further, and set out to take ‘cognition’ out of its pedestal and replace it with perception and action. What if, he asked, reasoning is not the basis of cognition at all, but rather the ability to sense and react to the world as we encounter it? After all, beings like insects, display vast amounts of intelligent behavior, greater than most robots, since they can look for food and hideouts, avoid obstacles, mate, etcetera, but still score fairly low in the traditional IQ scale.

Using this approach, and a subsumption architecture—creating layers of behavior that interact and regulate one another—Brooks has built, and supervised the creation of, several robot-creatures which he describes with great detail and minutiae in Flesh and Machines.

Brooks’ approach to robotics and cognition resembles that of Francisco Varela, the noted cognitive scientist, who also advanced an embodied—based on perception and action—approach to cognition. Varela proposed that we can engage with the world in two different ways, we can do it in an analytical, abstract, detached fashion—that resembles the mandates of classic AI,—or in a spontaneous, immediate way. To the first he gives the name of know-what, and to the second that of know-how, or immediate coping. According to Varela, “most of our mental and active life is of the immediate coping variety, which is transparent, stable, and grounded in our personal history” (1999). Hence, he puts forward the idea of cognition as enaction, that is, the world is not pre-given or constructed by the subject, but rather interpreted through each his/hers lived cognition, that is, through each entity’s embodied sensorimotor structures. Leaving the body behind to create intelligent machines is then simply not possible.

One of the important implications of this approach, not only for AI but for a general understanding of the world, is that it bridges the Human versus Others cognitive split. The common trait amongst all living cognitive beings is that they possess a “know-how constituted on the basis of the concrete” (ibid).

So far so good. It is when Brooks starts projecting the future applications of robots that the argument starts to falter. Brooks defends that there are currently two major problems with robot development: batteries and navigation. He then argues that “remote presence”, a sort of wireless (super)vision, is the most likely short term solution to this problem. Imagine, for instance, the case of the “ordinary” individual who is sitting in a taxi, rushing towards the airport and suddenly realizes that he/she left the stove on. Going back to check it is impossible since the flight would be lost. Leaving it on is equally out of the question since the house may burn down. If instead of having to go back home this person could simply “robot-in” and guide the robot towards the stove, he or she could then see through its eyes and check if it is on or not and take the appropriate action. All that would be needed is an internet connection (and a robot, obviously).

A couple of things already stand out of this picture: It is a future well-to-do single, autonomous (or isolated), emancipated individuals.

However, Brooks realizes that in such a system the human element is (still) not out of the loop, and that in order for it to work smoothly, and not disrupt the lives of those who rush to the airport and have work to do during the day, someone will have to remotely control the robot. The solution for this: developing countries where labor is cheap (and often quite qualified). Remote work as the killer application for robots in the short term. Brooks says, and I quote,

The brains of people in poorer countries will be hired to control the physical-labor robots, the remote-presence robots, in richer countries. The good thing about this is that the persons in that poorer country will not be doing the dirty, tiring work themselves. It will be relatively high-paying and desirable to work for many places where the economy is poor. Furthermore, it will provide work in those places with poor economies where no other work is available (146-147)

There are at least two ways of interpreting this statement. Brooks may be a defender of the status quo, a pragmatist of sorts, and have no faith that the power relations, that keep the system running by forcing many entities to invisibility, can be changed. Brooks could also be an idealist, which is certainly not a fault, and believe that what he postulates above has a chance of becoming a reality. In any case, he is remarkably uninformed about the working conditions and lack of labour and safety regulations and working conditions which many workers in developing countries are exposed to. One can safely assume that he has not yet read Naomi Klein’s No Logo (2000), her exposé of the business practices of large corporations and the realities of outsourcing and sweatshops all over the world.

In the third, and last, section of the book Brooks turns to the question of the essence of human and machines and the breaking of the boundaries between both.

Brooks defends that the human body is a big, complex machine. The difference between us and the robots, he says, is that we are “[s]omewhat more complex in quantity but not quality”. In our “overanthropomorphization” of humans, we tend to forget that we already have machines with all the unique qualities of humans, we have ourselves. Thus, all we need to do in order to create other life-like machine is to find out what Brooks calls “the juice” of humanhood and replicate it. To be sure, Brooks admits that presenting a mysterious “juice” as the key to our existence is not very scientific. However, he justifies himself by saying that contrary to the philosophers who defend that this juice is something indefinable and uncopiable, he is “betting that the new stuff is something that is already staring at us in the nose, and we just have not seen it yet”.

The undertaking of the task of discovering this “juice” is accompanied by efforts to promote the process of merging with our machines, of creating “man-machines”. This is no novelty, in our daily lives we have come to rely on technology to perform many activities: ride the bus or drive the car to work, look for information on the internet, write articles on the computer. The social and the technical are equally central to our definition of life, and we cross from one to the other without a second thought.

However, what Brooks is postulating here is that very soon these extensions, to the moment primarily external, will be internalized becoming part of our minds. We will have, for instance, direct mental access to internet, or a thought controlled implanted mouse and screen. The dream will then be complete, with humans becoming “superhuman” in many aspects.

When this happens, Brooks predicts, “[w]e will have the power to manipulate our own bodies in the way we currently manipulate the design of machines. We will have the keys to our own existence”.

Flesh and Machines ends on this positive note of a superhuman entity, constantly redefining itself and adapting itself to a new world: A world where science and technology replace faith and provide a new understanding of humanity.

I side with Brooks in his attempt to remove humans from their unique status versus the-rest-of-the-world. In Western cultures, the bridging of this gap is becoming increasingly visible due to the blurring of the boundaries between humans and machines, for instance, through the implant of artificial body organs. In other cultures the distinction was never very strong, for instance, for the Achuar Indians nature and society are part of continuum rather than independent spheres (Descola 1994).

Artificial intelligence, and by extension robotics, present themselves as ideal locations to grapple with this rift. However, overthrowing one authority to simply replace it with another is not a viable solution. Asserting science as a privileged, universal, and thus unifying, path to truth is not acceptable.

This brings us back to the beginning. To the initial criticism of the oversimplified conceptions of technology (and science) presented in this book. When technologies are reduced to tools, and science to Progress, there is little space left for reflection or negotiation. Science and technology become objectives in themselves, undisputed and unquestionable.

However, there is a need to pause and reflect. In this text we have explored at least two. The first pertains to the creation, sustenance or expansion of social inequalities. The ‘feeding’ of the divide between those who have access to the technology and those who don’t, and the stifling of other sources of truth, other forms of observation and interpretation. The second, relates to the ways in which the creation of ‘man-machines’ will affect our experience of ourselves and the world. If, as Brooks and Varela postulate, intelligence is indeed embodied and the world is interpreted through our sensorimotor structures, then what are the implications of adding, or removing, parts to this structure?

Brooks discusses these in terms of control, we are not in danger of being controlled by our pure-robots, because we are like them only better. However, there are other dimensions that deserve careful reflection. If these are not considered, Brooks’ predictions may become true for, as Marshall McLuhan once said, “[w]e are all robots when uncritically involved with our technologies” (McLuhan & Fiore 1968).

Unless otherwise noted all references are taken from Brooks (2002)

Brooks, Rodney A. (2002). <i>Flesh and Machines</i>: How Robots Will Change Us. New York: Pantheon Books.
Descola, Philippe. (1994). The Society of Nature: A native ecology in Amazonia (translated by Nora Scott). Great Britain: Cambridge University Press.
Latour, Bruno. (2002). War of the Worlds: What about Peace? (translated by Charlotte Bigg). Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, LLC.
McLuhan, Marshall & Fiore, Quentin. (1968). War and Peace in the global village. New York: Bantham.
Varela, Francisco J. (1999). Ethical Know-How: Action, Wisdom, and Cognition. Writing Science Series. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.



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