That household robots are just around the country is one of many wild notions advanced in Brooks's new book Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us. Flesh and Machines is a fascinating look at how top researchers - its author is one - have tackled such challenges as teaching prototype robots how to walk around obstacles or recognize faces, acts that come automatically to people but are daunting trials to devices. This compelling, cleanly written book is not techno-cheerleading; the author admits there are all kinds of drawbacks to robots and intelligence-emulating computers, including the most obvious, "Why would anyone need or want this stuff?"
But Brooks thinks robots are coming, ready or not. And so, he thinks, we'd better start thinking through what we would want robots to be like, what their programming should permit and what it should forbid. And we'd better, he thinks, start contemplating the day when "one of our robots earnestly informs us that it is conscious, and just like I take your word for you being conscious, we will have to accept its word for it."
Brooks and his grad students have taught their robots how to maneuver around rooms without crashing into tables or people, how to pick things up and move them, how to recognize faces and voices. That's about it at the moment - they are not, so far as is known, plotting world domination.
Some functional robots already exist, although of course nothing like the nervous C3PO of Star Wars or the benevolent Robbie in Forbidden Planet. Factories use manufacturing robots, mainly for welding. They are very sophisticated in the ability to perform precise welds, but simpletons in the sense that this is the only task they can do.
Three years ago, Sony got considerable press for offering a $2,500 robotic dog named Aibo that could walk, fetch balls and exhibit simple moods. Why you'd want Aibo for $2,500 when you could get a real dog for considerably less is a question the market answered: after an initial flurry of impulse purchases by dot-com babies, Aibo started languishing on stores shelves, and is no longer sold. The weird thing, Brooks points out, is that Aibo owners swore these robot dogs knew their faces and preferred them over other people. Sony did not put face-recognition into Aibo chips! Still, observing that people respond positively to the fact that dogs watch them as they move about the room, Brooks has programmed Cog to do the same. People who meet Cog don't think it's creepy. They think it means the robot likes them.
Yet silly as the early robots seem, don't forget that when the first gasoline-powered cars began clunkling and wheezing down streets in the 1890s, detractors would stand at the curb yelling 'Get a horse!'" Automobiles, cell phones, aircraft - these and many other products initially seemed worthless, or good only for very expensive specialty applications. Brooks notes that when he was a boy, lasers were so expensive and impractical they were found only in laboratories. Today most schoolchildren own a laser: they're the key gizmo in a CD player.