Robots

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The Volume 18, Number 1 issue of Scientific American Reports is a special edition on robotics. The following articles feature:

 1. Bill Gates’s “A Robot in Every Home” concentrates on such commonplace items as the vacuum cleaner and not the exotic anthropomorphous robots of the popular imagination.

2. Hans Moravec’s “Rise of the Robots” does discuss issues facing artificial intelligence.

3. Ray Kurzweill’s “The Coming Merging of Mind and Machine” oozes a techno-ebullience about neural implants and the processing power of chip development. He then takes a philosophical turn by discussing whether by 2020 when a $1,000 computer is expected to match the processing power of the human brain, will it be conscious?

4. The highlight of the issue is the ever reliable Eric Bonabeau and Guy Theraulaz, the doyens of Swarm Theory. Their article “Swarm Smarts” summarizes how their work, inspired by social insects, finds practical application in solving issues arising from complexity.

5. Moshe Sipper and James Reggia discuss the notion of self-replicating (and self-repairing) machines.

6. Miguel Niclelis and John Chapin’s article “Controlling Robots with the Mind” picks up where Kurzweill left off. The idea of brain-machine interface in a very intimate way, is fascinating.  

The rest of the issue is devoted to a variety of engineering issues and progress in hardware and materials functionality. For those who are interested in the philosophical issues that underlie all these articles I’d recommend John Casti’s The Cambridge Quintet. Casti offers a fictionalized account of the meeting convened by C.P. Snow – a dinner discussion with Turing, Haldane, Schrodinger and Wittgenstein –  a narrative device to hang discussion of the philosophical issues of artificial intelligence on  and present it in a highly accessible manner. If you liked David Lodge’s Thinks . . . you’ll probably like this.

Regarding the above SAR issue it seems to me that Andy Clark would have been a wonderful addition to the lineup – Clark is someone who has a fascination with cyborgs, is a great popularist and is very philosophically literate. Clark would have been the ideal person to give a deeper editorial coherence to this issue. Still there is the super art work of Mondolithic Studios offsetting any editorial shortcomings – the photo above is a variation of the photo that actually appears on the cover.