Now monkeys control robots

The Body Electric - Robot
October 11, 2002

Robots are out, cyborgs (part-humans, part-machines) are in. That is the clear message from both Rodney Brooks and James Geary. But the starting point and approaches of the two authors that led them to this conclusion are very different.

Brooks, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was the archetypal robot guru of the 1990s and had a solid base camp from which to begin his assault on the subject through his groundbreaking involvement in the construction of a series of pioneering robots. A fair proportion of his book is taken up with describing these robots, and in that sense it is a good reference source.

The favourite among Brooks's stable, back in 1988, was Genghis, which he describes as "my most satisfying robot". This six-legged robot was designed to be "fast, cheap and out of control". For those who wish to know, a 12-page appendix describes how Genghis works. Then came Cog in 1993, a robot with a human-like torso, an arm and a camera for eyes. But Cog, despite claims that it copied Hal from the film 2001: A Space Odyssey , does not get much attention here in comparison with Kismet, put together by Cynthia Breazel, who was at one time a research student of Brooks's. Kismet is cuter, with big eyes, droopy eyelids and floppy ears. It hears and responds to sounds and appears to exhibit emotions. It can be surprised or aroused; as Brooks says, "it gets at the essence of humanity."

From the safe haven of his robots, Brooks then strays into the land of speculation. Like others, he forecasts that "the amount of computational power in a personal computer will surpass that in a human brain sometime in the next 20 years". But we will not have to worry about the machines taking over because we will become a "merger between flesh and machines": according to Brooks. "Humankind has embarked on an irreversible journey of technological manipulation of our bodies."

While the wearable computers of Steve Mann and Thad Starner are mentioned only in passing, a whole chapter is devoted to present-day technology used in heart pacemakers, cochlea implants and artificial legs. This sets the scene for the cyborg revolution, but in laying this trail Brooks delves into what is for him uncharted territory. He becomes a mere reporter on what he has read or witnessed but has not been personally involved with.

That said, his description of the work of Tom Knight and Ron Weiss at MIT, making E. coli cells into tiny robots, is interesting in showing how their work relates to cyborgs and in considering what they hope to achieve. Brooks also comments on Miguel Nicolelis's research using neural signals from owl monkeys to direct a robot arm in MIT remotely via an internet connection.

But this latter, MIT-centric view is somewhat out of date. Some of the most astounding work with implants has been carried out by Philip Kennedy at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, in which human neural signals were employed to operate a computer mouse. This receives only an insignificant mention from Brooks, and Kennedy himself is completely ignored. Instead, Brooks points out that forces in the robot arm will in the future be fed back to the owl monkeys to allow them to feel the forces. But in the world outside MIT, which does exist, such research is already ongoing with human subjects, not monkeys.

Robot is an easy, highly engaging read. But as an insight into the present state of cyborg research it is incomplete, omitting much cutting-edge research that has left MIT lagging some way behind - although it certainly gives a good account of what is happening at MIT.

The Body Electric is written, by contrast, by an author who has no professional background in robotics but is a journalist, an editor for Time magazine. Its supposed target is the new bionic senses. However, in his preface Geary admits that his original intention was to write yet another book on the brain. Most likely, after much yawning, his publisher steered him in the more fruitful direction taken by the book.

But it seems that, in adamant mood, he did not take in completely what he was told, and so he still includes an extensive section on the "mind". Although most of Geary's "mind"-set is much the same as in a multitude of existing books on the subject, he does discuss Lucy, Steve Grand's project of building a baby robot from the bottom up - unlike Brooks. (But then Grand is not from MIT.)

Putting the section on mind to one side, The Body Electric is an excellent discourse on the latest developments in aiding, replacing and amplifying the five human senses. It is painstakingly well researched and a mine of information. And for every project discussed, sufficient detail is given to allow the reader to discover further, more specialised research. The fluent presentation of the material has clearly come from years of journalistic experience, and it allows the reader to dive easily into any section.

I particularly like the one on neuromorphic chips and artificial retinas. This can look like a difficult subject, but not when presented by Geary. Also good is that space is given in the chapter on touch to Stelarc who, despite being only an artist, has contributed much to the field with his practical exoskeletons, in which he shows some of the amazing powers of prosthetics.

Overall, these two books are like chalk and cheese. Geary's excellent overview comes from a trained, unbiased eye looking into the subject as one might observe caged animals in a zoo. Brooks looks out from one of the cages. What his book gains from his hands-on experience, it loses from his not taking a peek into some of the other cages.

Kevin Warwick is professor of cybernetics, University of Reading.

The Body Electric: An Anatomy of the New Bionic Senses

Author - James Geary
ISBN - 0 297 64686 9
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicolson
Price - £20.00
Pages - 214

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