Thursday, May 24, 2018
Books

Review: Learning to share our world with robots

When I'm reincarnated, I want to come back as a robot. Being a human again, or a poodle, or a goldfish, will seem so sadly biological. Robots, on the other hand, will have all the fun — at the very least, juggling a dozen balls, seeing around corners and walking up walls on sticky feet — if you believe the picture offered by Illah Reza Nourbakhsh in Robot Futures.

I got the sense that Nourbakhsh has gone over to the robot side. Indeed, he has fathered quite a few, including a 7-foot tour guide for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and a super pogo stick that rockets riders ridiculously high into the air. Nourbakhsh, who heads a lab at Carnegie Mellon devoted to advancing human-robot interaction, gave us a hint of where the world is heading as co-author of an earlier book, Introduction to Autonomous Mobile Robots.

In Robot Futures, he reveals the social forces and technology propelling us toward a robotic-enhanced life and turns a sensitive eye on the complex human issues ahead. Robots will make ever-larger leaps; their connection to the Internet will pack them with information no mortal can contain, and their minds will make independent decisions thanks to artificial intelligence.

They will see us, hear us and respond to us; they will recognize a face, understand a firm handshake and perceive our smiles. But their presence in our offices, factories and homes, in stores and on sidewalks, will force humans to confront a difficult era of adaptation. "We have invented a new species," Nourbakhsh writes, "and the question that remains is, how will we share our world with these new creatures, and how will this new ecology change who we are and how we act?"

Defining a robot, however, is tricky. Not all of them reflect the humanoid shape of C3PO in Star Wars. They can be designed as a mundane-looking camera eye or a snake for military surveillance. Perhaps a better way to understand their essence is to zero in on what they can do: Robots form a kind of bridge between the digital universe and the physical world in a way humans simply can't. He points to a tiny, flying robot that finds an open window in a building, slips inside, maps the interior and instantly publishes the maps online.

The evolving intelligence of robots is linked to three key advances: Robots are gaining the ability to perceive environment, make decisions and take action. Consider the case of a local fast-food restaurant. Suppose you're a regular customer who almost always orders the same sandwich and fries. When you pull into the parking lot, the store-bot will recognize you and send an order to the cook, and by the time you reach the counter, your food will be waiting. This robot already exists. Called Hyperactive Bob, it went into action five years ago, capturing customer data through a computer vision system tied to cameras around the restaurant's perimeter. It's true that such efficiency benefits the customer and the restaurant. "Even privacy advocates have trouble finding fault with Bob," Nourbakhsh writes. "The computer system is only recognizing a car and making a guess about what the car's occupants will order."

But robotic vision gets disturbing in other potential applications. In their lust to know their customers, companies are eager to capture detailed information about shoppers' behavior. Nourbakhsh predicts that in 20 years, computer vision will be so refined that stores will be able to watch and interpret your behavior with stunning accuracy: how you walk, where you linger, what products you touch, what expression you make when you look at the price. "As sensing technologies progress," the author writes, "the boundaries of privacy will be regularly challenged anew."

Our relationship with robots will get ever more complicated. Do we blame them or their overseers for bad behavior, an issue that arises today with drones? The proliferation of robots in everyday life will baffle us and test our patience. With the increasing availability of build-your-own kits, slews of people will make robots, just as today they make personal Web pages. "When your neighbor down the street makes (a robot) and sets it free," the author writes, "you may have to wrestle it out of your vegetable garden the next day."

In a world populated by machines that perceive and think, Nourbakhsh wonders whether humans shouldn't accord robots empathy and moral standing. He recounts a bizarre incident involving his undergraduate research robot, Vagabond. When he was navigating Vagabond through the quadrangle at Stanford University, he lost sight of it momentarily. Then, coming around a corner, he saw a woman blocking its path and a man in cowboy boots kicking the robot, announcing, "I'm still smarter."

Researchers are far from understanding humans' emotional response to robots, Nourbakhsh writes, but that day he had an insight that will be relevant for generations: "It was a turning point in my realization that robots will cause human behavior that we may find very surprising indeed."

Comments
Review: Family matters in David Sedaris’ ‘Calypso’

Review: Family matters in David Sedaris’ ‘Calypso’

David Sedaris gets right to the point in the opening of the first essay in his new book, Calypso: "Though there’s an industry built on telling you otherwise, there are few real joys to middle age. The only perk I can see is that, with luck, you’ll ac...
Published: 05/24/18
Review: Strait-laced writer Michael Pollan explores psychedelics, and leaves the door of perception ajar

Review: Strait-laced writer Michael Pollan explores psychedelics, and leaves the door of perception ajar

Microdosing is hot. If you haven’t heard — but you probably have, from reports of its use at Silicon Valley workplaces, from Ayelet Waldman’s memoir A Really Good Day, from dozens of news stories — to microdose is to take small amounts of LSD, which ...
Published: 05/24/18
Bancroft: Philip Roth deftly explored male lust, Jewish identity, American history and politics

Bancroft: Philip Roth deftly explored male lust, Jewish identity, American history and politics

Philip Roth, one of the most potent voices in American fiction, died Tuesday night of congestive heart failure in a New York City hospital. He was 85.Mr. Roth was the last man standing of a generation of fiction writers sometimes called "the great wh...
Published: 05/23/18

Events: Tarbell.org founder Wendell Potter to discuss, sign book

Book TalkTarbell.org founder Wendell Potter (Nation on the Take: How Big Money Corrupts Our Democracy and What We Can Do About It) will discuss and sign his book at 4 p.m. May 23 at the St. Petersburg Main Library, 3745 Ninth Ave. N.Applications are ...
Published: 05/21/18
The real stuff is how Tom Wolfe best used his write stuff

The real stuff is how Tom Wolfe best used his write stuff

Tom Wolfe’s best writing lifted real people into legend: car designers and astronauts and disciples of LSD. With that writing, Wolfe lifted himself into legend as well. The author of 16 books, including such bestsellers as The Right Stuff and ...
Published: 05/18/18
Review: In Stephen King’s ‘The Outsider,’ evil can’t be true but must be true

Review: In Stephen King’s ‘The Outsider,’ evil can’t be true but must be true

On a July day, Terry Maitland, one of the most popular men in Flint City, Okla. — high school English teacher, Little League coach, husband and father, recently named the town’s man of the year — attends a teachers convention in a city over an hour’s...
Published: 05/17/18

Events: Gilbert King to discuss ‘Beneath a Ruthless Sun’ at Inkwood in Tampa

Book TalkCutter Wood (Love and Death in the Sunshine State: The Story of a Crime) will discuss and sign his nonfiction book about a murder on Anna Maria Island at 6 p.m. May 14 at Bookstore1, 12 S Palm Ave., Sarasota.The Gulfport Historical Society p...
Published: 05/11/18
Notable: As Mother’s Day nears, these new books are timely

Notable: As Mother’s Day nears, these new books are timely

NotableMore about mothersFor Mother’s Day, three new books offer a range of takes on motherhood.Beauty in the Broken Places: A Memoir of Love, Faith, and Resilience (Random House) by Allison Pataki is a memoir by a novelist whose 30-year-old husband ...
Published: 05/11/18
Review: A criminal’s confession is just the beginning in Michael Koryta’s compelling ‘How It Happened’

Review: A criminal’s confession is just the beginning in Michael Koryta’s compelling ‘How It Happened’

It’s what every investigator hopes for: a tough case finally solved when one of the criminals confesses, providing solid details and even describing where the bodies are buried.Or, in Michael Koryta’s compelling new psychological thriller How It Happ...
Published: 05/10/18
Anthony Award nominees include Tampa’s Michael Connelly, Down & Out Books

Anthony Award nominees include Tampa’s Michael Connelly, Down & Out Books

When the World Mystery Convention, a.k.a. Bouchercon, takes place in St. Petersburg in September and hands out its coveted Anthony Awards, the Tampa Bay Area will be well represented among the nominees.The award nominees, announced May 9, include Tam...
Published: 05/09/18
Updated: 05/10/18