Historian and engineer Mindell (History of Engineering and Manufacturing, Aeronautics and Astronautics/MIT; Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in Spaceflight, 2008, etc.) argues that it’s time to change how we think about robots.
For decades, robots have been used in “extreme” environments, from deep oceans to outer space. Drawing on research, interviews, and extensive experience in undersea robotic exploration and the engineering of autonomous aircraft, the author takes us deep inside these robotic applications to reveal the critical role that humans will continue to play in the emerging world of driverless cars, robotic surgery, and remote warfare. His authoritative account looks at the relationship between humans and machines as they explore underwater environments for shipwrecks, conduct remote battles through drones, and engage in distant exploration and repair missions in outer space. In each instance, scientists and others do not physically go to sites where they are working, but their “minds and imaginations” spend days there. Space scientists “become” the distant rover. (“It’s…some kind of weird, man-machine bond,” says one.) Predator pilots, based in air-conditioned control rooms, experience identity crises as they engage in distant warfare “mediated by technology.” Geologists, accustomed to working directly with materials, often feel threatened professionally when engaged in remote undersea exploration. Yet humans are not abdicating to robots, writes Mindell. They are adjusting to new roles and using the robots. Indeed, the human factor—“human decisions, presence, and expertise”—remains more crucial than ever in working with robots. General readers will wish the author had offered more examples of the unusual man-machine interactions in the words of people who experienced them, but Mindell certainly dispels any notion that these robots are completely autonomous and leaves us with a better understanding of what lies ahead for our daily lives.
A lucid counterbalance to the menacing view of robotics long depicted in science fiction.