A provocative work of ethics that may prove altogether timely given the state of the technology.

THE NEW BREED

WHAT OUR HISTORY WITH ANIMALS REVEALS ABOUT OUR FUTURE WITH ROBOTS

Asimov’s rules of robots require that they shall not harm humans. But what obligations do humans have toward robots in turn?

MIT Media Lab researcher Darling believes that the long-awaited robotics revolution is just around the corner, with people wondering not whether but when they’ll be replaced by robots “against the backdrop of broader economic and social anxiety.” Some worry is well placed, but much is not, for robots are likeliest to be “delegated jobs that qualify as one of the three Ds: tasks that are dirty, dull, or dangerous for humans.” Indeed, Darling notes, Elon Musk once built an autonomous assembly line for his Tesla electric car only to discover that robots were not yet smart enough to figure out and deal with unexpected glitches in the manufacturing process; a repentant Musk “tweeted that human workers were underrated.” Robots are best at single specialized tasks and repetitive processes—for now. Separate questions arise when robots become companions and pets. In that vein, Darling engagingly examines robots and their uses in relation to our interactions with animals—and not just pets, but also working animals such as donkeys and horses, bred over years to help with specific tasks that are difficult for humans to accomplish alone. The author notes that in the instance of both robots and animals, “we have an inherent tendency to anthropomorphize—to project our own behaviors, experiences, and emotions onto other entities.” Animals please us in part because we ascribe our best qualities to them, and in the same way, robots “engage us because we’re drawn to the recognizable human cues in their behavior.” A minor shortcoming of this book is Darling’s cursory attention to the problem of abuse, for if animals suffer so much hardship at human hands, so might those machines. Still, she provides a useful addition to a body of literature that is growing at a rapid pace.

A provocative work of ethics that may prove altogether timely given the state of the technology.

Pub Date: April 20, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-250-29610-8

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: Feb. 24, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2021

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Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.

THE BOOK OF EELS

OUR ENDURING FASCINATION WITH THE MOST MYSTERIOUS CREATURE IN THE NATURAL WORLD

An account of the mysterious life of eels that also serves as a meditation on consciousness, faith, time, light and darkness, and life and death.

In addition to an intriguing natural history, Swedish journalist Svensson includes a highly personal account of his relationship with his father. The author alternates eel-focused chapters with those about his father, a man obsessed with fishing for this elusive creature. “I can’t recall us ever talking about anything other than eels and how to best catch them, down there by the stream,” he writes. “I can’t remember us speaking at all….Because we were in…a place whose nature was best enjoyed in silence.” Throughout, Svensson, whose beat is not biology but art and culture, fills his account with people: Aristotle, who thought eels emerged live from mud, “like a slithering, enigmatic miracle”; Freud, who as a teenage biologist spent months in Trieste, Italy, peering through a microscope searching vainly for eel testes; Johannes Schmidt, who for two decades tracked thousands of eels, looking for their breeding grounds. After recounting the details of the eel life cycle, the author turns to the eel in literature—e.g., in the Bible, Rachel Carson’s Under the Sea Wind, and Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum—and history. He notes that the Puritans would likely not have survived without eels, and he explores Sweden’s “eel coast” (what it once was and how it has changed), how eel fishing became embroiled in the Northern Irish conflict, and the importance of eel fishing to the Basque separatist movement. The apparent return to life of a dead eel leads Svensson to a consideration of faith and the inherent message of miracles. He warns that if we are to save this fascinating creature from extinction, we must continue to study it. His book is a highly readable place to begin learning.

Unsentimental nature writing that sheds as much light on humans as on eels.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-296881-4

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: March 1, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

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Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science...

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING

Bryson (I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1999, etc.), a man who knows how to track down an explanation and make it confess, asks the hard questions of science—e.g., how did things get to be the way they are?—and, when possible, provides answers.

As he once went about making English intelligible, Bryson now attempts the same with the great moments of science, both the ideas themselves and their genesis, to resounding success. Piqued by his own ignorance on these matters, he’s egged on even more so by the people who’ve figured out—or think they’ve figured out—such things as what is in the center of the Earth. So he goes exploring, in the library and in company with scientists at work today, to get a grip on a range of topics from subatomic particles to cosmology. The aim is to deliver reports on these subjects in terms anyone can understand, and for the most part, it works. The most difficult is the nonintuitive material—time as part of space, say, or proteins inventing themselves spontaneously, without direction—and the quantum leaps unusual minds have made: as J.B.S. Haldane once put it, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose; it is queerer than we can suppose.” Mostly, though, Bryson renders clear the evolution of continental drift, atomic structure, singularity, the extinction of the dinosaur, and a mighty host of other subjects in self-contained chapters that can be taken at a bite, rather than read wholesale. He delivers the human-interest angle on the scientists, and he keeps the reader laughing and willing to forge ahead, even over their heads: the human body, for instance, harboring enough energy “to explode with the force of thirty very large hydrogen bombs, assuming you knew how to liberate it and really wished to make a point.”

Loads of good explaining, with reminders, time and again, of how much remains unknown, neatly putting the death of science into perspective.

Pub Date: May 6, 2003

ISBN: 0-7679-0817-1

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Broadway

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2003

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