A fascinating look inside a place where sci-fi dreams are being made real.
Gutkind (English/Univ. of Pittsburgh; An Unspoken Art, 1997, etc.) spent six years visiting the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute and observing its denizens—human and mechanical. Roboticists are a breed apart, usually young, male and intensely focused. The High Bay, a large area on the ground floor of one of the Institute’s buildings, is full of whirring, clanking machines and their programmers, hunched over laptops. Gutkind follows several stories, including an expedition to Chile’s Atacama Desert, where a team sends a wheeled rover nicknamed Zoë through exercises intended to test its ability to search for traces of life. Conditions in the Atacama approach those of the Martian surface, and the toll on machines and morale is high. Nearer home, another Carnegie team led by “Red” Whitaker builds machines designed to enter and map coalmines—a mission inspired by the too-frequent mining disasters of western Pennsylvania and its neighboring states. Whitaker is also the driving force behind an entry in the DARPA Grand Challenge, a cross-country robot race in the Nevada desert, funded by the U.S. military. A gentler but equally competitive event is the RoboCup, a robot soccer tournament in which international teams program toy dogs to shoot and score. Manuela Veloso, one of the rare women pioneers in robotics, is the leading spirit of the tournament, in which teams are encouraged to swap effective bits of computer code so that innovations spread as rapidly as possible. The author catches the up-all-night intensity and geeky personalities of the young grad students who currently dominate robotics, and the visionary zeal of their instructors. The drama of the Atacama expedition forms the backbone of the book, and its triumphs and frustrations give a good sense of how the field is growing in spite of tremendous barriers yet to be overcome.
High tech at its most exhilarating.