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Our Robots, Ourselves: Robotics and the Myths of Autonomy

David A. Mindell

  • Hardcover
ISBN: 9780525426974
Our Robots, Ourselves: Robotics and the Myths of Autonomy
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  • Hardcover
ISBN: 9780525426974

Publisher Description

Our Robots, Ourselves provides a provocative exploration of the rapidly changing relationship between human and machine. Employing first-hand experience, extensive interviews and the latest research from MIT and elsewhere, David Mindell shows how people operate with and through robots and automated systems and how these interactions will continue to impact our work, experiences, and professional identities in the coming years. A vivid storyteller, Mindell will change the public's misconceptions about the autonomous robot.

Author Biography

David A. Mindell is Dibner Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing, Professor of Engineering Systems, and Director of the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT. He is the author of "Between Human and Machine: Feedback, Control, and Computing before Cybernetics" and "War, Technology, and Experience aboard the USS Monitor."


"Mindell brings an altogether refreshing perspective to a field that can sometimes get lost in the 'what if'."--Financial Times "Neither overly optimistic nor doomy, MIT professor Mindell offers a clear-eyed, reasoned overview of current and potential robotics achievements--and why the machines will always need us."--Discover

"Science fiction has become science as we find more and more uses for robots. The MIT professor explores the 'hidden world' of robotics and the controversial relationship between humankind and what it has created."--The Sacramento Bee

"Mindell's ingenious and profoundly original book will enlighten those who prophesy that robots will soon make us redundant, and challenges us all to think more precisely and creatively about how machines can augment human potential."--David Autor, Professor of Economics, MIT

"Authoritative.... [Mindell] leaves us with a better understanding of what lies ahead for our daily lives."--Kirkus

"An expansively researched and enjoyably accessible treatment of robotic automation, recommended for readers of popular science and those with an interest in artificial intelligence and automation."--Library Journal

"A careful, measured extrapolation of contemporary technological trends."--Booklist

"A lucid, hype-free exploration of how robotic automation really works--in concert with human design, intention, and action."--Ian Bogost, Ivan Allen College Distinguished Chair in Media Studies and Professor of Interactive Computing Professor, Scheller School of Business, Georgia Institute of Technology

"My thanks to the author for bringing scholarship and sanity to a debate which has run off into a magic la-la land in the popular press."--Rodney Brooks, founder Rethink Robotics and iRobot

"A must read for those who aspire to be effective contributors to the robotics of our future."--David R. Scott, Commander, Apollo 15

Review Quote

"Robots are no longer in a science fiction horizon. We're confronted with a world of drones and the threat of automated war; physicist Steven Hawking warns that 'the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.' David Mindell's essential book takes another view; it is required reading as we seriously engage one of the most important debates of our time."-- Sherry Turkle, author of Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age

Promotional "Headline"

Brilliantly researched and accessibly written, Our Robots, Ourselves clarifies misconceptions about the autonomous robot, offering instead a hopeful message about what he calls 'rich human presence' at the center of the technological landscape we are now creating.

Excerpt from Book

CHAPTER 1 Human, Remote, Autonomous LATE IN THE NIGHT, HIGH ABOVE THE ATLANTIC OCEAN IN THE LONG, OPEN STRETCH between Brazil and Africa, an airliner encountered rough weather. Ice clogged the small tubes on the aircraft''s nose that detected airspeed and transmitted the data to the computers flying the plane. The computers could have continued flying without the information, but they had been told by their programmers that they could not. The automated, fly-by-wire system gave up, turned itself off, and handed control to the human pilots in the cockpit: thirty-two-year-old Pierre Cedric Bonin and thirty-seven-year-old David Robert. Bonin and Robert, both relaxed and a little fatigued, were caught by surprise, suddenly responsible for hand flying a large airliner at high altitude in bad weather at night. It is a challenging task under the best of circumstances, and one they had not handled recently. Their captain, fifty-eight-year-old Marc Debois, was off duty back in the cabin. They had to waste precious attention to summon him. Even though the aircraft was flying straight and level when the computers tripped off, the pilots struggled to make sense of the bad air data. One man pulled back, the other pushed forward on his control stick. They continued straight and level for about a minute, then lost control. On June 1, 2009, Air France flight 447 spiraled into the ocean, killing more than two hundred passengers and crew. It disappeared below the waves, nearly without a trace. In the global, interconnected system of international aviation, it is unacceptable for an airliner to simply disappear. A massive, coordinated search followed. In just a few days traces of flight 447 were located on the ocean''s surface. Finding the bulk of the wreckage, however, and the black box data recorders that held the keys to the accident''s causes, required hunting across a vast seafloor, and proved frustratingly slow. More than two years later, two miles deep on the seafloor, nearly beneath the very spot where the airliner hit the ocean, an autonomous underwater vehicle, or AUV, called Remus 6000 glided quietly through the darkness and extreme pressure. Moving at just faster than a human walking pace, the torpedo-shaped robot maintained a precise altitude of about two hundred feet off the bottom, a position at which its ultrasonic scanning sonar returns the sharpest images. As the sonars pinged to about a half mile out either side, the robot collected gigabytes of data from the echoes. The terrain is mountainous, so the seafloor rose quickly. Despite its intelligence, the robot occasionally bumped into the bottom, mostly without injury. Three such robots worked in a coordinated dance: two searched underwater at any given time, while a third one rested on a surface ship in a three-hour pit stop with its human handlers to offload data, charge batteries, and take on new search plans. On the ship, a team of twelve engineers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, including leader Mike Purcell, who spearheaded the design and development of the searching vehicles, worked in twelve-hour shifts, busy as any pit crew. When a vehicle came to the surface, it took about forty-five minutes for the engineers to download the data it collected into a computer, then an additional half hour to process those data to enable a quick, preliminary scroll-through on a screen. Looking over their shoulders were French and German investigators, and representatives from Air France. The mood was calculating and deliberate, but tense: the stakes were high for French national pride, for the airliner''s manufacturer, Airbus, and for the safety of all air travel. Several prior expeditions had tried and failed. In France, Brazil, and around the world, families awaited word. Interpreting sonar data requires subtle judgment not easily left solely to a computer. Purcell and his engineers relied on years of experience. On their screens, they reviewed miles and miles of rocky reflections alternating with smooth bottom. The pattern went on for five days before the monotony broke: a crowd of fragments appeared, then a debris field--a strong signal of human-made artifacts in the ocean desert. Suggestive, but still not definitive. The engineers reprogrammed the vehicles to return to the debris and "fly" back and forth across it, this time close enough that onboard lights and cameras could take pictures from about thirty feet off the bottom. When the vehicles brought the images back to the surface, engineers and investigators recognized the debris and had their answer: they had found the wreckage of flight 447, gravesite of hundreds. Soon, another team returned with a different kind of robot, a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), a heavy-lift vehicle specially designed for deep salvage, connected by a cable to the ship. Using the maps created by the successful search, the ROV located the airliner''s black box voice and data recorders and brought them to the surface. The doomed pilots'' last minutes were recovered from the ocean, and investigators could now reconstruct the fatal confusion aboard the automated airliner. The ROV then set about the grim task of retrieving human remains. The Air France 447 crash and recovery linked advanced automation and robotics across two extreme environments: the high atmosphere and the deep sea. The aircraft plunged into the ocean because of failures in human interaction with automated systems; the wreckage was then discovered by humans operating remote and autonomous robots. While the words (and their commonly perceived meanings) suggest that automated and autonomous systems are self-acting, in both cases the failure or success of the systems derived not from the machines or the humans operating on their own, but from people and machines operating together. Human pilots struggled to fly an aircraft that had been automated for greater safety and reliability; networks of ships, satellites, and floating buoys helped pinpoint locations; engineers interpreted and acted on data produced by robots. Automated and autonomous vehicles constantly returned to their human makers for information, energy, and guidance. Air France 447 made tragically clear that as we constantly adapt to and reshape our surroundings, we are also remaking ourselves. How could pilots have become so dependent on computers that they flew a perfectly good airliner into the sea? What becomes of the human roles in activities like transportation, exploration, and warfare when more and more of the critical tasks seem to be done by machines? In the extreme view, some believe that humans are about to become obsolete, that robots are "only one software upgrade away" from full autonomy, as Scientific American has recently argued. And they tell us that the robots are coming--coming to more familiar environments. A new concern for the strange and uncertain potentials of artificial intelligence has arisen out of claims that we are on the cusp of superintelligence. Our world is about to be transformed, indeed is already being transformed, by robotics and automation. Start-ups are popping up, drawing on old dreams of smart machines to help us with professional duties, physical labor, and the mundane tasks of daily life. Robots living and working alongside humans in physical, cognitive, and emotional intimacy have emerged as a growing and promising subject of research. Autonomy --the dream that robots will one day act as fully independent agents--remains a source of inspiration, innovation, and concern. The excitement is in the thrill of experimentation; the precise forms of these technologies are far from certain, much less their social, psychological, and cognitive implications. How will our robots change us? In whose image will we make them? In the domain of work, what will become of our traditional roles--scientist, lawyer, doctor, soldier, manager, even driver and sweeper--when the tasks are altered by machines? How will we live and work? We need not speculate: much of this future is with us today, if not in daily life then in extreme environments, where we have been using robotics and automation for decades. In the high atmosphere, the deep ocean, and outer space humans cannot exist on their own. The demands of placing human beings in these dangerous settings have forced the people who work in them to build and adopt robotics and automation earlier than those in other, more familiar realms. Extreme environments press the relationships between people and machines to their limits. They have long been sites of innovation. Here engineers have the freest hand to experiment. Despite the physical isolation, here the technologies'' cognitive and social effects first become apparent. Because human lives, expensive equipment, and important missions are at stake, autonomy must always be tempered with safety and reliability. In these environments, the mess and busyness of daily life are temporarily suspended, and we find, set off from the surrounding darkness, brief, dream-like allegories of human life and technology. The social and technological forces at work on an airliner''s flight deck, or inside a deep-diving submersible, are not fundamentally different from those in a factory, an office, or an automobile. But in extreme environments they appear in condensed, intense form, and are hence easier to grasp. Every airplane flight is a story, and so is every oceanographic expedition, every space flight, every military mission. Through these stories of specific people and machines we can glean subtle, emerging dynamics. Extreme environments teach us about our near future, when similar technologies might pervade automobiles, health care, education, and other human endeavors. Human-operated, remotely controlled, and autonomou

Product Details

David A. Mindell
Short Title
Robotics and the Myths of Autonomy
Country of Publication
United States
1 Illustrations, unspecified
Publication Date