Review: "Robots Unlimited: Life in a Virtual Age" by David Levy

Matt Barton's picture

David Levy's book Robots Unlimited: Life in a Virtual Age is a great introduction not only to robots, but also the various technologies that must work together in their creation: logic, artificial intelligence (AI), speech synthesis, natural language processing, sensory recognition, personality training, emotion--does it ever end? Although most people assume that we're centuries away from the invention of an intelligent, human-like android like "Data," Levy shows just how close we've gotten and just how soon we'll be interacting with amazingly smart robots on a daily basis. Robots will enhance our lives in countless ways; they'll not only help us in our daily tasks, but also become our friends and even our soul mates. They'll talk to us and show a sensitivity to our emotional states that not even our mothers could match. Furthermore, they'll be wonderful inventors and artists, breathing new life into every field of creative endeavor. Sound like science fiction? Levy shows that the only "fiction" is that robots won't play a vital role in the (near) future of the human race. David Levy will make you a believer.

I have seldom met anyone who was truly interested in computers and videogames who wasn't also fascinated by robots. Indeed, robots have at times fared better in the marketplace than game consoles, and Nintendo found it necessary to include an adorable robot named R.O.B. with its original NES--otherwise, retailers would have dismissed the unit as merely another "game machine" and refused to market it (you'll remember that this was in the midst of the Great Videogame Crash.) Some of us watch movies like Blade Runner and Cherry 2000, not with a sense of foreboding, but rather of eagerness--when will we be able to purchase an android capable of, if not loving us, at least fooling us 99% of the time? Even though Hollywood generally goes for the "easy draw," hyping up fears of any kind of technological change (note movies like The Terminator and Minority Report), authors since Isaac Asimov have painted a different picture. There will certainly be evil and destructive robots, but is that any reason to ignore the benefits that good robots will bring to our society? Levy's book provides an outstanding overview of these issues and many more. In short, if you're interested in robots, you'll find this book irresistible.

Levy begins with a brief history of "logic machines," computers, game machines, and robots. Ever heard of William Gray Walter's Robotic Tortoises? What about Konrad Zuse and the first computer? Levy shows how early and seemingly disparate inventions, like automated systems for playing tic-tac-toe and chess end games, played a role in the development of modern robotics. Not surprisingly, learning why computers play checkers well and go poorly leads to insights about the (current) limitations of artificial intelligence. Scientists are routinely gaining new insights into how to make computers smarter, specifically in how they can learn from their mistakes and ingest the huge repositories of information being added to daily courtesy of the Internet. Pretty soon, computers armed with "expert systems," "genetic programming," and smart "data mining" techniques will be not only answering our questions, but also planning their own evolution. Furthermore, they'll interact with us directly as technologies grant robots better senses. Will a robot be able to taste coffee? They already can! But can a robot smell? You betcha. Although robots will taste, smell, feel, see, and hear differently than humans, it hardly follows that humans will have any more "authentic" or reliable sensations than our robotic brethren.

And that's one of Levy's main points--yes, computers will think, feel, and experience life differently than human beings, but not less authentically. Our robots will not only learn to solve our algebra problems but also help us with our love life, and the time will come when humans will even marry robots. Robots will have distinct personalities, and will be allowed to choose between good and evil--just like humans.

I can't think of a single issue concerning robots that Levy doesn't cover somewhere in his book. We've all heard about Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics. Levy takes the subject much deeper, exploring questions like whether robots will be religious, and the theological issue of whether they can go to heaven or hell. Sound outlandish? Perhaps. But it's these kinds of questions and depths of inquiry that inspire the speculative mind.

If there is one fault to the book, it's simply that Levy covers so much ground, that the end result is by necessity a bit disjointed and disorienting at times. I sometimes read a small section only to have it whet my appetite for more information. Some of the logical and mathematical discussion went over my head. Still, while it's intensely researched and full of facts, Robots Unlimited manages to stay interesting and readable throughout, never slipping into that turgid "academic" writing that makes you yearn for a quick death. I highly recommend this book to all my friends here interested in robots and the history of computers, particularly because Levy links so much of his narrative to computer games. In short, this is a book about the future that you'll want to read before it becomes a look back at the past! Pick up the book here or at your favorite bookstore.