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Robot Futures

Robot Futures by Illah Reza Nourbakhsh. MIT Press, 2013, 160 pp.

Dr. Illah Reza Nourbakhsh, a professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University and the coauthor of Introduction to Autonomous Mobile Robots, also directs the Community Robotics, Education, and Technology Empowerment (CREATE) Lab. His book Robot Futures offers a compelling look at the likely developmental path for the robotics field and its implications for society. Nourbakhsh has produced a work relevant to individuals who focus on air and space issues, doing so by first breaking down stereotypical views of what robotics encompasses and creating an intellectual bridge for readers at all levels through the use of creative fictional scenarios that have easy parallel applications to military efforts.

Perhaps one of the most powerful aspects of Robot Futures is its opening of the aperture of what most people today would recognize as a robot. Examples might include simple systems that vacuum carpet or assemble cars in factories. However, Nourbakhsh broadens this scope to include systems and subsystems that are denizens of both the physical and virtual world. Smartphones of ever increasing power and sophistication, for example, can sense our activities and tap into the Internet to provide us with useful and needed information (p. xv). Further, the concept of “interaction tuning” extends the data-mining capabilities of web pages to all interactions with a company and individuals in the real world, allowing for complex experimentation on what works best to increase revenue (p. 9). These creations will become increasingly able to survey and interact in the physical world while simultaneously tapping the deep knowledge base of the Internet to best determine a course of action at perhaps a great advantage over the abilities of mere mortals. The implications of this progression are broad and perhaps disruptive, as exemplified by the author’s examination of advertising and the manipulation of human desire and public opinion. Similarly significant are the potentially chaotic effects that might arise following the mass proliferation of these systems. Finally, he considers the unfolding struggle to create an ethical structure for these more-than-machine constructs and the enfolding of this technology into human physiology for enhancement or even control. The examples are both strong and illustrative of the possible implications of this technology.

Nourbakhsh does a remarkable job of building instances of technological concepts that are an extension of cutting-edge doctoral work by creating a framework which anyone can understand through his use of fanciful accounts at the beginning of chapters. These renditions, providing a recognizable construct in which to place the follow-on discussion of the technology and making it accessible to all readers, are perhaps the real strength of the book. Readers can not only grasp the concepts presented but also, by extension, correlate them in multiple areas of application. People conversant with the air and space domains are already familiar with what robotics has brought to the field of remotely piloted aircraft and space systems. But the author’s examples expand the possibilities even further. Examinations of robotic marketing systems that can sense and respond to their environment have obvious ties to security systems, public affairs, and psychological operations. Nanobots that can interact with and manipulate the human body have direct connections to enhancing capability and survivability of the individual Soldier, Sailor, Airman, or Marine, a prospect that also leads the reader to obvious ethical considerations.

Nourbakhsh concludes by examining the ethical aspects of robotic technology and how it should be approached. More specifically, current research and funding provide more capability and power to institutions at the expense of societal concerns (p. 110). We must purposely drive this balance back in favor of societal needs if we wish to see the full benefit of this emergent technology. Although this line of discussion is obviously important, given the implications suggested by the examples, it still seems a bit out of place—for two possible reasons. First, the author’s rich examples and technical discussion draw the reader into intuitively considering the ethical implications of the technology. Therefore, having a separate discussion or chapter on the subject almost strikes the reader as redundant. Second, Nourbakhsh effectively addresses the issue in the fictional accounts, making an additional chapter dedicated to the ethical construct seem somewhat unnecessary. In the end, though, one can understand why he felt compelled to include this discussion so that readers arrive at a common conclusion.

Any student of air and space power will find Robot Futures an outstanding piece of work. A leader in the field, the author is perfectly positioned to observe the glide path for this technology. All readers, regardless of their familiarity with the subject, will easily grasp this rich, well-supported material. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Nourbakhsh’s broad forecasting allows individuals from multiple communities of interest to apply the information presented.

Lt Col Thomas P. Allison, USAF
US Air Force Academy, Colorado

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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