Beyond Human : An Exploration of the Human Future of Robotics, Long on Sci-Fi but Short on Sci-Fact

I recently reviewed Almost Human, a book that followed the Carnegie Mellon robotics department's frequent frustration with building robots in the present day. Gregory Benford and Elisabeth Malartre's Beyond Human: Living with Robots and Cyborgs muses about the future, quoting futurists and science fiction and reasoning through thought experiments. But they don't ever explain exactly how we'll bridge the gap between the current state of "almost human" to the imagined state of "beyond human." It's a fun, breezy read, but because it's so heavily reliant on quoting the work of fiction writers to evoke our possible future, it's hard to take it seriously. The authors offer an interesting window into some of the technology in development, which is all vastly more elegant than the bug-riddled clunkers in "Almost Human" -- and, as a result, awfully hard to believe any of it will be in working order any time soon. Then again, considering how far the internet has come in just the past 15 years, perhaps anything is possible.

The book is split into three sections: human enhancements (possibly making us "cyborgs"), the future of robots (most of whom won't resemble humans), and the implications for society of having all of us and everything a little bit wired. Each section is split between technology currently in development and speculation about what might come next, with frequent references to science fiction (including extensive quotes from Benford's own science fiction, which is pretty pedestrian). The human enhancements section is the most grounded: they're basically high-tech eyeglasses and hearing aids, able to restore sensation to above-normal capacities. Future eye- and ear-wear may open up parts of the visual and audial spectrum that humans can't perceive, like infrared light and the sound that dog whistles make. Or not. The book tends to be long on speculation and quotes from science fiction, and short on much new information about what's coming next. The human technology involves wearable computers and prostheses to replace missing limbs, rather than bionic grafts or implants -- despite a number of references to the Six Million Dollar Man, the authors don't expect us to replace the rest of our body with metal any time soon. The sections on robots and our wired future are still more speculative.

The authors have serious scientific credentials -- Benford teaches physics at University of California Irvine, and Malartre, his wife, is an environmentalist and biologist. (For some reason, he writes under his real name and his wife writes under a pseudonym, so it's hard to track down her real work.) But this book is lightweight. It's fun to read, but there isn't a whole lot of solid science between its pages. Call it a robotic summer read.

Rating: 65

Crossposted on Remingtonstein.