All of my life, I have been promised that the age of the robot is just around the corner. It seems like one of those things that is always in the immediate future, and always just out of reach, an eternal carrot that we keep moving towards, always one step ahead. Fifty years ago, they figured we would all be living with robots in our homes by now, doing domestic chores, entertaining us, educating us. Our plastic pal whose fun to be with!
"Loving the Machine" again makes this promise, and again I am inclined to believe it. Author Timothy Hornyak plays show and tell, taking you on a guided tour through robotics from the primitive first attempts to the modern marvels of Asimo and the semi-android Replee Q1expo. They really are stunning, and one can almost feel the fire of creativity and inspiration driving modern robotics research. The scientists are building robots out of passion, out of a real sense of discovery rather than commerce, and that is what always drives technology forward. All of the different fields are coming together, mixing software with hardware, sharing breakthroughs and triumphs that far outnumber failures and disappointments.
Ostensibly, "Loving the Machine" is also about Japan's relationship with the robot, and it is. Japan's culture of robots stretches back into its distant past, with the Karakuri automatons that are still wonders of ancient technology, unable to be replicated today. Whereas Western cultures have Superman, Japan has Mighty Atom, the robot superboy. Whereas the US has GI Joe, Japan has the super robots Gundam and Mazinger Z. Japan has nurtured a deep-seated love for the robot, and the whole country holds its collective breath waiting for the first truly intelligent robot to announce its own birthday. However, in attempting to contrast cultures, this is where the book loses its footing. The author makes much of The Terminator and the Replicants from "Blade Runner", stressing the West's fear of technology out of control, but never mentions R2-D2 and C-3PO from "Star Wars", Rosie the Robot Maid from "The Jetsons" Johnny 5 from the films "Short Circuit," Bender from "Futurama," or Isaac Asimov's heartbreaking hero from "The Bicentennial Man" There is not even a mention of how the fearsome Terminator returns for a second movie, this time as the hero saving a young boy. While not on the same level, the West has also long had a love affair with cute, friendly robots who are friends and companions rather than just functional machines.
I've been let down before, but "Loving the Machine" has given me a boost, returning me to the childhood where, when asked to draw a picture of what I thought life would be like in the year 2000, I drew a happy home complete with robot butler and flying car. The flying car may be out of the question, but there is at least still some hope that I might live to see the first truly intelligent robot announce its own birthday. Frankly, I can't wait.