Non-Fiction Reviews

Robotics: A Very Short Introduction

(2012) Alan Winfield, Oxford University Press, 7.99 / US$11.95, pbk, xviii +143pp, ISBN 978-0-199-69598-0


Robots have long been a trope of SF. Because SF often takes scientific understanding and then extends, or extrapolates, it sometimes appears to be loosely predictive. One example is robotics and automated machinery which have featured in many SF stories long before such became embedded in modern technological (mostly developed nation) economies. As Winfield points out, not only is the driverless rail shuttle between many airport terminals robotic, but the milk on developed nation citizen's kitchen tables is more likely than not to have come from cows milked by a robot.

What the electronic engineer Prof Winfield has given us in Robotics: A Very Short Introduction is a concise briefing as to what robots are, the history of their development, and where the technology might take us. Along the way we do get some SFnal references including to Asimov's laws: it seems that not only are there the potential conflicts between the laws Asimov explored (which Winfield skips over), there are problems with the inherent judgements needed to be made within each law.

What this introductory guide is not, is a guide to artificial intelligence though Winfield does touch upon the subject; there is no space in these OUP 'Very Short Introductions' to stray far from the specific title subject. Nonetheless, this is a concentrated read aimed at lay-people that contains much that fascinates. For example, there is an idea of 'The Uncanny Valley' in which as robots become more lifelike the comfort level of their human users increases but then suddenly decreases at a point when there is sufficient similarity to human function to be reasonably mimicked but differences are still discernable. Comfort increases again with further sophistication, to the point where differences are far less discernable.

SF aficionados seeking an easy-to-read short introduction to robotics will find that this small volume does just that. SF writers too are likely to find Robotics: A Very Short Introduction of value. This is aided by a useful end-of-book subject index. Appropriately for us genre types, Winfield concludes on an SFnal note musing about the likelihood as to whether we will ever see an android like Star Trek's Data. He is optimistic.

Jonathan Cowie

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