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(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Robots long have posed intriguing possibilities; fiction presents them as both beneficent servants of humanity and ominous enemies. Robots have taken over unpleasant, dangerous work such as spray-painting automobiles, but they also have displaced human assembly-line workers. Naturally, then, people have mixed feelings about robots. Moravec’s book does little to clear those feelings, but he offers fuel to the arguments of both camps. He sees a robotic future as exciting and full of possibilities, but he also predicts that robots will overthrow the human race. Surprisingly, he does not find this alarming; he believes that humans will see robots as their intellectual and cultural heirs.

Moravec’s speculations rely on the idea that computers can possess intelligence, a point he defends at great length. He outlines the development of human civilization and contrasts it to the much quicker evolution of robotics. He compares human tasks with those of robots and shows how robots are rapidly developing humanlike capabilities. Robots may be able to perform most human tasks by the middle of the twenty-first century, and by the end of that century, Moravec predicts that they will be running the world.

Moravec is on firm ground with his history of robotics; few will argue with his interpretations. The history is valuable in its own right and as background for his speculations. He admits that his projections and speculations rely on avant-garde theories (which he says are “respectable”) chosen for their interesting implications, and much of what he predicts relies on technology that is only theoretically possible. Still, he provides interesting conjectures sure to provoke discussion.

The book concludes with increasingly philosophical exercises, raising questions about the meaning of consciousness and the possibility of life after death. Here Moravec shows himself as a scientist; ideas surrounding the soul (which, if it exists, likely would distinguish humans from machines) receive little treatment, and he sees it as quite easy to draw parallels from information processing to human thought. Moravec likely would agree that the future he presents is only one of many possible futures, an interesting basis for argument and philosophy. It may also prove useful as both scientists and policymakers shape the technological future.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCV, November 1, 1998, p. 456.

The New York Times. January 3, 1999, p. C11.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, October 5, 1998, p. 65.

The Washington Post Book World. XXXVIII, November 8, 1998, p. 9.