Recommendations for Serious Robotics Science Book Gifts

For the holiday gift giving season, here are six non-fiction books that could make a budding roboticist or a person just interested in science happy! These six books avoid the hype of blah-blah-blah Singularity, Strong AI will destroy the world, I am not a roboticist but I’m an expert because…, etc. and instead provide a solid basis on the reality of intelligent robots- what they can really do and how they really work and are programmed. Two of the books may seem too old to be of value- after all the robotics field is changing so fast and new robots are being demonstrated every week, right? Well, in that case, I guess we shouldn’t read Watson’s account of how he and Crick discovered DNA in The Double Helix (1969) or Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (1988). Seriously, the foundations of AI for robotics are the foundations that current systems build upon (or ignore at their own risk) and foundations don’t change. Don’t forget about the RTSF Top 10 Recommendations for robot science fiction coming later this week!

Robotics Through Science Fiction: Artificial Intelligence Explained Through Six Classic Robot Stories (2018) by Robin R. Murphy (yes, me). Audience: Junior High STEM students and STEM teachers through Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis fans who like scifi. The book uses six stories to illustrate the six major building blocks of an artificial intelligent robot. I originally intended it to be a companion to my college textbook Introduction to AI Robotics but it is now a stand-alone volume with material and figures from the textbook integrated and rephrased for more general readers.

Hallo Robot (2018) and Robotics for Future Presidents (2016) by Bernie Mols. Audience: anyone. Mols is a journalist who now works with TU Delft, one of the European universities that is a world leader in the thoughtful research and development of robots. Mols has a thoughtful, but generally optimistic view of robots. In Hallo Robot, Mols describes robot applications that could transform our lives in wonderful ways. In Robotics for Future Presidents, Mols looks at the range and implications of robotics via interviews with top roboticists. I was one of the interviewees and was very pleasantly surprised by the content and depth of his questions, so it was no surprise that his books capture the field without dumbing it down to something technically meaningless.

How to Survive a Robot Uprising (2005) by Daniel H. Wilson. Audience: Junior High STEM students through aging sci-fi fans. A tongue in cheek look at the real science of robotics framed as advice for a human stuck in the robot apocalypse. Wilson has a PhD in robotics from Carnegie Mellon, so he knows what he’s talking about. Most of the science still reflects the state of the practice, as the only big changes since the book came out have been improved biped leg control (which can be thwarted because it isn’t coupled to any deliberative intelligence) and advances in pattern recognition (but neural network algorithms can be thwarted with a patch). This is still one of my favorite gifts because it is both technically correct AND fun, even though it is over 10 years old.

Flesh and Machines (2002) by Rod Brooks. Audience: Junior high STEM students, STEM teachers, through Malcolm Gladwell and Michael Lewis fans. Part primer on behavioral robotics and part autobiography of one the true leaders in artificial intelligence for robots. It is written for a general audience, suitable for an advanced junior high student who loves science or for people who are smart but not necessarily an engineer. You should be warned that along the way, you will discover that Brooks has invented pretty much everything except maybe fire and electricity. Focus on the how robots work and you’ll walk away with a very solid understanding of how robots really work. It is actually a better and coherent book for introductory programmers than Brooks’ Cambrian Intelligence, which is a compendium of often obtuse papers. But you should be aware of the rest of the field and other important contributions which are captured in The Springer Handbook of Robotics (2016).

The Springer Handbook of Robotics (2016), second edition. Audience: Advanced STEM high school and college students or engineers and computer scientists. A true encyclopedia of robotics written by top roboticists. Very expensive (close to $300), very comprehensive, and very useful. I turn to my copy almost every week. If you knew a truly talented robot-mad budding scientist, this could be a huge influence on their career as it distills the experience of close to 200 hundred internationally acclaimed roboticists (including me, full disclosure). Taking a course from Coursera gets you one roboticist’s viewpoint, who often ignores others. The handbook exposes the reader to a much wider variety of issues and approaches. The reader does need to have a strong science background even though the material is at a tutorial level.

- Robin

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