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The Tea Master and the Detective: Marsupial Wearable Robots Help Out a Vietnamese Sherlock Holmes

Recommendation: Don’t wait for small robots to fetch this novella, get it yourself and immerse yourself in a very different version of Sherlock

The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard is a Hugo and Nebula nominee for best novella. It’s a thoughtful, delightful story, that cries out for a series. It is a mystery with a detective, Long Chau, brilliant and abrasive in the vein of Sherlock Holmes and a mindship, The Shadow’s Child, taking the role of Watson in directions IBM’s Watson (named after the IBM director, not the Conan Doyle character) in a different direction. The two investigate a corpse found in space and trace it back to a consortium of workers on a space orbitals, with each step in the investigation a subtle exercise in world building. The reader is gracefully immersed in the Vietnamese space culture that de Bodard has set other wonderful works including her evocative On a Red Station, Drifting. The novella flows so smoothly that it is easy to miss that all the characters, including the mindship, are female. The story is engaging and complete - there are no cliffhangers, yet the characters are so unique and compelling that the first thought is “when is the next one in the series?” Sadly, de Bodard on Goodreads says she has no definite plans at this time to write another.

From an AI and robotics perspective, the obvious point of discussion would be The Shadow’s Child, the traumatized mindship whose intelligence stems from a human biological brain implanted at birth shades of Annalee Newlitz’ Autonomous (see RTSF review here). But The Tea Master and the Detective is replete with teleoperated bots of all sizes. There are little legged bots who inhabit the cuffs of the sleeves of one’s robes or hide in plain sight as links in an exotic necklace.

What makes these personal bots so fascinating is that they are mobile, coming out to touch the skin, to see or sense corners of rooms, or to handle objects. There are implications that they are controlled through a brain-computer interface that introduces cognitive fatigue, mitigated in part by the teas prepared by a tea master who tailors the tea to individual tasks and needs. The bots serve as wearable sensors, including a regimen of pinpricking for blood sampling and drug administration that Theranos, the scandalous Silicon Valley startup, was touting.

There is really nothing like these bots in the research community. Wearable robots in robotics are not mobile, the term “wearable robots” refers to exoskeletons or rehabilitative robots. These wearable robots are more like marsupial robots, a type of multi-robot system, where small robots, like kangaroo joeys, ride on the mother robot and then climb out or fly off. Several researchers, including myself, have worked on marsupial robots, (I actually have a seminal work on the marsupial concept in the book Robot Teams: From Diversity to Polymorphism), The joeys can go off on their own or they can serve as assistants to the mother- as distributed cameras or effectors or as wireless relays to be either beacons or breadcrumbs.

Marsupial combinations are now being sold as part of bomb squad robot packages, where the small robot drops off and provides a helpful external camera view of whatever task the larger, mother robot is trying to perform. You can see why if you look at footage of robots being used at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident. Notice that there are two robots, one that is doing the job and the other filming it. That second one really isn’t filming it so much as providing the operator with a second, external view. In opening a door, the second view compensates for the problems in generating depth perception and the lack of tactile sensing that helps us grasp a handle.

Marsupials come in all combinations: ground robots or marine vehicles carrying aerial vehicles that pop up and look around, drones carrying smaller drones or dropping off ground robots, and so on. The joeys can go off and do their own thing or hang out and assist the mother. If the joeys are being used to help the mother robot, a big challenge isn’t building the robots, that’s relatively easy, but rather presenting the sensor feeds from the multiple robots to make sense, to be comprehensible, to the operator (or to the autonomous mother robot) trying to use that external view to perform a task. Another big challenge is that it is easy to for the joeys to get off of Mom but not so easy to get back on - the little robots have to find Mom and precisely dock.

The robot necklace is also fascinating. There is an emerging cultural movement towards smart and stylish jewelry, starting with Apple's iWatch (sorry a Fitbit just isn’t a fashion statement), and now includes necklaces, bracelets, and rings. Check out for a list of smart jewelry and think about what you could do with tasteful, mobile wearable minions.

The Tea Master and the Detective concentrates on plot and character development, ignoring any details about the bots, sensing, power, control, yet the bots just seem right. Indeed the entire novella just seems right, a universe that is both familiar and different, consistent yet exotic, laden with technology yet still about people. So don’t wait for small robots to hop out of your pockets to fetch this novella, get it yourself and immerse yourself in a very different version of Sherlock in a fascinating future.

- Robin

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