Richard Seltzer's home page  Publishing home

Flesh and Machines by Rodney A. Brooks

robotics, Pantheon Books  (Hardcover), 2002, 260 pages

reviewed by Deane Rink,

Deane Rink, writer, producer, and project director, is a voracious reader with very eclectic tastes. He sends us short, provocative reviews, introducing us to fascinating books that otherwise might pass unnoticed. He has worked for PBS, National Geographic, the American Museum of Natural History, Hearst Entertainment, and Carl Sagan. From his involvement in numerous projects about science, he has remarkable insight into present-day scientific endeavors and their implications, and in-depth knowledge of specialized fields (like Antarctica from his two "Live from Antarctica" PBS productions. But he also savors provides illuminating commentary on literature, fantasy, biography, and popular fiction. Links to Deane's other reviews. You can reach him at

The author is the director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab and the builder of a few pioneering robots.  He is not an extropian futurist who predicts revolutionary things in the indeterminate future, but instead a cautious prognosticator of the likely developments over the next 20-30 years, as the emergent technologies of robotics and biotechnology follow an intertwined developmental course parallel in scope to that which the computer revolution has already achieved.

His starting point is the central tenet of molecular biology -- all the peculiarities and details of life are comprehensible through the close study of molecular interactions.  Therefore the brain is the functional bio-equivalent of a computer.  If Moore's Law of computer development continues, computers will be a thousand times more powerful in a decade or two, at least.  At some point, they will be better able to do things the brain now does best.  Computers already perform complex tasks, like simultaneously setting prices for many interlocked goods and services, better than the most seasoned, trained human.

As computers accelerate our understandings of robotics and bio-technology, it is likely that your kids, or their kids, will have the following options open to them:

These, and others, are all near-term expectations.

Grand new technologies like these have no respect for age-old traditions and practices.  They upset many cherished myths about the specialness of our proud species.  It should come as no surprise that new ways and means are often reviled and fought against by many.  One reason even the near-term future is perilous to predict is this arch-reactionary tendency to resist
change that has served our species well through its adolescence.  But the pact we have made with technology and science has thus far enabled commoners to live better than kings once did, extended our lifespan, and greatly increased the carrying capacity of our planet, at least for homo sapiens.  It is unlikely that we, as a species, will renounce it.  Instead, we will be
maids of honor and best men for the coming marriage of robotics and biotechnology.

This book is a sober assessment of that union's prospects.

Reviews by Dean Rink

Dialogue on favorite books with Deane Rink before and during his latest trek to Antarctica, with a note from Bill Ransom and a digression about Frank Herbert (a.k.a Bookbabble 101) -- a very long and rapidly growing document:

Book reviews by Richard Seltzer  privacy statement