Book Review: Robotics: A Very Short Introduction by Alan Winfield

As readers of this blog may have twigged, I’m rather fond of the Very Short Introduction (VSI) series that Oxford University Press publish. This was one of the more recent editions that I just happened to pick up when I was browsing around a bookshop a few months ago. I was also conscious that I’ve not read that many science books this year. So the time was right to get stuck into this.

Unlike the last VSI book I read, I had very little prior knowledge of robotics. It’s always seemed to me a more ‘hands-on’ science where I’m much more at home with theory. The book, though, doesn’t require you to build your own robot. For that, I was quite grateful.

Instead, Winfield starts us off as simply as he can, by defining what a robot is. He gives a few different definitions, as one simply will not suffice, and then expands a little on these. From here, he goes on to show the reader some different examples of robots in use now, highlighting the differences between them. For example, car production line machines, cow milking machines, hospital dispensing robots, drone aircraft and the Mars rover.

A table of classification is then built up, so that we can better understand each different type of robot. They are classed according to their mobility, their means of control, their shape/morphology, their interactivity with humans, their ability to learn and their ultimate purpose. All this takes up the first two chapters of the book and are very easy to follow. Winfield doesn’t assume very much of his readers, for which I, as a total novice to the field, am very grateful.

From here, he goes on to look at what he dubs ‘biological robotics’ where robots are designed to mimic either human or animal behaviour or functions to greater levels of mimicry, including a fascinating example of a robot that has something resembling a digestive system – something I had never come across before. This line of thought is then narrowed and explored further by looking at humanoid robots and androids; the former being defined as those which have some features which imitate humans (such as being bipedal, or having facial expressions) whereas the latter are those which attempt to resemble and act as humans in every way (think Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation or the replicants from Blade Runner). This naturally brings the author to the question of ethics, for which he gives the reader a primer, but which is not explored in any great detail. Allusion to Asmiov’s laws of robotics would seem to be mandatory for any author in this area, and Winfield duly obliges us by doing so.

He looks at what is referred to as “swarm robotics” whereby numerous small robots join forces for a larger purpose. I must confess that at this point my understanding was stretched. The rapidity with which Winfield tries to cover the breadth of his subject left me behind a little. That’s not to say it is poorly written, it most certainly isn’t. I just possibly didn’t read slow enough to digest fully what was said in one section before moving onto another which built upon it.

Naturally enough, the book finishes with a look towards the future. Only time will tell how close or how far off it is. Though tracing the development of robotics will not go out of date, the potential future may well look quite misguided in 50 years’ time. But for now, I think the book fully meets its remit to be a very short introduction. As ever, there is a bibliography for further reading as well as a few online resources.

Anyone who is vaguely interested in learning a little about robotics should find this a valuable little book. For those who work in the field, I doubt there will be much new here, but it is pleasantly delightful nonetheless.

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