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How to Catch a Robot Rat: When Biology Inspires Innovation

How to Catch a Robot Rat: When Biology Inspires Innovation

by Agnès Guillot and Jean-Arcady Meyer; translated by Susan Emanuel
The MIT Press, Cambridge, London, USA, UK, 2010
232 pp., illus. 103 col. & b/w. Trade, $29.95
ISBN: 978-0-262-01452-6.

Reviewed by Rob Harle


As this highly informative book shows through numerous examples, it is not quite as easy to catch rats, robotic or otherwise, as it seems. The authors use the concept of the rat metaphorically, as being clever, cunning and a highly intelligent natural entity to show that nature does not give up her “design” secrets easily. Many researchers, especially working in artificial intelligence, have found this out the hard way.

How To Catch a Robot Rat: When Biology Inspires Innovation was first published in 2008 in French as La bionique: Quand la science imite la Nature. This edition published in 2010 has been translated by Susan Emanuel. Even though some of the details are quite scientific, the text flows beautifully and is suitable for the general reader as well as specialists. The book provides a thorough, though brief grounding in the history of technological objects and systems, the current state of research and possible future developments.

The book (which is devoted to the new bionics) has three sections followed by a Conclusion, Bibliography, Notes and Index. There are numerous quality black & white illustrations together with a glossy, colour plate centre section. 

Part 1 – Structures, Processes, Materials describes some of the many technological achievements inspired by natural structures, processes, and materials. The discussion moves effortlessly back and forth through the history of biomimetic inventions from the earliest times to the present.

Part 2 – Behaviors explains, “...one field of research (that is of ancient inspiration but has been prospering for a few years): the concept of autonomous robots inspired by animals and their behavior — what is commonly called “bioinspired robotics” (p. xii).

Part 3 – Hybrids, this section examines work whose goal it is to hybridize natural and artificial systems. It looks at neuroprostheses and endoprostheses. The combination of these systems hopes to help, for example, quadriplegic persons to control machines such as wheel chairs.

This book is literally jam packed with information; there is no long-winded superfluous padding as the book moves along at a rapid pace, similar to that of the current global research in the field of robotics and bionics. The issue of ethics is briefly touched on, more as a caution as to the way we should proceed, rather than an in-depth discussion as to the full development of ethical guidelines.

Although it is certainly not the purpose of this book, the area of ethics research is in need of urgent attention and development so as to keep up with the speed of inventions by companies whose motives are not necessarily or always for the “good of the many”! There have been some tentative moves in producing guidelines for research and, Rights of Robots, by countries such as Japan and Korea. The authors quip about the current debate over same sex marriages becoming insignificant compared to when a human wants to marry a humanoid robot. The humanoid robots Repliee Q2 and the Clone of Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro — both developed by Ishiguro at Osaka University — have silicone skin, multiple sensors, respiratory movement, facial expressions, hand and arm movements and can converse with a human. Ishiguro made his clone so as to occupy his office when he travelled overseas! (p. 136)

The authors, Guillot and Meyer, not only discuss metaphoric rats but also have developed a real robotic rat Psikharpax in their own laboratories. They are attempting to answer a question neurobiologists have not yet been able to answer which concerns the exact mechanisms (of a neuronal nature) that enable the selection by rodents of different navigational strategies. (p. 124) As a whimsical aside, and because we are trying to catch rats, it is interesting that many laboratories use rats for research and the spelling encodes this — labo_rat_ories!

One of this book's greatest virtues is the balanced approach taken by the authors. Rather than “values” laden commentary, the approach is more objective reporting, leaving it to the reader to judge the many complex issues this research raises. As such the book will be useful as a comprehensive introduction to bio-robotics for students, the general public and perhaps those scholars in the humanities dealing with ethics, law and public health.

Last Updated 2 November 2010

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