Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Non-Fiction: Darwin’s Devices by John Long

Robotics viewed through a biologist’s lens, that’s a bit of what Darwin’s Devices: What Evolving Robots Can Tell Us About the History of Life and the Future of Technology (Basic Books) boils down to. But with scientific precision from a professor/author with a poet’s soul. It’s intensely exciting stuff.

Long is a professor of biology and cognitive science at Vassar where he has famously used his robots Madeleine and the Tadros to both test and teach evolutionary theory.

When you surf along with the author’s engaged and engaging voice, it becomes very obvious that his topic is not rocket science. That is, it’s a new and evolving field, one that he’s championing and one that has been powerful in his own work.

What Long does is create an environment where his models and robots can evolve. Which is not nearly as odd as it sounds. The robots compete against each other for food and other basic survival needs and their responses provide important clues to the evolution of extinct species.

Long shares his disappointments as well as his triumphs and he does so in a lucid and sometimes even humorous way. We come away from Darwin’s Devices with the idea that, whatever work Long is doing here, it’s deeply interesting and even important stuff. I suspect that this will not be the final work on this topic, but Long lays the groundwork for a future filled with discovery and adventure. ◊

Jones Atwater is a contributing editor to January Magazine.

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