Cover of Robots: Machines In Man’s Image
Book 322 Physics 1985
Living in the Future The Edge of Tomorrow
1 spaceship-and-sun
Asimov fan
2 spaceships-and-suns
Target reader

The Three Laws of Robotics:

1. A robot may not injure a human being, or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.

3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Isaac Asimov

The Robotic Age has arrived. Robots have moved off the pages of science-fiction stories and into the real world. Right now, robots are hard at work in factories, laboratories, schools, and homes, performing tasks that range from welding car bodies to serving cocktails. There are robots that can see, robots that can talk, robots that can hear, and robots that can walk. Artificial intelligence researchers are on the brink of inventing robots that will think, too.

Asimov and Frenkel introduce readers to Joseph Engelberger, the founder of Unimation; George Devol, the grandfather of industrial robots; and the many other people who create robots. We see exactly how the Puma robot works, look behind the scenes of the robotics industry (including the totally automated Faunc FMS), and get a glimpse of the future of robots in the work place, in the home, and in the world.

Robots: Machines in Man’s Image is an in-depth up-to-the-minute exploration of robots past, present, and future. Robots have come a long way—from mythical nonhuman beings, like the golem, through automatons and clockwork figures to Rossum’s Universal Robots. The development of computers and their miniaturization eventually turned robots from myth to reality. Today, hundreds of companies, like Unimation, Faunc, Kuka, and Cincinnati Milacron, are revolutionizing factories with their robots, workcells, and flexible manufacturing systems.

Scientists are developing stereoscopic vision systems, locomotion systems, sensing hands, and even artificial intelligence systems that will greatly incrase robots’ capabilities.

Robots, the inevitable marriage of machines and computers, are the future, and Robots: Machines in Man’s Image is the most complete survey of robotics available today. With an authoritative text and state-of-the-art photographs, Robots is a must-read for anyone interested in what the world will be like tomorrow.

Ostensibly, this is a collaboration between Karen Frenkel and Asimov; in practice, Asimov wrote only the first and last chapters, which are a more theoretical discussion of the concept of a robot and Asimov’s role in the development of the idea and a more theoretical discussion of the future of robots, and Frenkel wrote the rest, which is a history of the actual robots in actual use as of the mid-1980’s. Asimov had wanted her to have top billing since his role was so minor, and he was less than pleased when “ISAAC ASIMOV” came first in big letters and “Karen Frenkel” second in little letters.

(One has to agree that this is inherently unfair, but the fact of the matter is that Asimov’s name alone on a book could boost its sales, and the more prominent that name, the more sales would be boosted.)

So does this say anything about Asimov’s robots or ideas on robots which isn’t said elsewhere? No, not really. His contribution to the book is standard Asimov, and can be found elsewhere in books like Asimov on Science or Robot Dreams and Robot Visions.

And does Frenkel’s part of the book tell you much about robots? Well, yes, more or less. Frenkel does a good job covering her material, but in a field such as robotics, the material of more than twenty years ago is inevitably going to be dated today, and that lowers the book’s overall utility to a modern audience.

For example, there’s a big chunk of the book devoted to the toy “home robots” which were a big thing some years ago but which didn’t really go anywhere in the mass market. They didn’t die out altogether, of course, but those of the mid-1980’s near as sophisticated as the toy robots available today either as products or prototypes, such as Honda’s ASIMO. Industrial robots, on the other hand, have continued down the road Frenkel outlines in the book, dominated by Japanese systems as she predicted would be the case.

Moreover, portions of the book which deal with the nuts-and-bolts of how robots work have not (I believe) dated nearly as badly. After all, the personal computers of today work pretty much as their remote ancestors of the 1980’s.

The result is that the book might still be useful to, say, a high school student preparing a report although they would have to be careful to allow for its age. Certainly one should not assume that it’s a thorough examination of the robotic state-of-the-art.

(Meanwhile, my kids are still waiting for a home robot that will do the vacuuming for them…)

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