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ANYTHING WE CAN DO THEY CAN DO BETTER

By Noel Perrin
Sunday, October 23, 1988 ; Page X08

MIND CHILDREN
The Future of Robot and
Human Intelligence

By Hans Moravec
Harvard University Press. 214 pp. $18.95

INSIDE THE ROBOT KINGDOM
Japan, Mechatronics, and the
Coming Robotopia

By Frederik L. Schodt
Kodansha International. 256 pp. $19.95

WHAT ARE the big changes that Americans discuss in 1988? Well, the most short-term among us talk about the coming elections, and the big political changes that the end of the Reagan era may bring. Others, with a longer or at least a different perspective, discuss the greenhouse effect and holes in the ozone layer, and the big environmental changes that may be coming. Still others ponder the evolving relations between the two sexes and the 20 or 30 ethnic groups that inhabit America, and they talk about social change.

Almost no one talks about robots -- except maybe as something funny from a movie. And yet robots and the technological changes they will bring with them are likely to affect our future more than politics, sociology, and environmentalism combined.

Two new books illustrate, in very different ways, the vastness of the coming change. One is by a scientist, Dr. Hans Moravec of Carnegie Mellon University. His book, Mind Children: The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence, is downright sensational. In fact, I would guess it to be the most lurid book ever published by Harvard University Press.

Here is what Moravec believes. First, robots will soon be able to do everything human beings do, only better. ("Soon" to a scientist doesn't mean next week. He's talking about within 50 years.) Second, that they will go on to do many things we can't do. Third, that they will take over first Earth and then the universe. "We humans will benefit for a time from their {robots'} labors, but sooner or later, like natural children, they will seek their own fortunes while we, their aged parents, silently fade away."

Fourth, that only sentimental fools will try to resist this change, since the robots will be so self-evidently superior. And fifth, that we couldn't resist anyway. Even genetic engineering, even if we were prepared to try it on the whole race, would get us nowhere. "A genetically engineered superhuman would be just a second-rate kind of robot."

Since none of these things has happened yet, it may seem easy to dismiss Moravec as yet another mad scientist. (It is certainly easy to dismiss his prose style as too technical and meandering for a lay audience, even though he's doing his best to write for one.)

That's where the other book comes in. Frederik Schodt is a Japanese-speaking journalist who specializes in business affairs. No wild-eyed science here. Inside the Robot Kingdom is mainly a sober account of Japanese robots as they exist in 1988. Schodt wouldn't dream of picturing robots in spaceships taking over the universe; his concern is their effect on business profitability right now. And the striking thing is that he nevertheless supports Moravec's position and notably the claim that robots are gaining fast on every human ability.

Consider some of the events occurring in Japan right now. There are factories like Fanuc and Star Micronics, where robots can and do work completely free of human supervision. "We used to have somebody here monitoring the place at night," says a Fanuc manager, "but now we just let it run by itself, unmanned."

Japanese robots have also moved out of the factory and onto building sites. They do not yet make good carpenters, but they're great with concrete. The Kajima Corporation has just built one "that can do the work of three plasterers with higher accuracy and quality."

That doesn't mean there won't be human plasterers for years to come. But as miniaturization continues, there will be many kinds of work that only robots can do. Why? Because, as Schodt puts it, humans are "walking filth factories, constantly spewing out hair, particles of skin, and moisture wherever they move, thus contaminating the manufacturing process." But robots spew out no dandruff or moisture or skin flakes, and they are in the process of replacing people in, for example, the manufacture of semiconductors. In terms of accuracy, never mind pay, "human workers simply cannot compete with robots," says Hajime Karatsu, one of the top quality control experts in Japan.

It is a far cry, of course, from robot plasterers under human supervision to robots that rule the universe and don't even find the remaining humans worth supervising. Are you skeptical? Be that. But remember also one of Moravec's historical facts. Over the past 40 years the power of computers has increased by a factor of one million, while the power of human beings has remained constant. A computer, of course, is a robot's brain. When the next millionfold increase has occurred, skepticism may come a little harder.

Noel Perrin wrote the entry "Human Impacts" in the new "Encyclopedia of Robotics." He teaches at Dartmouth College.

© Copyright 1988 The Washington Post Company

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