David Mindell Asks “What Does Autonomy Mean?” in ‘Our Robots, Ourselves’


Our Robots, Ourselves by David A MindellIn Our Robots, Ourselves by David A. Mindell, who has himself been part of the creation of a number of robotic systems, examines robots and the concept of the autonomous machine. He pays close attention to the social aspects. Looking at robotic systems that function in diverse environments, from exploring the sea and outer space to being used in warfare, he argues that the more sophisticated robotics are not those that function autonomously but those that extend human reach and capabilities, those where human and machine work together.

He writes that the question behind these machines should not be one of “manned vs. unmanned nor human controlled vs. autonomous” but “Where are the people? Which people are they? What are they doing? When are they doing it?” Following through in chapters on sea, air, space, and war, Mindell shows that there are always people involved. They are there at the beginning, during programming, but often they are involved, sometimes in great numbers, all through the “autonomous” machine’s work. “Unmanned” drones, for example, are part of a very large team—not just the pilots and sensor operators back on base, but the team who launches and maintains the drone, and everyone viewing the feed and making decisions.

Each time Mindell writes about a development in robotics, he looks behind the scenes and shows what is happening at each point in the machine’s operation and how people are involved. He writes not just of the ways people are involved but of the ways they respond to the changes in function, and the ways the machinery is changed in response. In Mindell’s examples, the more sophisticated autonomous equipment is that which has been modified to let people back into the loop—to extend rather than replace what people are doing.

Mindell writes as an expert in the field, but largely manages to avoid lapsing into phrases and terms that only others in the field would understand. The non-expert may have to pay close attention, but will be able to follow the book’s arguments and understand the details of the processes and robotics involved in each chapter.

Our Robots, Ourselves is a deep, knowledgeable look at the question of robotics and what it means in our world. It is recommended to anyone curious about the increasing focus on autonomous machinery and wondering where that leaves people.

Our Robots, Ourselves Robotics and the Myths of Autonomy comes out October 13, 2015. Look for it on Amazon.


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