Book Review: Digital People: From Bionic Humans to Androids by Sidney Perkowitz

Are you interested cognitive science? Physics? Artificial intelligence? How about biology or the philosophy of being human? Maybe literature or film? If any of these topics interest you, you’ll enjoy Digital People: From Bionic Humans to Androids
by Sidney Perkowitz
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This quick (about 200 pages), well written book explores our fascination with immortality through the creation of machine versions of ourselves.

The book starts out with a look at artificial beings in literature and film, beginning with the story of Pygmalion, the sculptor, falling in love with his beautiful ivory statue and Aphrodite bringing it to life for him, and following with numerous examples including Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the Asimov robot stories. Perkowitz discusses early films such as Metropolis and R.U.R as well as modern films such as Blade Runner and Robocop. And all the while he is not writing reviews or plot summaries, but instead is exploring the underlying philosophy of man’s desire (or obsession) to create a new humanity.

I was surprised to learn how long scientists and engineers have been working on creating artificial life. Perkowitz describes The Automaton Theater way back in the first century (yes, the FIRST century), as well as the Swiss man-machines of the 1700’s.

The second half of the book reports on the breakthroughs in artificial intelligence and robotics in the late 20th century through today. The research in mechanics, behavioral science, programming and cognition are just part of the picture. The book offers a look at what’s going on at MIT and also the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry.

What is an adroid? What is a cyborg? How do they differ and in what direction is this all heading? How close are we to actually creating artificial life?

This book is fascinating. It’s thorough without being cumbersome. It’s a great resource for finding titles for further reading and/or viewing. And it stimulates thought on what it means to be human. This is a book I will read more than once.