BOOK REVIEW / Formication in the new world: Out of control: The New Biology of Machines by Kevin Kelly - Fourth Estate pounds 16.99

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The Independent Culture
KEVIN KELLY wrote the preface to Out of Control while he was living in the closed system of the Biosphere 2 project in Arizona. Instead of isolating him from the world, as Biosphere was meant to do to its inmates, the experience appears to have freed him, or at least freed his mind - stimulating him to distil everything he has learnt over the years as editor of Whole Earth Review and Wired into a single volume.

And what a book. Out of Control is a spirited concoction of factual research, dry theorising and funny human anecdotes about the way our world is organised. Titbits of information, covering everything from computers to government, litter the page like McNuggets. Yet the overall effect is as clear and revelatory about the world of machines as Jared Diamond's The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee was about the history of man.

Kelly's view, basically, is that people and machines are growing closer. It's been said before. But no one, until now, has explained so clearly why we have been making machines all wrong. And why, only by extracting the logical principles of life and installing them into machines, can we have machines that will work with us, as well as for us, and thus manage our increasingly complex world. 'The realm of the born and the realm of the made is becoming one,' he says.

Quite how is easier to illustrate with a small example than by drawing generalisations from the book. Take Ambler. In December 1990, after a decade of effort, graduate students at Carnegie Mellon University's Field Robotics Center put together a robot that slowly walked across a courtyard. Real, free-ranging, self-navigating and auto-powered, Ambler was funded to explore distant planets. It was 19 feet tall and weighed two tons, not counting its brain, which was so heavy it sat on the ground. The problem was that Ambler spent less time walking than worrying about getting the layout of the yard right. Ambler creates in its mind a representation of its environment and then navigates from that symbolic chart, which is updated after each step. A thousand-line software programme in the central computer manages its laser vision, sensors, pneumatic legs, gears and motors. Despite its bulk, this poor robot is living in its head, a head that is only connected to its body by a long cable.

Contrast that to a tiny, live ant just under one of Ambler's big padded feet. It crosses the courtyard twice during Ambler's single trip. An ant weighs, brain and body, one hundredth of a gram - a pinpoint. It has no image of the courtyard, yet it zips across without incident. Ambler was built huge and rugged to withstand the extreme conditions on Mars. But because of its bulk it will never make it to Mars, whereas robots that are more like ants may well be able to do so.

The ant-like robot is the idea of Rodney Brooks, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Brooks wants to flood the world with inexpensive, small, ubiquitous, semi- thinking things that will be less like R2D2s, serving us beers, and more like an ecology of unnamed 'things' just out of sight. One student in his lab built a cheap, bunny-sized robot that watches you in a room and calibrates your stereo so that it is perfectly adjusted as you move around. Another could live in the corner of your living room or under the sofa. It wanders round vacuuming at random whenever you're not at home. A similar but very tiny insect- like robot lives in one corner of your TV screen and eats off the dust when the set isn't on.

The important thing is that the 'mobot' is more like an ant than a robot. Kelly's message is simple, but his ideas are complex and his arguments persuasive. You finish the book feeling quite impatient with all those people who are stuck in the 20th century.