Robots: Facts Behind the Fiction by Michael Chester; Macmillan; New York.

An associate, a PR representative for a leading manufacturer of industrial robots, did what fathers are want to do when their children come home from school with projects, in this case for a science fair: he gave his daughter some assistance. Given his vocational interest, he suggested that they build a mock-up of an industrial robot. They made use of the swiveling base of an old bar stool for the base of the robot, attached an ordinary cardboard packing box to act as the”body,” then used an empty wrapping paper tube for the arm. The result resembled a crude cannon more than R2D2. The piece de resistance to the fourth-grade affair was the rolling caster from a secretarial chair. It was placed at the end of the tube, where the “hand” would be located. Thus, the contraption could swivel 360° on its base and it had axes of motion where, as it’s known in robot jargon, its “end effector,” or tool, would be affixed. The rather gained tears for his efforts, the little girl came home from school, snivelling, and choked out the message that her teacher told her that it wasn’t a robot because it didn’t look like (yes) R2D2. In facilities not far, far away but as near as the closest industrial park, there are real, live robots whirring and whooshing and working. They resemble cannons and praying mantises and prostheses. The anthropomorphic ones are, by and large, confined to those buildings known as toy stores.

Robots by Michael Chester is, according to the publisher, supposed to be for humans from ages 10 to 14. That is somewhat deceptive. When it comes to matters concerning high technology—whether it be as associated with sophisticated weapons systems or run-of-the-mill (in the Blakean sense of mill) robots there are vast numbers of persons who have mental ages in that range: the elementary school teacher, for one. (The image of what she told her class the day after The Day After aired on TV makes my flesh crawl: “According to our leading scientists, the consequences of a nuclear attack would be …”) Mr. Chester’s approach is correct: he attempts to provide a primer for those who will inherit a world rife with automation. However, he doesn’t seem to have done his homework, for he gives a great deal of attention to what are relatively insignificant products in the real world and scant notice to the computerized muscles that are now making a difference. Remarkably, in this book of Facts Behind the Fiction, he doesn’t even mention the Henry Ford of robots, Joseph F. Engelberger (the purists call George Devol the real father of the industrial robot, but he’s missing, too). What’s more, he asserts that the “creative and playful urge just to see what can be done has always been one of the main forces—perhaps the single most important force behind progress in science and engineering,” which reduces the scientific and engineering community to a bunch of dotty old tinkerers who play at Pinocchio—and from there it’s one step to R2D2. However, some portions of his book—the “Twenty-One Statement List on Computer Technology,” in particular—are valuable. Adolescents have been known to sneak a peek at taboo reading material on magazine racks; perhaps some adults will take a cue and make some furtive glances in the juvenile section of book shops.