Our Robots, Ourselves

Contemporary Science Issues and Innovations
February 10, 2016 Belmont Media Center, Belmont MA

David A. Mindell, Ph.D., Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics; and Dibner Professor of the History of Engineering and Manufacturing, Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Author, Our Robots, Ourselves and other books on robotics.

Dr. Mindell's comprehensive research reflects his unusually broad academic background in both engineering and the humanities. His technical work includes theories of engineering systems as well as pioneering technical innovations in engineering and deep ocean robotic archaeology. He has combined his many engineering achievements with historical analyses: the history of engineering, the history of automation in the military, the history of electronics and computing, and the history of space exploration.

Dr. Mindell discusses our relationship with robots. How independent are robots at this time, and how autonomous can they be in the future? He explains the complementary relationship between humans and robots used for space exploration, deep-sea research, aeronautics, the military. Conclusion: the real "brain" is human, not robotic, and most robotic functions are human-controlled --for example, in the gathering of deep-sea data and Mars exploration. His recent book addresses both the value of robots and the actual limits of robotic autonomy at a time when there is increasing controversy about the capabilities of robots. Dr. Mindell also describes his new company, Humatics.com, which is committed to "Human First™" design — the simple idea that people remain essential to the technologies that enrich their lives (see video on Humatics site). The significance of the social framework in the use of robotics is a concept that Dr. Mindell --uniquely-- emphasizes, and it will become much more prominent as the field evolves.

Dr. Mindell's books for the general public

  • Our Robots, Ourselves: Robotics and the Myths of Autonomy (2015)
  • Digital Apollo: Human and Machine in the First Six Lunar Landings (2008) (Emme award for astronautical literature, American Astronautical Society)
  • Between Human and Machine: Feedback, Control, and Computing before Cybernetics (2002)
  • War, Technology, and Experience aboard the USS Monitor (2000) (awarded the Sally Hacker Prize, Society for the History of Technology)

media articles on Dr. Mindell's work and books: