It is in the nature of picture books to be enthusiastic about things (weird creatures, space travel, meeting new people) that fill most grown-ups with anxiety. And Hubots, by Toronto’s Helaine Becker and Australian illustrator Alex Ries, goes all-in on an idea that has been freaking people out for decades, if not centuries: the idea that humans might be replaced by robots. And not just in situations where most people wouldn’t mind having a mechanical buddy take over – say, fighting fires or exploring distant planets – but also in less demanding situations, including caring for the elderly and performing musical theatre.
A companion to Becker and Ries’s previous collaboration, Zoobots, which looked at robot tech inspired by animals, Hubots is full of actual robots and robot prototypes designed to learn from and/or mimic human behaviour. The range of robots profiled here is impressive. Among the 10 we meet are Atlas Unplugged, a six-foot figure to be used as a rescue bot during disasters, and NimbRo-OP, a little guy with a smiley face designed to play soccer in the RoboCup league (which deserves its own stand-alone book). Each profile breaks down a robot’s given powers, features, uses, and current status, with most still at the “working prototype” stage.
Along with the profiles, Becker offers no-nonsense explanations of concepts like artificial intelligence (technology that thinks), embodied intelligence (tech that learns), and the uncanny valley (the term used to explain why almost-human faces on robots or in CGI-heavy movies look so unsettling). The book also includes a glossary, a closer look at common humanoid robot features such as hands and feet, and a few suggestions for further reading.
Ries’s highly realistic illustrations are tech-geek cool, but the limited colour palette currently used for robots – lots of white plastic – means that Hubots is visually a little dull. And Becker’s eagerness to sell these machines as amazing and useful occasionally strays into the inadvertently chilling, as in the intro, where she writes that some robots “have the strength and endurance of a storm trooper.” Or in the book’s final section, where she asks: “will hubots … eventually take over the world? Perhaps. But then again, perhaps they already have.” Run!