A remarkable, intense portrait of the robotic subculture and the challenging quest for robot autonomy.

About the book

The high bay at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University is alive and hyper night and day with the likes of Hyperion, which traversed the Antarctic, and Zoe, the world's first robot scientist, now back home. Robot Segways learn to play soccer, while other robots go on treasure hunts or are destined for hospitals and museums. Dozens of cavorting mechanical creatures, along with tangles of wire, tools, and computer innards are scattered haphazardly. All of these zipping and zooming gizmos are controlled by disheveled young men sitting on the floor, folding chairs, or tool cases, or huddled over laptops squinting into displays with manic intensity. Award-winning author Lee Gutkind immersed himself in this frenzied subculture, following these young roboticists and their bold conceptual machines from Pittsburgh to NASA and to the most barren and arid desert on earth. He makes intelligible their discoveries and stumbling points in this lively behind-the-scenes work. 


"An in-depth glimpse into the exciting, if embryonic, developments in one of the world's leading robotics laboratories, where today's robots now play games and get trained to drive vehicles and scout landscapes, and tomorrow's robots will be created."

-LAWRENCE KRAUSS, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the School of Earth & Space Exploration at Arizona State University, and author of The Physics of Star Trek and Hiding in the Mirror.

"An eloquent meditiation on the fragile and increasingly friable line between flesh and metal, dendrites and wires. The book tells the tale of mad scientist and the strangely sane machines they create; in doing so, it illuminates the rarified world of computer science while simultaneously transcending it, or widening it, by bringing to light the essential questions robots raise for us--questions of autonomy, of cognition, of ambition and the toll it takes."
-LAUREN SLATER, author of Opening Skinner's Box and Blue Beyond Blue

"What emerges in "Almost Human" is a fascinating, frustrating, sad story. The Carnegie- Mellon researchers have big dreams. They work incredibly hard. But the deeper Mr. Gutkind immerses himself in their projects, the more he realizes that they aren't rolling from one triumph to another. Instead, their labs seem cursed by failure."

"Gutkind's reporting captures the individual quirks of the gives a solid sense of what's going on in the field." 


L.A. TIMES REVIEW (download pdf of article)

Read Lee's "Twelve Questions About the Future of Robots" on

Lee on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart

Lee on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart


Table of Contents

Introduction : the rookie revolution

Pt. 1. The Atacama

1. Wild ride to base camp 
2. Big red 
3. Groundhog 
4. Bummed and elated 
5. A lack of vision 

Pt. 2. Autonomy

6. RoboCup 
7. The color of thinking 
8. Asimo and friends 
9. Frustration 
10. The challenge 
11. Fresh blood 

Pt. 3. The OPS

12. The grasshopper and the ant
13. Fallback positions
14. The desert makes us wacky
15. Peeing on a rock
16. Downtime
17. Two versions of reality

Pt. 4. Making history

18. Nathalie
19. Pirate's cove
20. Hardware vs. software
21. In the field
22. The barest beginning



From June 15 to July 31 of 1997, Carnegie Mellon University deployed the robotic rover Nomad to traverse the Atacama Desert of Northern Chile. Nomad traveled an unprecedented 215 km in 45 days, remotely controlled and driven from both the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh, PA, and the Intelligent Mechanisms Group laboratory at Ames Research Center (ARC). This NASA-funded research program tested technologies critical to planetary exploration and enabled scientists to perform remote geological experiments. The total cost of developing Nomad and conducting the desert trek was $1.6 million.

Nomad was operated entirely under remote control from the U.S., including telepresence and autonomous guidance with simulated 4- to 15-minute time delays such as those that would be encountered on missions to Mars. 20 of the 215 km it travelled were done under autonomous control.

Nomad is about the size of a small car and massed 550 kg. To maneuver through rough terrain, the robot has four-wheel drive and four-wheel steering with a chassis that expands to improve stability and travel over various terrain conditions. Four aluminum wheels with cleats provide traction in soft sand. For this terrestrial experiment, power was supplied by a gasoline generator that enabled the robot to travel at speeds up to about one mile per hour. Nomad employed a panospheric camera, a high-resolution video camera that focuses up into a hemispheric mirror similar to a store security mirror. The video view includes all of the ground up to the horizon in the circle surrounding Nomad. The robot also had three pairs of conventional stereo cameras and a laser rangefinder for 3D visualization.

   The RoboCup Robots

RoboCup is an international robotics competition founded in 1993. The aim is to develop autonomous soccer robots with the intention of promoting research and education in the field of artificial intelligence. The name RoboCup is a contraction of the competition's full name, "Robot Soccer World Cup", But there are many other stages of the competition such as "Search and Rescue" and "Robot Dancing".

The official goal of the project:

By mid-21st century, a team of fully autonomous humanoid robot soccer players shall win the soccer game, complying with the official rule of the FIFA, against the winner of the most recent World Cup.


Zoë is a solar-powered autonomous robot with sensors able to detect microorganisms and map the distribution of life in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile, duplicating tasks that could be used in future exploration of Mars.





GRACE, which stands for Graduate Robot Attending a ConferencE, is a B21R Mobile Robot build by RWI. It has a panning platform on which a screen shows an emotionally expressive face, as well as sensors to help it move through crowded environments, including touch sensors and a scanning laser range finder. GRACE has high-quality synthesized speech and can understand others using speech recognition software.

At the 2002 conference, GRACE started at the front door of the conference venue, found the elevator by asking participants and made her way to the registration area. GRACE tried to find the end of the line, finally elbowing the end person in the line out of the way (either because it was unable to tell if the person was in fact in line, or because it didn't want to wait!). GRACE then waited patiently and registered successfully.

    The Hug