“The Often-Unsung Adaptability of Organic Intelligence”

(p. A13) . . ., as the journalist Jonathan Waldman chronicles in “SAM,” the quest for a bricklaying robot has been bumpier than the work of a mason with vertigo.

. . .

Several themes run through the book. First is the often-unsung adaptability of organic intelligence.

. . .

The minute adjustments a human makes when manipulating objects, especially in messy environments like construction sites, result from billions of years of evolution. We make it look easy, until you give instructions to a robot and watch it fumble around or freeze up when it gets a little dirt on its face. Yann LeCun, Facebook’s chief A.I. scientist, once told me, “I would declare victory if in my professional lifetime we could make machines that are as intelligent as a rat.”

Mr. Peters has laudable motivations. “By creating a bricklaying robot,” Mr. Waldman writes, “he aimed to eliminate lifting and bending and repetitive-motion injuries in humans; to improve the quality of walls; to finish jobs faster and safer and cheaper; and to ease project scheduling and estimation. Basically: to modernize the world’s second oldest and most primitive trade.”

. . .

Within this physically and culturally harsh environment, Construction Robotics had to invent and reinvent their business model on the fly. Should they license their innovations? Sell the robots? Rent them? Provide robots and technicians as a service? Create a full-service masonry shop? Pivot from bricks to cement blocks? Take money from venture capitalists, court Google or a Dubai investment fund? Mr. Peters follows the philosophy of the book “The Lean Startup” and aims for an MVP—minimum viable product—to gain exposure and experience, knowing the risks in the construction industry. Word of a robot that builds crummy walls will travel fast, and demolished reputations are hard to rebuild.

The business finally finds its footing in the epilogue, around 2018. Construction Robotics gets SAM to lay more than 3,000 bricks a day (versus 300 to 1,000 for a human mason), and they create another machine that helps workers lift and place concrete blocks, quickly selling dozens. The company now looks to be solvent, though it’s unclear how much the construction landscape is poised to change.

For the full review, see:

Hutson, Matthew. “BOOKSHELF; Building a Better Bricklayer.” The Wall Street Journal (Tuesday, Jan 14, 2020): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date January 13, 2020, and has the title “BOOKSHELF; ‘SAM’ Review: Building a Better Bricklayer.”)

The book under review is:

Waldman, Jonathan. SAM: One Robot, a Dozen Engineers, and the Race to Revolutionize the Way We Build. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020.

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