March 18, 2021


Eagerly Awaiting Your Irrational Response: A “Dilbert” Book. By Scott Adams. Andrews McMeel. $14.99.

Bots and Bods: How Robots and Humans Work, from the Inside Out. By John Andrews. Andrews McMeel. $12.99.

     Cartoons are an exceptionally versatile form of communication, usable for the lightest amusement as well as for some rather heavy educational purposes. Adults and young readers have different expectations of the medium, and cartoonists – or authors using cartoons for communicative purposes – tend to play to what the different audiences will expect. Scott Adams is particularly adept at this in his long-running Dilbert comic strip, which has long since standardized the three-panel (rather than four-panel) form and a kind of snarky workplace humor that will be instantly familiar to anyone who has ever worked at a big corporation or imagined what that sort of work must be like. Even at a time when pandemic restrictions have led many corporations to reduce or eliminate in-office work for large numbers of people, Dilbert cartoons ring true, and they will likely remind office workers of the things they do not miss about the workplace. Recently, Adams has focused on a comparatively small cast of characters, gradually moving away from his earlier tendency to bring in various nonhumans (dinosaurs, Ratbert, etc.) and allowing the foibles of exaggerated-but-familiar humans to carry his strip (although Dogbert and Catbert still have distinctive roles). The 48th Dilbert collection, Eagerly Awaiting Your Irrational Response, offers plenty of continuity of theme and characters even as Adams, as usual, jumps from topic to topic with no significant sense of rhyme or reason. For example, Dilbert visits a doctor because he has been feeling loyal to the company “and that makes me work extra hard for no extra money,” so he wants a pill to stop him from working so hard. The doctor explains, “They all do that if you take enough of them.” The Pointy-Haired Boss refuses to hire someone named Carl because the company already has a Carl, and having two would confuse matters – and when the candidate tries to discuss his skills, the PHB says, “People with better names have skills, too.” Elsewhere, the PHB asks Dilbert if he sent the PHB his project update; Dilbert asks if he planned to read it; the PHB says no; and Dilbert says in that case, he certainly did send it. So the PHB walks away thinking, “Half of my job is imaginary.” As for Dogbert’s role in the latest Dilbert book, it largely involves stirring up non-work-related and distinctly outré matters, for instance by telling Dilbert that he is a simulation and Dogbert himself is “an avatar used by your creator to interact with your world.” Dilbert refuses to believe that, and Dogbert says, “Yep. That’s how I made you.” And Dilbert himself comes up with an algorithm that indicates “we are heading toward a parody inversion point,” which means “reality becomes so absurd that it is indistinguishable from parody.” Dilbert readers will likely nod vigorously at that – probably responding to a command from whatever avatars they are interacting with these days.

     Cartoons tend to be more straightforward and illustrative in books for younger readers – and the cartoons, when well-used, can do a lot to make difficult and complex topics considerably more approachable and comprehensible. That is the case with the many illustrations in John Andrews’ Bots and Bods, an interestingly informative look at the parallels and divergences between human beings and robots. Andrews divides the book into four sections called “Body Basics,” “Get Moving,” “Seeing and Sensing,” and “Thinking and Feeling,” and within each section presents multiple, very short, cartoon-illustrated explanations of topics of all sorts. When it comes to “Muscles and Motors,” for example, Andrews explains that humans have more than 600 muscles to control movements, while robots “move by using motors and other mechanical devices.” Facing-page illustrations show a boy’s elbow joint, tendon, biceps and triceps – and the comparable elbow, actuator and computer control used by a robot for the same purposes. That cartoon deliberately shows a human-like robot, but Andrews notes throughout the book that many, many robots do not resemble humans at all. For example, “Bot Travel” explains that “they might not look like robots to you, but self-driving cars are probably the most sophisticated machines you might come across in everyday life.” After discussing how such vehicles work, though, Andrews points out that they raise a host of questions, such as, in case of an accident, “Who takes the blame if there’s no driver?” And he notes that questions like this one “really haven’t been solved yet.” On the other hand, some elements of robot perception have been solved, and sometimes in ways that closely parallel the way human bodies solve them. Thus, under “Eyes and Vision,” Andrews offers a boxed subsection called “From Light to Sight” that shows parallel perceptions of a carrot by a human and a robot. “Light is reflected from the carrot,” he explains, and “is detected by the eye, or the robot camera, and turned into electronic signals.” The cartoon deliberately shows these procedures looking very similar – and also indicates the similarity when “the signals travel to the brain, or the robot computer, to be understood.” Elsewhere, Andrews explains – and shows – ways in which robots can be labor-saving devices, not only in factories but also around the home, for instance by doing cleaning tasks and mowing the lawn. And he tells about ways in which robots can do some tasks better than humans can – for example, in surgery, when a doctor can tell a surgical robot where stitches need to go and leave it up to the robot to place them with greater precision than human hands can manage. Bots and Bods is a fascinating primer about robot design and capability, with some indications about future developments involving everything from the Internet (where “botnets” already exist) to space exploration. And a big part of what makes the book successful is the way Andrews integrates illustrative cartoons into his narrative, making it easier for young readers to follow the human-to-robot similarities and contrasts than would be possible using words alone.

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