Title: Affectionate Technology

Copyright (c) 1990 by David Durlach

This paper has been published in the 1990 Direction and Implications of Advanced Computing (DIAC-90) conference proceedings [a conference sponsored by the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR)], as a chapter in the 1997 book Reinventing Technology, Rediscovering Community — Critical explorations of computing as a social practice, the SCAN '90 high-tech art conference proceedings, and the 1991 YLEM high-tech art newsletter. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 1990 College Art Association National Conference in NYC.


            There are four main areas I will touch on in this paper: In PART 1, I will give a brief introduction to my current work as a high-tech artist as well as explain what motivated me to get involved in this area. In PART 2, I will introduce the thesis that the way our culture views technology [1] is in many ways very biased, and that this bias strongly affects the use made of technology, and in particular, inhibits its integration with the arts & humanities. In PART 3, I will discuss some of the reasons why I think it's important that we attempt such an integration. In PART 4, I will share some perspectives on why I think the development of high-tech artworks is uniquely suited to facilitate this integration.

            In closing, I will try to insure that this paper has a happy ending.


My Own Work

            I am the founder and artistic and technical director of a small company in Massachusetts called TechnoFrolics. My activities there include the design and construction of 3-dimensional computer controlled [2] kinetic sculptures which have enough flexibility in their motions, and/or physical appearance, that one can reasonably think of composing for them. [3] Thus, one could think of them as visual analogs for musical instruments. Alternatively, one could think of them as non-human dance troupes that can be choreographed. (One of the images I enjoy thinking about is that of a stage filled with all different flavors of visual instruments; thus one could have a visual symphony — perhaps performed by the deaf.)


            I got into this whole area for a couple of reasons: First, most of the high-tech art I had seen tended to be either technically sophisticated but artistically naive, or artistically sophisticated but technically naive. Since it seemed obvious to me that a better balance between these two extremes would naturally lead to wonderful "living sculptures", I was excited by the opportunities I saw in this area.

            Second, I was miserable at always having to choose between entering environments which were technically sophisticated, innovative and alive, but emotionally and relationally naive, or entering environments which were emotionally and relationally sophisticated, innovative and alive, but technically naive — it seemed impossible to find work which was deeply rewarding in both these areas simultaneously. Designing and building "living sculptures" has given me one of the few opportunities I have ever had in my life where my understanding of physics, electronics, and computer systems, and my understanding of human emotional dynamics each contributed equally to the success of the final "product".

            It has been meaningful and touching to see that artworks which incorporate many of the pieces of life I value, appeal so broadly to other people of all ages and all professions — ranging from professors of computer science, to street kids who dance, to art therapists. Exhibiting my work has also provided an occasion for computer scientists, street dancers, and artists to talk with one another — an occurrence which in itself I think highly valuable. The whole project has been very exciting, and has reinforced my feeling that the world could use more bridges between art and engineering.


The Affectionate Side Of Technology

            In this part of the paper I will try to highlight certain biases I see present in the way technology is currently viewed, biases which greatly inhibit technology's integration with the arts and humanities. Essentially, the point I wish to make is that technology can be a medium of emotional expression just like painting, dance, theater, or writing can be; that technology need not be used only for making tools, and for extending our intellectual capabilities, but can equally well be used for extending our empathy and compassion, increasing our emotional understanding of ourselves, and generally adding a richness and physical beauty to our lives. In other words, I wish to claim that technology is a true art form.

            I further wish to show that the extent to which our current technology is cold and emotionally sterile is attributable more to our cultural biases than to anything intrinsic to the technology itself.

            To begin, I would like to discuss some technological devices that are available now, that are almost exclusively being used for emotionally sterile purposes, but that with a slight change in orientation could be central elements in an emotionally and visually rich artwork.


            First, let us consider robots: Frequently in robot design, high speed repeatable motions, accurate to within (say) 1/1000 of an inch, are considered highly desirable and part of the aesthetic which defines success. This is reasonable because these robots are used to assemble objects where exact positioning and speed of assembly is critical. What the robots are not frequently engineered for is grace of motion — no one funds grace.

            We have the necessary skills, right now, to build extremely graceful robots; all we would have to do is change the perspective. The problem is that very few people engineering robots have grace of motion as the governing aesthetic (particularly since there tends to be a tradeoff between achieving repeatability and achieving grace). Thus, we have lots of robots around that can repeat their motions accurately, but are clunky and not graceful to watch.

            I would like to highlight how, in a certain sense, the aesthetic governing robot design is "inhuman". Consider the sentence "I fell in love with her/his grace." It is a plausible sentence which sounds reasonable to the ear; on the other hand, the sentence "I fell in love with her/his repeatability" is ludicrous — no one cares.

            The point I'm trying to make here is that the aesthetic which defines a "good" robot is not a human, emotional, relational aesthetic and if we merely changed our aesthetic, we could be surrounded with "robot art" whose grace was stunning.


            Second, let us consider computers: There exist chess programs now that can beat all but the best human players; there also exist what are called Expert Systems that assist in diagnosing certain diseases. These things are important; chess programs are intellectually rich and diagnostic Expert Systems may save your life. However, neither of these structures is emotionally rich. Why, for example, have we chosen to write programs which evidence a "human-like" skill at playing chess, but not programs which evidence a "human-like" desire to play chess in the first place? Why are we not surrounded by programs which are lousy at playing chess, but which (seem to) care about playing a great deal, and express extreme distress if they don't get a chance to play? [4]

            Computers are rarely programmed to behave in a playful fashion, or in fact in any fashion which would cause you to enjoy their company and emotionally bond with them. Again, emotional issues such as these are not generally the primary goal of the programmers. Why, I wonder, do we not have operating systems whose primary design goal is to convey to the user the collective sense of humor of the software engineers who implemented it, with issues like speed of response, device independence etc. being secondary?

            On a humorous, but nevertheless significant note: A friend of mine created a computer "character" [5] which you could converse with in written English. One of the things he found that was crucial to making it seem human was that it not listen to you very carefully. It had its own agenda and invariably it would bring the conversation back around to, say, its sick grandmother living in Arkansas. No matter what you talked about, eventually the grandmother that lived in Arkansas came up. It is rare that computer scientists have not-listening as a design goal — but it is a human characteristic.


            To give a contrast to the typical state of affairs — when my sculpture Dancing Trees was reviewed in the Boston Globe Magazine, the reviewer, Mopsy Strange Kennedy, wrote:

The iron clumps, with amazing anthropomorphic aplomb, begin to shiver, to plump up narcissistically, to swoon toward one another, to receive the computerized wind like gracefully moving wheat.

            Now, the reason I'm bringing this in, is that this is not a typical review of a new high-tech development. It is not typical simply because few high-tech objects were designed to "plump narcissistically". Mine was designed to plump narcissistically. I don't mean that literally, but rather, I mean that it was designed to "plump narcissistically" as well as "plump aggressively" as well as "swish petulantly" etc. That is, it was designed to be emotionally evocative. That was its design goal; when a particular implementation failed at that, I threw it out and tried something else.

            Now, if our technological society chose "plumping narcissistically" as its general design goal, then we would have all kinds of high-tech devices plumping away — your toaster might burn the toast, but damn if it didn't plump! Similarly, your word processor might not do such a great a job at checking the spelling, but it would sure as hell convey the image of plumping. It's all a matter of priority.

            If we, as a culture [6], chose, we could be surrounded by relationally rich and visually fascinating high-tech artworks, spanning a wide range of visual appearance and personality.

            We have the technology, right now, to implement a device which would be sensitive (and potentially responsive) to one's mood. The very same pattern recognition technology that is currently used to identify characters on a printed page could be modified to detect sadness, joy, or anger in the human face; the same acoustic recognition technology that the military uses to identify submarines and aircraft by the sounds of their engine could be used to detect these selfsame emotional states from tonal qualities of the human voice.

            One fact that tends to impede progress in this area is that the computer science and artificial intelligence community tends to focus on extending the head, the intellect down, as opposed to extending the heart, or loins up. [7] It's a question of where you start. Eventually we may get emotionally interesting objects by making them smarter and smarter and smarter and smarter, but it's a damn long path, and we already have the ability to make things that are truly emotionally rich right now; we don't have to wait until it happens by what I think is a quite roundabout path.

            I would like, for contrast to the intellect extending paradigm, to bring in dogs. I grew up with Golden Retrievers. Now, Golden Retrievers can't play chess very well, nor are they very good at diagnosing diseases. However, they are playful, responsive to your moods, beautiful to watch, and I consider them works of art and important additions to our world.

            In addition, dogs know (at least the Golden Retrievers I grew up with knew) when a joke has been told. The way that they know a joke has been told is not by analyzing the words for meaning (as some members of the Artificial Intelligence community focus on) — they know because they pick up the laughter and the body language and the exuberance of the people in the room who have heard the joke.

            We have all the technology to do that very same thing as I just mentioned that a Golden Retriever does. Thus, at least, we could have a high-tech art object that knew when a joke was told, and that alone would be an interesting thing to play around with!


            There is one more perspective I would like to introduce before concluding this section. I begin by recalling to you my friend's conversational program Racter, and noting that its strikingly life-like quality was a direct consequence of its having its own agenda. This brings me to a very important point, and that is, that our technology has almost exclusively been used for tool building.

            The consequences of this cannot be stressed enough, for tools are by their very nature passive. They are designed to do nothing but what they are directed to do by the user. That is, they are designed to be extensions of our autonomy. (You do not want a hammer that refuses to hit the nail because it doesn't want to; you want a hammer that just hits the nail.) It is not surprising, therefore, that it is of no interest to "get to know" a tool — there is nothing there to get to know; no sense of autonomy, no hopes, dreams, fears etc.

            I think this period of history provides us with a unique opportunity, through the advent of computers, to create devices with enough flexibility (including the potential for self modification and learning), that the label "tool" is at best incomplete. I must say I sincerely hope that computers do not continue to be used so predominantly for implementing intellectual tools, for if they continue to be so used, they will remain, in certain profound ways, emotionally lifeless, cold and sterile, which I think will be very sad. [8] It's time we free computers [9] to act as central elements in creations who, like us, are both beautiful and playful — I think people are one of the highest art forms around, and really neat. [10]


            To conclude, in this section I have tried to introduce an image of a world in which the high-tech objects in our environment are visually striking, radiate emotional accessibility, and contribute to a general feeling of warmth. I also hope to have made clear that the changes I envision do not require advances in technology so much as an alteration in people's orientation — in other words, what I am presenting might be emotional and social fiction, but is not science fiction.


Why All This Is Important

            The first image that comes to my mind when I think of why all this is important is that of a human face expressing enchantment, calm, and satisfaction. In other words, the real reason why all this is important is because of the effect it has on people.

            I have shown my work around the world, and have had the privilege to watch people's faces as they experience my piece and others. The expressions people have watching Dancing Trees sometimes remind me of that parents have watching their child walk for the first time; it is a combination of joy, satisfaction, and mild incredulity. More interactive pieces (created by other high-tech artists) tend to engender expressions that initially consist of caution and exploration, and then rapidly extend to include wonder and joy.

            Bringing audiences great joy is reason enough, I think, to pursue this area. [11] However, there are other reasons to support this work aside from audience enjoyment — reasons directly related to the concerns of computer professionals, and in particular, computer professionals worried about the directions computing and other technologies are heading.


            Recall if you will PART 1 of this paper wherein I described my despair at finding environments (and tasks) which were simultaneously technically and emotionally rewarding. Unfortunately, having spoken to many many people, I have found myself far from alone in this despair. Generally, the people who care deeply about both technical research and emotional exploration are either unhappy or have managed to split their lives into two relatively distinct parts: one that satisfies their emotional and relational needs, and another that satisfies their intellectual and analytical needs.

            There are many people who understandably find this type of split lifestyle both unpleasant and rather difficult to arrange in practice. [12] Therefore, engaging in activities which naturally form bridges between the different worlds is likely to positively impact the lives of these people. Creating high-tech art is one particularly effective activity in this regard (more on this in PART 4), and thus it is not only the audience that benefits from high-tech art, but also the computer programmers and engineers who spend their lives developing it.


            Let us focus next on some more subtle consequences of the above-mentioned split, particularly as it impacts the very content itself of high-tech research. In order to do this, I feel the need to reiterate how really pronounced is this split. It is so extreme that it is a frequent occurrence for people to think I am slightly crazy (or at least a romantic dreamer) for even trying to combine, in one activity, technological research and emotional exploration! [13] Our society, for some reason, views these activities as mutually exclusive. Unfortunately, because of this (in my opinion completely unfounded) point of view, people who highly value and enjoy emotional exploration tend to avoid working in areas such as computer science.

            The consequences of this cannot be over-stressed. To begin with, the situation is dangerously self-perpetuating. What I mean by this is that the more emotionally sterile and intellectually focused high-tech development environments become, the more the devices engineered (programmed) therein will be intellectually sophisticated and emotionally simplistic. The proliferation of such devices throughout our society will then contribute to the already rampant belief that technology is suitable only for addressing the "physical", "practical", and "computational" needs of people, and is virtually useless for addressing their emotional needs. This will then lead to high-tech development environments attracting only those people who rate the practical/physical significantly above the emotional/relational etc.

            The negative consequences of this self-reinforcing and unhealthy rift between technical research/sensitivity and emotional exploration/sensitivity are already clearly visible in areas both concrete and abstract. To give a concrete example: In contrast to the astronomical amount of money and research put into developing high-tech medical equipment engineered to keep people physically healthy — artificial hearts, dialysis machines etc., virtually no one has built sophisticated high-tech devices to address the feelings of fear, isolation, and simple boredom that frequently accompany a hospital stay. [14]


            On a more subtle note: I occasionally encounter people who react negatively or with reservation to the idea of developing creations with extremely life-like qualities and onto which human beings would undoubtedly project. This reaction seems to imply that these people feel such creations are not already prevalent (and highly valued) in our culture. I find this quite interesting:

            Let us consider novels for a moment: Perhaps the highest praise one can give a novel is to say that the characters "seemed real"  and "came alive". The whole purpose of a novel is to take one into a fictitious world, in comparison to which the real world recedes into the background. Yet few people actively debate whether it is ethical or prudent to have novels loose in our culture. Puppet shows and stage dramas are similarly engineered to create, by simulating human behavior, an "illusion" onto which people strongly project emotionally, and yet such art forms are all tacitly accepted as healthy and important.

            Because of the omnipresent association of the technological with the cerebral and artistic with the emotional, debates over whether it is desirable or prudent to create objects which simulate life-like behavior are not even being held in the right arena. We already are creating objects and structures which simulate life-like behavior. The significant thing to notice is that technocrats tend to create objects/structures which simulate people's cerebral and computational aspects [15] and artists tend to create objects/structures which simulate people's emotional and relational aspects -- and that is the primary thesis of this paper.


            Now, all that we have been talking about might not be so important if we were discussing, say, building sand castles. [16] First off, there is only a small fraction of our population regularly involved in building sand castles, and so if the working conditions are not ideal — well that might not be so terrible. However, in the case of creating technological devices/computer programs, a significant fraction of our culture is involved in their design and implementation (and an even larger fraction is directly impacted by their use).

            Second, creating sand castles does not give the builder access to the kind of power that can, on the one side, greatly enrich our lives or, on the other side, wipe life off the face of this planet. So, if it turns out that the environments in which sand castles are built are a bit particular, and this particularity results in the creation of a rather narrow genre of sand castles — well, so what. However, in the case of creating high-tech devices/systems, the builders do get access to just such power.


            To conclude this section: In my opinion, unless we start building objects which embody a more even balance between emotional/relational sophistication and intellectual/computational sophistication [17] , we will head further and further down the road toward the creation of amoral juggernauts. [18]


Why Developing High-Tech Art Might Help

            I believe the high-tech art development process itself to be very healthy, for it engages, in a necessarily integrated way, the emotional sensitivity and technical expertise of the human designer.

            In addition, I project that the presence of high-tech artworks in our society will help counteract the current tendency of people, who choose to devote their life to emotional exploration and developing relationships, to avoid entering research areas such as computer science. This would be good.


            I would like to articulate and explain further these two perspectives, both of which come in part out of my own personal experience. Let me begin by describing my own high-tech art development process:

            When I work either on designing physical systems or on choreographing (programming) these systems to enact dances and dramas, I hold in my mind a human face. I then imagine what expressions I would like to elicit on that face, and what emotions would need to be evoked to prompt such expressions. I then fantasize various high-tech art mediums whose visual appearance and personality might elicit such an emotion. Then, while holding the image of this as yet unbuilt high-tech art medium clearly in front of me, I carefully examine my own emotional response to this fantasy creation as it runs through dramas in my mind. If I like what I feel, and the art medium seems sufficiently rich and flexible, I then start intellectually examining concrete implementation issues, such as the state of artificial intelligence, the availability of large sensor arrays, the construction time, the cooling requirements, the overall cost etc. If, after all this, things appear practical, I then build a small test model — a process which invariable involves solving many concrete technical problems. I then examine my emotional response to this concrete embodiment, hoping for the best... [19]

            One significant and rather unusual feature of this high-tech design cycle is that human emotional response is never put into the background — it is intimately coupled to the design process; all the hundreds of thought/feeling experiments act to integrate the analytic and the emotional. [20] I contrast this explicitly to many computer programming projects where, while there usually is an intimate bond formed between the computer programmer and the computer, the governing aesthetic is often determined more by the relationship between the programmer's intellect, the computer hardware, and design goal of (say) speed, than by the human feelings of play, sensuality, and compassion.


            I would like to focus next on the effect that seeing such high-tech artworks has on the general public:

            One feature, and in my opinion a very wonderful one, of good [21] high-tech art, is that the feeling (if not always all the thought) that went into it is as immediately comprehensible to a child as to an adult, and as meaningful to an art therapist as to a computer scientist. Thus, one's work naturally acts as a common bond between diverse groups, for it is something to which they can both immediately relate. Furthermore, since a high-tech art development project benefits equally from the skills of computer programmer and those of a psychotherapist, it is one of those rare and wonderful situations where two such different types of people are each given the opportunity to feel competent and be active contributors towards a jointly valued goal.

            Another feature of this type of art is that it portrays technology being used in an emotionally rich and accessible manner. Thus, young people (and others), who are particularly focused on emotional issues and relationships, will not be given such a stark message that a career in technology mandates putting into the background their central concerns. [22] I would hope, therefore, that exhibiting high-tech art would induce more emotional and relationally focused people to enter careers in engineering.


            One more reason to support high-tech art: A common path taken by engineers who feel alienated by their experience in engineering environments, is to step back and become policy makers, science advisors/writers etc. I think this is a good solution for some to adopt, but we also need such people to remain involved in the day-to-day technical tasks as well, in order that they may change the very essence of what constitutes hard engineering. Developing high-tech art presents many real problems in hard engineering, yet is an activity which might nevertheless appeal to such people. This would be good.

            And finally, on a related note, if we can succeed in changing the values surrounding high-tech development "from the bottom up — from the inside out", as the integration I have been suggesting would lead to, then we may reduce the need to pass formal legislation restricting technology's use. This would be good, for it would alleviate the resentment people invariably feel whenever laws restrict their possible range of actions (as well as help avoid all kinds of lengthy legal battles).

The Happy Ending

            I would like to end this paper with some hopeful notes: First, developing high-tech art presents, in my opinion, one of the relatively few engineering opportunities where the resultant devices can compete in sparkle and flash with devices developed by the military. This is good.

            Second, because relatively little time and money has been devoted toward the serious development of high-tech art, one can make significant contributions in this area if one can remove from one's perspective certain profound biases.

            Third, we are right at the forefront of an exciting revolution in micro-engineering. This revolution will make possible and economical the creation of sculptures with hundreds of thousands of (computer controlled) moving elements. [23] Thus, we will (soon?) be able to have full computer control of the texture, color, light reflectivity properties, and overall shape of three dimensional sculptures.

            And finally, for the process of evaluating our high-tech art creations, I am pleased to note that each and every one of us is integrally equipped with the finest and most sophisticated testing and quality control feedback system in the world — that of our own emotional responses.

            There is so much to talk about and to build — let us begin... [24]


[1] While I frequently speak about technology in general, I feel that computers are unique in their ability to support rich and potentially self modifying structures, and without them much of what I envision would be impossible.

[2] Or, when they are being played in real-time by someone, "computer facilitated".

[3] One of these sculptures is composed of iron powder in a computer controlled magnetic field; it is this "living landscape", (sometimes called Dancing Trees), that is referred to in the Globe Magazine excerpt quoted later in this paper. Other in process works include:  A bubble artwork in which ever-changing images, formed out of thousands of iridescent bubbles, drift gracefully upward within a fluid-filled tank;  A column of linked triangular mirrors, acting as both a linear wave medium and chaotic system, wherein choreographed twisting waves project an intricate dance of reflected light upon the surrounding surfaces;  A pool of magnetically controlled ferrous fluid choreographed to function as a flowing liquid clock.

[4] I suggest, if you think this a wild example, to consider the purpose and the tasks involved in creating fictitious but richly evocative characters in novels, theater, or dance...

[5] "Racter", created by Tom Etter.

[6] We can not do this on an individual basis because it is too expensive and too difficult.

[7] Of course economics (via the consumer market and the military etc.) strongly affects the direction technology takes as well.

[8] One explanation, I believe, for the current state of affairs is that the scientific tradition has given high-tech development environments a legacy in which navigation via emotional reaction is explicitly relegated to second place behind navigation via formal analysis. Adhering to this navigational directive is, in my opinion, gaining our culture incredible advancements in science & technology while simultaneously crippling our ability to decide what aspects of this very same science & technology are meaningful to us.

[9] We have to come up with some name other than "computer" — it is too narrow a label. Perhaps "extender" or "facilitator"?

[10] On a slight aside: I think there is reason to believe that in the future we will adopt a somewhat parental role toward our (high-tech) artworks, and it is of interest to note in this regard that Daniel Hillis, the designer of one of the more powerful computers in the world today ( THE CONNECTION MACHINE), has as a design goal to make a computer that is "proud of him".

[11] We are discussing an art medium that is rich almost beyond dream, for it will permit joining, in a single creation, the relational sophistication of a novel, the emotional richness of a symphony, the physical beauty of a sculpture, and the immediacy, playfulness, and audience responsiveness of a street performer.

[12] The problem has some similarity to that of finding a mate: Getting involved simultaneously with two people, one emotionally warm but intellectually uninteresting, and the other intellectually challenging but emotionally cold is a solution neither satisfactory nor straightforward to navigate...

[13] It is interesting to notice that people I speak with generally fall into one of two rather distinct groups: The "artists" who readily accept the importance of emotional expression, but who don't believe technology is well suited for this; and the "technocrats" who readily grant that technology could implement the creations I envision, but don't really see the point...

[14] Solutions to this isolation problem could range from beautiful and relationally focused high-tech artworks to sophisticated Virtual Reality/Tele-Presence systems. (Such systems could permit the sick individual, while physically still in their hospital room, to nevertheless be in intimate daily contact with their family and friends and, in many respects, make them feel as if they were actually at home.)

[15] Technological environments have already produced untold numbers of objects with extraordinarily human-like behavior: If a creature which points out spelling errors in your text or plays chess is not "human-like" in its behavior, I sure don't know what is!

[16] I sincerely hope I do not offend any sand castle builders in the audience!

[17] Which would seem only to make common sense; this is, after all, what we would want in a friend or mate...

[18] I refer here both to potential high-tech devices/systems and to the culture and environment surrounding their development.

[19] I sometimes get stuck and find the need to back up, think carefully, and talk to my friends, in order to form more general models of how people emotionally respond to entities (both animate and inanimate) in their environment. I find that process to be extremely interesting on an intellectual as well as on an emotional level.

[20] It is encouraging to note that developing and showing my art has been as effective at enhancing my human relationships as it has at increasing my understanding of (say) real-time process control.

[21] I am to some extent defining "good" high-tech art as those artworks which have the properties noted in this sentence.  That is, artworks which embody and capture aspects of human and animal behavior, and/or the visual beauty of natural phenomena, in a manner that viscerally impacts audiences of all ages and interests.  An existing example of such an artwork is a computer controlled fountain in which crystal-clear parabolic water fragments chase one another in an apparent game of tag.

[22] Unfortunately, our educational institutions (along with the rest of the world) frequently do give the message, if only implicitly, that a career in engineering does require a lessening of focus on these emotional dynamics: Why, for example, are there not more engineering classes where the professor begins the lecture with a sentence something like " Today, we are going to discuss technologies well suited for conveying sadness?" (Imagine how much poorer our world would be if writing courses restricted their discussion to the shear-strength of book bindings...)

[23] They have already made electric motors so small that something like 60,000 of them fit on a 1 square inch piece of material, and research in this area is proceeding forward at a furious pace.

[24] There are three books I would like to suggest whose subjects, when combined together, can lead to a vision of a whole new world. These books are:

The Engines of Creation by K. Eric Drexler (Anchor Press/Doubleday): which is a comprehensive summary on the potential for what I was referring to as "micro-engineering".

Vehicles by Valentino Braitenberg (The MIT Press): He is a neuroanatomist who has conceptualized a variety of simple mechanical "vehicles" which exhibit strikingly life-like behavior.

Reflections on Gender and Science by Evelyn Fox Keller (Yale University Press): which discusses possible gender biases inherent in the manner in which we view and practice science (and thus, engineering). This book also contrasts, explicitly, cultural stereotypes of artists "vs." engineers. (It might be appropriate to note here that I consider myself a Feminist Engineer, and my business card lists my title as such.)