Sunday, October 20, 2019

Book Review: 'Sam: One Robot, a Dozen Engineers, and the Race to Revolutionize the Way We Build' by Jonathan Waldman

SAM is not the story of the future of automation or the power of artificial intelligence to disrupt life as we know it. It is instead the biography of a startup totally focused on developing a machine to build walls of brick. SAM stands for semi-automated mason.

In Jonathan Waldman’s telling, it is a long slog of steps, generally two forward and one backward. The union did not want automation. Companies didn’t see the potential. Bricks were being replaced by blocks and panels. And the whole construction industry was distrustful when it wasn’t simply skeptical. Nothing new in any of that; it’s what every startup’s sales team faces daily. And hundreds of books have been written about it.

Waldman follows the activity in microscopic detail. Every employee gets deeply profiled, from his (there are no women) school interests, to career path and annoying habits at work. There are so many players it is difficult to remember who is who and what is so special about them when they reappear later.

The book alternates between progress at the company and diverting chapters on things like the history of mortar and the history of the masons union in the USA. There’s even a long biography of the CEO’s high school swimming coach, a famous professional wrestler called the Destroyer, including all the big name wrestlers he fought, his tour of Japan, and his ending up coaching young swimmers.

The SAM machine itself goes through an evolutionary process, just as in any other startup. Theory got tested in the field with real customers. Unlike many startups, Construction Robotics seems to have had an endless supply of firms willing to do trials on actual jobs of theirs. SAM kept failing then improving, and failing in new ways. There were unconsummated deals for sales, near-death crises, a constant lack of sufficient capital, an angel footing the deficits, and a secondary product that apparently saved the firm from liquidation. The biggest problem, or at least the one most recounted in the book, is faulty wi-fi between the control tablet and SAM, laying bricks up high on some wall.

The book reads like an official biography. It’s all good and ends well. There’s a positive spin on just about everything. It is an immortalization of this company, for future leaders to read and be inspired by. What it is not is gripping. It is pretty much a straight line narration to eventual success, albeit not with the original goal and product. There is no wider implication, no leverage and no suspense. The entire story is completely predictable, from engineers rushing out to sites to patch a part back into service, to big deals that could have made the company simply disappearing without any reason. It’s the same startup life we’ve seen a thousand different ways. I have lived it myself in at least three companies.

There is a lot of construction jargon which can leave the average reader flummoxed. Waldman also has chosen to employ non alphanumeric symbols for endnotes, which grow in length as the chapters add up. So it is not uncommon to see something like ¶¶¶¶¶¶¶¶¶ sprawling across a page in chapter 8, followed by, say §§§§§§§§§ instead of a single digit number.

SAM the machine has not revolutionized the construction industry, and SAM the book is not captivating.

Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.