Josh Bongard is one member of a growing field called evolutionary robotics. In short, it means that stronger, more useful, more adaptable robots should develop their skills one step at a time, like animals and humans, rather than being built 'ready to go.' Bongard has experimented with his very literal biomimetic approach to robot upbringing in a first-of-its-kind experiment sponsored by the National Science Foundation.
University of Vermont robotics expert Josh Bongard built this simple robot from Legos as proof of a complex idea, one that's teaching us about the interaction between brain and body: image via University of Vermont
Humans start out learning to crawl and, later, when they've developed enough strength and sense of balance in their core, they slowly learn to stand up, and finally, to walk. Bongard's theory is that robots, too, will be stronger and 'smarter' if allowed to develop the evolutionary set of skills of slithering, crawling, and eventually standing upright and walking.
Bongard demonstrated his theory in a sophisticated computer simulation where little beasts with different body plans move around in 3-dimensional space. The objective of these figures is for them to get to a light source in the simulation, upright, without tipping over.
During the experiment, Bongard conducts a variety of genetic algorithms that allow the beasts to develop different movements like slithering, shuffling, or walking, based on the beast's body plan. Eventually, as the body parts are altered, the beasts are able to reach their goals and also to face other challenges, like resisting a force trying to tip them over.
After running 5,000 simulations, Bongard built a simple robot out of Lego Mindstorm kits, to show that a real 'robot' is capable of evolving. Though the Lego robot is four-legged, it starts out with a brace on its front and back legs.
“The brace gradually tilts the robot, as the controller searches for successful
movement patterns," Bongard says, “so that the legs go from horizontal to
vertical, from reptile to quadruped."
Watch the computer animation and the Lego robot here...
“While the brace is bending the legs, the controller is causing the robot to
move around, so it’s able to move its legs, and bend its spine,” he says. “It’s
squirming around like a reptile, flat on the ground, and then it gradually stands
up until, at the end of this movement pattern, it’s walking like a coyote.”
“It’s a very simple prototype,” he says, “but it works; it’s a proof of
Watch another great 'evolutionary robot' video from the Cornell Computational Sythesis Laboratory and learn more about the field of evolutionary robotics here.
University of Vermont via RDMag, PNAS, Spatial Robots, Cornell Computational Synthesis Laboratory