Rise Of The Machines: Robot Evolution Arrives

Scientists in the UK unveil a ‘mother’ robot that is able to autonomously build and evaluate its own children. Using the results of that evaluation, it can then design and produce further generations each with increasingly advanced performance. Survival of the fittest has come to the machines, for better or worse.

TOPIO: this ping pong playing robot, debuted in 2009, is an example of how far robotics has advanced. Image by Humanrobo.TOPIO: this ping pong playing robot, debuted in 2009, is an example of how far robotics has advanced. Image by Humanrobo.

The ability for generations of living things to adapt to their changing surroundings is one of the fundamental principles of evolutionary biology. It has allowed, for example, life to emerge from the sea on to land. It is the reason nearly every unique environmental niche on Earth has species seemingly tailor-made to thrive there and the reason such a complex variety of life exists on this planet. Robots, so far, have not had this same opportunity. Man-made machines are designed for a particular purpose and remain unchanged throughout the lifetime of their machinery. But perhaps that original design was not in fact the most efficient for a specific task? How much could we gain by allowing the robots to evolve as a function of their performance?

This is the question Professor Dr. Fumiya Iida at Cambridge University in the UK set out to answer with his latest research. Professor Iida’s and his team make up the Cambridge Robotics Lab and have established a name for themselves applying the principles of biology to robotic systems. Their past work includes robots that spin webs like spiders and those that twitch in their sleep like many mammals as a means of organizing neural circuitry. It was only a matter of time before Iida and co. took on one of the most basic tenets of biology: evolution.

In this work, they first designed and built a ‘mother robot’ which was capable of autonomously fabricating her own ‘children’ with the ultimate goal of efficient locomotion. The mother was given access to a number of easily manipulated parts, some of which were equipped with small motors. ‘She’ then assembled each child and evaluated it based on how far it could travel in a given time. With every successive generation of offspring, the mother was able to glean knowledge about the best assembly technique. In each experiment, 10 generations were produced yielding 100 total locomotive robots. In all cases, the speed of each generation gradually increased as the mother-bot refined her construction methodology. For example, in one experiment the first generation averaged 2.8 cm/s while the last managed 6.7 cm/s, a more than two-fold increase in just ten steps. The video below shows the project in action.

Very likely, those who have seen too many science fiction movies will panic at these results. These tiny cuboid locomotors might just be the first step towards robot domination and the inevitable decline of humanity that will entail. Those with a little more realism and optimism, though, might acknowledge the potential benefits that will arise from this development. Robots allowed to evolve and determine their own best structures might be able to increase their efficiencies using forms of which a human designer might not even conceive. Generations of robots might also be able to adjust their behavior as the tasks we demand of them shift with our changing desires. We already rely on robotics for a huge amount of our daily lives, from fabricating automobiles to fighting wars and performing surgeries, let’s accept that they’re here to stay and that their evolution benefits us all.

Via Science Daily and PLoS One.