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Archive for Thursday, August 31, 2000

Robots programmed to ‘evolve’

August 31, 2000

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Computer researchers near Boston report they've taken a vital step toward creating robot systems that act as if they're alive; the little buggers even evolve and get reproduced automatically.

Further, researchers in Switzerland have managed to teach robots to have "community spirit." As a result, according to the editors of Nature, "astonishing feats of organization emerge, almost magically, from lots of individuals following a few simple rules." In essence, they act like mechanical ants.

Together, the two reports in the British journal seem to move the computer/robot world an important step forward. Even, perhaps, toward the day when vast herds of mechanical ants are turned loose, reproduce themselves, and explore hostile environments on distant planets.

"Swarms of robots like this -- with autonomous, decentralized organization and cooperative abilities -- might one day be able to operate in unfamiliar environments that are out of the reach of humans," Nature's editors suggested. Mars would be an example.

The machines that evolve and reproduce were created by Hod Lipson and Jordan Pollack at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. The two scientists put together a computer-based manufacturing system in which the design of a mobile robot evolves within the computer.

To get started, Pollack and Lipson inform the computer of the physical laws it must adhere to -- such as water not running uphill -- and set out the goal -- a robot that can crawl. From there, the computer tries new ways, one after the other, to create a machine that will somehow crawl. It can go through hundreds of generations, and as many different robot shapes, before a design that works gets manufactured, automatically.

The robots "can drag themselves using forward appendages, push from the back, or both," Pollack said. The important point is that "no human designed the way that these robots move." Instead, the computer tries design after design, improving crawling ability as the robot evolves.

In this research, "the fittest' machines -- as defined by their locomotive ability -- are fabricated robotically using rapid manufacturing technology," Lipson and Pollack explained in their report. So the system allows machine design to evolve essentially untouched, gradually producing machines that get better and better at doing a given task. The scientists intervened only to snap small linear electric motors into their newborn robots -- to make movement possible. Actual movements were controlled by a microchip "brain" that "evolved" with the robots.

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