Robot Evolution: about as rapid as it gets?

This isn’t exactly evolution in response to chemicals – but could be argued that it is a rapidly evolving system! I wrote this article for AEON Magazine, a thoughtful and interesting online journal; but it touches upon some of the earliest “in silico” and then more recent attempts to understand the processes of evolution.

A quadrupedal robot used to help evolve gaits.  Courtesy Cornell Creative Machines Lab

A quadrupedal robot used to help evolve gaits. Courtesy Cornell Creative Machines Lab

In a laboratory tucked away in a corner of the Cornell University campus, Hod Lipson’s robots are evolving. He has already produced a self-aware robot that is able to gather information about itself as it learns to walk. Like a Toy Story character, it sits in a cubby surrounded by other former laboratory stars. There’s a set of modular cubes, looking like a cross between children’s blocks and the model cartilage one might see at the orthopaedist’s – this particular contraption enjoyed the spotlight in 2005 as one of the world’s first self-replicating robots. And there are cubbies full of odd-shaped plastic sculptures, including some chess pieces that are products of the lab’s 3D printer.

In 2006, Lipson’s Creative Machines Lab pioneered the Fab@home, a low-cost build-your-own 3D printer, available to anyone with internet access. For around $2,500 and some tech know-how, you could make a desktop machine and begin printing three-dimensional objects: an iPod case made of silicon, flowers from icing, a dolls’ house out of spray-cheese. Within a year, the Fab@home site had received 17 million hits and won a 2007 Breakthrough of the Year award fromPopular Mechanics. But really, the printer was just a side project: it was a way to fabricate all the bits necessary for robotic self-replication. The robots and the 3D printer-pieces populating the cubbies are like fossils tracing the evolutionary history of a new kind of organism. ‘I want to evolve something that is life,’ Lipson told me, ‘out of plastic and wires and inanimate materials.’

Upon first meeting, Lipson comes off like a cross between Seth Rogen and Gene Wilder’s Young Frankenstein (minus the wild blond hair). He exudes a youthful kind of curiosity. You can’t miss his passionate desire to understand what makes life tick. And yet, as he seeks to create a self-assembling, self-aware machine that can walk right out of his laboratory, Lipson is aware of the risks. In the corner of his office is a box of new copies of Out of Control by Kevin Kelly. First published in 1994 when Kelly was executive editor of Wired magazine, the book contemplates the seemingly imminent merging of the biological and technological realms — ‘the born and the made’ — and the inevitable unpredictability of such an event. ‘When someone wants to do a PhD in this lab, I give them this book before they commit,’ Lipson told me. ‘As much as we are control freaks when it comes to engineering, where this is going toward is loss of control. The more we automate, the more we don’t know what’s going to come out of it.’

Lipson’s first foray into writing evolvable algorithms for building robots came in 1998, when he was working with Jordan Pollack, professor of computer science at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. As Lipson explained:

We wrote a trivial 10-line algorithm, ran it on big gaming simulator which could put these parts together and test them, put it in a big computer and waited a week. In the beginning nothing happened. We got piles of junk. Then we got beautiful machines. Crazy shapes. Eventually a motor connected to a wire, which caused the motor to vibrate. Then a vibrating piece of junk moved infinitely better than any other… eventually we got machines that crawl. The evolutionary algorithm came up with a design, blueprints that worked for the robot.

The computer-bound creature transferred from the virtual domain to our world by way of a 3D printer. And then it took its first steps. The story splashed across several dozen publications, from The New York Times to Time magazine. In November 2000, Scientific American ran the headline ‘Dawn of a New Species?’ Was this arrangement of rods and wires the machine-world’s equivalent of the primordial cell? Not quite: Lipson’s robot still couldn’t operate without human intervention. ‘We had to snap in the battery,’ he told me, ‘but it was the first time evolution produced physical robots. It was almost apocalyptic. Eventually, I want to print the wires, the batteries, everything. Then evolution will have so much freedom. Evolution will not be constrained.’

In the late 1940s, about five decades before Lipson’s first computer-evolved robot, physicists, math geniuses and pioneering computer scientists at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University were putting the finishing touches to one of the world’s first universal digital computing machines — the MANIAC (‘Mathematical Analyzer, Numerical Integrator, and Computer’). The acronym was apt: one of the computer’s first tasks in 1952 was to advance the human potential for wild destruction by helping to develop the hydrogen bomb. But within that same machine, sharing run-time with calculations for annihilation, a new sort of numeric organism was taking shape. Like flu viruses, they multiplied, mutated, competed and entered into parasitic relationships. And they evolved, in seconds.

These so-called symbioorganisms, self-reproducing entities represented in binary code, were the brainchild of the Norwegian-Italian virologist Nils Barricelli. He wanted to observe evolution in action and, in those pre-genomic days, MANIAC provided a rare opportunity to test and observe the evolutionary process. As the American historian of technology George Dyson writes in his book Turing’s Cathedral (2012), the new computer was effectively assigned two problems: ‘how to destroy life as we know it, and how to create life of unknown forms’. Barricelli ‘had to squeeze his numerical universe into existence between bomb calculations’, working in the wee hours of the night to capture the evolutionary history of his numeric organisms on stacks of punch cards….

For more article see Robot Evolution.

For more about the early days of computing at the IAS see: An Artificially Created Universe.

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