Apparently, we're running out of robotics post-docs to do the grunt work of evolving robot-kind. Letting the robots do it might work better, anyway.
In a paper published last month in PLOS ONE, Luzius Brodbeck, Simon Hauser, and Fumiya Iida from the Institute of Robotics and Intelligent Systems at ETH Zurich took things one step further by teaching a “mother robot” to autonomously build children robots out of component parts to see how well they move, doing all of the hard work of robot evolution without any simulation compromises at all.
The basic idea behind evolutionary robotics is to build a whole bunch of simple robots, test them in some way, and then take a few of the most promising robots and use them to inform the design of the following generation. This is generally how biology evolution works (survival of the fittest and whatnot), and the fact that you’re sitting there reading this is a testament to how successful it can be. For those of us who don’t have eons to wait, robots can be forcibly evolved much much faster, as long as you’re willing to focus on just one trait and keep things extremely basic.
(Morphological Evolution of Physical Robots: Building)
This is a UR5 arm “mother robot” (that’s what the paper calls it) constructing a locomotion agent (what I’ve been calling a “child robot”) out of a few standardized parts, including active cubes with one rotating face and smaller passive cubes made out of wood. The mother robot hot glues active and passive cubes together and then transports them to a testing area, where they’re wirelessly activated and an overhead camera watches them wiggle around...
I was fascinated to read this study, because I couldn't help but think of the wonderful 1941 short story The Mechanical Mice, by Eric Frank Russell writing as Maurice A. Hugi. In the story, a man comes back from the future with the design for a robot mother, which is capable of designing and building smaller, mobile robots called golden shuttles:
He said, "The Robot Mother! That's what I made - a duplicate of the Robot Mother. I didn't realize it, but I was patiently building the most dangerous thing in creation, a thing that is a terrible menace because it shares with mankind the ability to propagate. Thank Heaven we stopped it in time!"
..."Did you notice," I went on, "the touch of bee-psychology in our antagonists? You built the hive, and from it emerged workers, warriors, and" - I indicated the dead saunterer - "one drone."
With a sigh of relief, I strolled toward the door. A high whine of midget motors drew my startled attention downward. While Butman and I stared aghast, a golden shuttle slid easily through one of the rat holes, sensed the death of the Robot Mother and scooted back through the other hole before I could stop it...
"Bill," [Burman] mouthed, "your bee analogy was perfect. Don't you understand? There's another swarm! A queen got loose!"
Read more about machine evolution-related articles (from Philip K. Dick's 1953 story Second Variety).