Q&A: Animals and robots develop an unlikely scientific partnership

December 11, 2013 by Sarah Perrin

Collaborations between robotics specialists and biologists have never been so successful. The former draw their ideas from animal morphology while the latter have found in technology a useful tool for studying nature. Francesco Mondada, robotics engineer at EPFL, and Laurent Keller, specialist in evolutionary genetics at the University of Lausanne (UNIL), exchange their points of view. The latest issue of Flash presents their entire interview together with a special "robots- animals" section (in French).

One of them deals with life, the other with electronics and mechanics. Yet biologists and robotics specialists are having an increasing necessity to collaborate and share their knowledge. This results in different kinds of achievements, especially in the field of biomedicine. Additionally, such exchanges have also given rise to bio-inspired robotics, with a growing parade of robots imitating the morphology of animals. The ones engineered at EPFL have been inspired in cats, salamanders and insects.

There is a third type of feat: design robots that are capable of mingling amidst animal populations with the purpose of studying their behavior. This has become the specialty of Mondada's team at EPFL. At first they were engaged in a project involving cockroaches and then continued their adventure with chickens and fish. For his part, Laurent Keller, an expert in ants and at UNIL, has conducted a number of studies using robots developed at EPFL. Flash magazine presents a special "robots- animals" section together with an exchange of opinions between the biologist and the robotics engineer.

At first glance, when it comes to robotics and biology one could not imagine two more different fields of study. What were you interested about during these exchanges?

Francesco Mondada: As an engineer, I saw an opportunity to address new challenges and to answer questions that do not necessarily arise in more traditional engineering applications. For instance, when we worked on robotic cockroaches, there were chemical and miniaturization aspects that proved very interesting. When we do this kind of work we acquire knowledge that leads us to having new ideas for designing the robots' mechanisms and for developing new types of applications.

Laurent Keller: The use of robots can be useful in situations where you cannot directly employ real animals, mainly when we want to study social interactions or a particular aspect of behavior. In the project that I am conducting with Professor Dario Floreano at EPFL, we only work with robots. The aim is to study the evolution of cooperation among individuals, specifically to see the conditions under which they become more or less altruistic according to their degrees of relationship and the benefits they receive. The advantage with robots is that they can observe such evolution on a number of generations, while it would take years with real animals. In addition, we have also been able to test some theoretical biological models quantitatively for the first time.
- In practice, how does this interdisciplinary work and collaboration take place?

LK: In our case, robotics engineers had specific questions of a technical nature. On the other hand, our questions dealt with evolution and neural networks and were more complex. Therefore there is the matter of a language and concepts to be defined, which takes a little time. There are also differences in the approaches of the analysis. For example, as biologists we try to understand the behavior of all the individuals in a population as a whole, whereas engineers will tend to take only the best specimens into account.

FM: We engineers are concerned with design and biologists with analysis. Thus, there is a difference of method, vision, language. For example, to you, Laurent, what would be a significant temperature difference for an animal?

LK: Well, about two degrees.

FM: In electronics, the allowable temperature ranges are much wider. You begin to worry at the moment when you can no longer touch a component, when there's a difference of 20-30 degrees. For us, if we light a bulb and it heats, it's normal. For biologists, if they want light, it is normal for them to not to want heat. This is a typical example of the kind of difficulty or misunderstanding that may happen.

Laurent Keller, what made you think about the possibility of using robots?

LK: One of my students was interested in issues related to artificial intelligence and I put him in contact with people from EPFL. This is where the idea came to establish further collaboration. What interested me was the possibility to make machines capable of evolving and to observe group behaviors such as the evolution of sociability, which we are not able to study in isolation with real animals.

And you, Francesco Mondada, how did you become aware of the interest in using robots as a tool for biologists?

FM: When I was working on bio-inspired robotics projects, I had the opportunity to come across biologists who brought us the elements of behavior or animal morphology that we lacked. One day, we thought it would be nice to be able to, in turn, bring to robots to their labs. That proved quite a success! Then, I received requests from who were interested in using such a tool to conduct their research. And for us, this constitutes an interesting testing ground.

More and more inventions are combining technology and life sciences. How do you see the future? Do you think biologists and robotics specialists are going to have to collaborate even more?

LK: That's true; collaborations of this kind are more frequent. But personally, I prefer to stick to the concrete reality and I do not like to speculate on what might happen, which eventually never does as imagined.

FM: At EPFL there are good examples of inventions of this kind, particularly in the fields of neuroprosthetics and biomedicine. Then again, we are not specialized in these disciplines. Essentially, what we are doing is "tricking" living organisms by copying some significant biological aspects. Unlike bio-inspired robotics, we are not concerned with imitating or copying living beings' mechanisms in their complexity. In short, we do not want our fish to look like a real fish; we just need it to have the required features for the real fish around it to think it is.

Explore further: Robots learn to share, validating Hamilton's rule (w/ video)

Related Stories

Robots show the evolution of altruism

May 23, 2011

Scientists in Switzerland have pieced together the puzzle on the evolution of unselfish behaviour. They simulated genetic evolution over hundreds of generations by using simple robots, providing evidence of kin selection. ...

Deciphering communication: learning from robots

January 6, 2012

(PhysOrg.com) -- An experiment led by Laurent Keller at the University of Lausanne (UNIL) and by Steffen Wischmann and Dario Floreano at EPFL shows that communication systems can evolve differently within the same species ...

Robots acquire 'softness' and flexibility

December 5, 2013

Increasingly small robots that carry out their functions even inside the human body. No, this isn't a sci-fi dream but a close possibility. On one condition: the miniaturization of these devices requires them to acquire the ...

Recommended for you

Inferring urban travel patterns from cellphone data

August 29, 2016

In making decisions about infrastructure development and resource allocation, city planners rely on models of how people move through their cities, on foot, in cars, and on public transportation. Those models are largely ...

How machine learning can help with voice disorders

August 29, 2016

There's no human instinct more basic than speech, and yet, for many people, talking can be taxing. 1 in 14 working-age Americans suffer from voice disorders that are often associated with abnormal vocal behaviors - some of ...

Auto, aerospace industries warm to 3D printing

August 25, 2016

New 3D printing technology unveiled this week sharply increases the size of objects that can be produced, offering new possibilities to remake manufacturing in the auto, aerospace and other major industries.


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.