Opinion: How we built a robot that can evolve – and why it won't take over the world

December 18, 2015 by Fumiya Iida, The Conversation
Credit: Nelo Hotsuma/Flickr, CC BY-SA

The latest research on robots is often described as if it were a step on the inexorable march toward a robot apocalypse straight out of the Terminator films. While there are risks in developing artificial intelligence that need to be taken seriously, reacting to every development in robotics with undue fear could stifle research and creativity.

For example, creating that can design future versions of itself – effectively a that can reproduce and evolve – might help us discover innovations that humans might not consider on their own. It would need to be carefully monitored and controlled but, rather than something to fear, it could lead us to a greater understanding of the physical world and our own development.

Unnatural selection

Using artificial intelligence to improve a design by repeatedly copying it and adding a small change each time (iterative design) is not a novel approach, but it has so far been restricted to computer simulations. By modelling a group of lifeforms that can reproduce, you can simulate a process that's similar to the natural selection of real biological evolution. The individuals that are most successful are more likely to reproduce and spread their own particular design. So after a number of generations you will eventually have an optimised version of the lifeform that a human designer may not have come across on their own.

Computer simulations of natural selection and evolution come with a series of advantages. Theoretically, the only limit to the number of generations and how fast they are produced is the computer's speed. Models without promise can be easily discarded while potentially fruitful designs can be explored rapidly. And there is no need for a large supply of because computer memory is abundant, cheap, and takes up very little space.

The problem is that the simulated lifeforms may bear little resemblance to what can exist in the real world. Physical robots that can actually be built, meanwhile, are traditionally stuck in one shape for their entire lifecycle.

Opinion: How we built a robot that can evolve – and why it won’t take over the world
Robobabies. Credit: Fumiya Iida, Author provided

To overcome these issues, my colleagues and I have built a "mother" robot that can manufacture its own "children" without human intervention, as reported recently in PLOS One. We programmed it to produce simple robots, comprised of between one and five plastic cubes with a small motor inside, which are capable of crawling. The children are then autonomously tested to see which designs perform best.

Based on these results, the mother then produced a second generation using principles based on . It used the "virtual DNA" of the best first-generation children as a starting point for its designs in order to pass down preferential traits. The process was repeated hundreds of times and eventually the fittest individuals in the last generation performed a set locomotion task twice as quickly as the fittest individuals in the first generation.

The mother of invention

By allowing the mother to restlessly create hundreds of new shapes and gait patterns for her children, she produced designs that a human engineer might not have been able to build. The most interesting and important thing about this is that she effectively demonstrated creativity.

Unlike conventional mechanical systems such as packaging robots in factories, which repeat the same motions programmed by humans, our mother robot was able to autonomously construct children without influence by human designers. As a result, she can "invent" novel designs.

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At the moment the children are too simple and restricted to become mothers themselves, so we don't have a complete copy of natural evolution. As the technology advances, however, there's no reason why this couldn't happen in the future.

But isn't it too dangerous to have robots evolving by themselves? We believe not. The aim of our research is to engineer the underlying mechanisms of creativity. We wanted to know how machines can handle unknown objects, how new ideas and designs can emerge from a statistical process, and how much time, energy, raw materials and other resources are needed to create anything truly novel.

Blocks of life. Credit: Fumiya Iida, Author provided

The robot children created so far have given us some surprises with unique designs and motions that human engineers would be unlikely to consider in the first instance. But engineering is a bottom-up process to build up technology piece-by-piece by understanding why and how things work. So unlike biological creatures, our evolving robots are still, and will always be, within our expected boundaries and control.

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8 comments

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Grallen
5 / 5 (2) Dec 18, 2015
I like that this article is labelled opinion.
qquax
5 / 5 (4) Dec 18, 2015
Whoever illustrated this article doesn't know much about Dr. Who.
betterexists
1 / 5 (1) Dec 18, 2015
Given Plastic Bones, can it make a Plastic Dinosaur? Almost like assembling cars in Auto factories.
antigoracle
1 / 5 (1) Dec 18, 2015
Fumiya is a robot, don't listen to him/it. I recommend you watch the Terminator documentaries.
Nik_2213
4 / 5 (4) Dec 18, 2015
Why do journalists keep using Daleks as examples of robots ??
Per Dr.Who canon, they're cyborgs.
Yup, there's a squishy mutant inside...
someone11235813
1 / 5 (2) Dec 19, 2015
Artificial Intelligence should more correctly be termed 'mock intelligence', because that's all it will ever be and so definitely there is nothing to fear. As a porcelain painted apple is to an apple growing on an apple tree so is artificial intelligence to actual intelligence.
thingumbobesquire
1 / 5 (1) Dec 19, 2015
The obscurantist practice of substituting symbols for intelligible words is now supposed to substitute for thought... Just today, it has been announced that a project to map some umpteen billions of neural networks into some ballyhooed computerized googol complex. The only problem is that many of these gentlemen seem to have lost their marbles themselves. That is, they ardently believe that the human mind is some sort of unfathomably complex mechanical device.

With this much I will have to agree: to the rank reductionism of artificial intelligence/neural network methodology the truly human mind will forever remain in their lingo a black box.
szeldich
not rated yet Dec 23, 2015
Sorry, but super intelligent artificial systems, if created as an independent organism, will take over. As the result, there will be no place for any form of biological life simply because accessible resources are limited.
Fortunately for us today science did not have basis for such development, and, if will stay with today ideas about consciousness, mind and so an, will never develop.
The danger connected with super intelligent artificial systems could be easy avoided, if such systems, by design, will be unable to have their own wishes.

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