Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Evolving Robots

Creationists often like to claim that complex traits cannot arise from the "simple" processes of mutation and selection.  They often claim that these processed are not even observable (even though we've been observing them since we began breeding plants and animals).

Anyone with even a basic grasp of science knows the above claims are pure BS, but not being content with simply being right, some scientists have now gone the extra mile and used evolution to make ROBOTS.

And not just any robots - robots that walk, hunt each other, evolve their shape, and which are even altruistic - a distinctly mammalian trait.  All of that was evolved; starting with nothing more than a collection of parts and a simple mutation/selection algorith.
The above image shows one such robot - in this case, this is an example of a walking robot whose shape evolved through autonomous design and fabrication.  Fancy way of saying the parts were randomly put together, mutated, and selected until a functioning robot was formed.

Pretty freakin' cool if you ask me!

This is hardly the first time computers and robots have been used in evolutionary experiments.  but what does make this experiment unique is that its the first time evolution of structure and evolution of behaviour have been done in one experiment.  In the past groups would either have a set structure whose behaviours evolved, or a pre-set series of behaviours that a object was then evolved to fit.

So what does this actually teach us about evolution?  Especially given the very simple evolutionary algorithm the used (see above image) - an algorithm far simpler than the "algorithm" of biological evolution.

As it turns out, this study teaches us a lot about evolution, notably:
  1. Small mutations can lead to very rapid changes in form/behaviour.  All of the behaviours appeared quite quickly in these experiments - usually a functioning behaviour/structure would appear in a few dozen generations, and after 100 or so generations the behaviour/structure would be highly defined.
  2. Once a behaviour/trait is formed, it is optimised very rapidly.
  3. Very simple systems (in this case consisting of a few hundred parts - compared to the thousands to tens-of-thousands of genes in living organisms) can be moulded by evolution into extremely complex beings, capable of complex  - even cooperative - behaviours.
But we all know what the creationist response will be - "but its still a robot".  Yep; they started with random collections of parts that couldn't do anything, evolved them into walking, hunting, cooperating robots, but that couldn't possibly be evolution...

Floreano, D., & Keller, L. (2010). Evolution of Adaptive Behaviour in Robots by Means of Darwinian Selection PLoS Biology, 8 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1000292


Imajilon said...

Just don't let robots evolve into creationists, OK?

Matt said...

Very cool.

I haven't read the original paper, but based on what you have described here, this certainly may illustrate an evolutionary process.

Although it also fits exactly with what the Intelligent Design camp (or is that Neo-Creationists) are preaching.

I don't think this is going to put an end to the bickering.