"Mother" Robot Builds Evolving Babies

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Caroline Reid

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1738 "Mother" Robot Builds Evolving Babies
Screenshot from footage of "mother" robot creating and testing a robot "baby." Fumiya Iida et al./ University of Cambridge.

A robot sitting all alone in a laboratory has been given some mechanized blocks to play with. A passerby would assume the robot was constructing them like a machine from a factory assembly line. The reality is much more curious: The robot is actually learning with each iteration. As each generation comes and goes, the mini-robots it creates also evolve. 

This isn't science fiction – the research was conducted recently at the University of Cambridge. You can read more about it and inspect some of the more and less successful robot designs in PLoS One.


The experimental setup is simple: The robot arm is provided with a selection of blocks that contain a small motor that it can glue together however it sees fit. The little creation can then spring to life and attempt to scuttle across the surface of a table. The robot "mother" observes its progress with a watchful camera-eye, gauging its fitness by how far the robo-child travels within a certain timeframe. 

The "baby robot" will eventually run out of power, and it's the robot arm's duty to look, learn and adapt so that the next one it builds travels a little further than the last. It dutifully repeats this process without any human intervention. As each generation progresses, the preferential traits are passed on. The fittest baby-bots were kept unchanged into the next generation, while mutations and alterations were introduced in the less fit ones. 

When watching the video, there is definitely something a little uncomfortable, a little removed from humanity, about the way the robot arm watches stoically while its creation writhes around on the table. 

There is little doubt that this robot arm improved its designs over time. The researchers performed five experiments that each contained 10 generations. For every generation, there were 10 baby robots (for a total of 100 per experiment). The generation 10 robots had an average speed that was more than twice the average speed of the generation one robots. 


“Natural selection is basically reproduction, assessment, reproduction, assessment and so on,” explained lead researcher Dr. Fumiya Iida from the University of Cambridge. “That’s essentially what this robot is doing – we can actually watch the improvement and diversification of the species.”

Even though there was no DNA involved, this project still has some relevance to evolution. “One of the big questions in biology is how intelligence came about – we’re using robotics to explore this mystery,” said Iida. “We think of robots as performing repetitive tasks, and they’re typically designed for mass production instead of mass customization, but we want to see robots that are capable of innovation and creativity.”

This obviously doesn't spell the beginning of the robopocalypse, but robots with a flair for creativity and the ability to improve their fellow robots can feel a little unnerving. However, this artistic license could open a new world of ingenuity in many fields. Robots could be the next stage of quality control, detecting as well as fixing errors in products. They could even be used in the design process, creating amalgamations of parts we can't even imagine.

You can watch a clip of the robot creating and testing its handiwork below.





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