Swarm Robots Evolve Deception

In a mere 50 virtual generations, swarm bots (remember them?) using genetic software evolved the capacity to lie to other robots about the location of a source of food. Initially, the robots were programmed as a group to search for an object that represented food, and they gradually learned to emit a blue light when they found the food to show other robots where it was. Researchers at EPFL in Switzerland evolved and mixed the programming of the most successful foragers until they had a bunch of robots who were very good at finding food, and then gave the virtual genes of each individual robot control over their blue light that signified food.


You might expect that the robots would learn not to signal when they found the food to reduce competition, which is passive deception, but they also evolved an actively deceptive behavior, where some robots would deliberately travel away from the food and signal their blue light, drawing other robots in the wrong direction. Crafty little buggers. Interestingly, this deceptive behavior didn't make much of a difference to the overall fitness of the group strategy of following blue lights... Some robots always tell the truth with their blue lights, which means it's always advantageous for a clueless robot to follow a blue light as opposed to just wandering randomly.

So why do some robots keep telling the truth if deception can effectively lure other robots away from the food? It's fairly simple, as I understand it... If all of the robots are deceivers, any new robot will quickly learn that avoiding blue lights is the best way to find food. And in that case, any robot that starts signaling its blue light when it does find food (through a "genetic mutation" in its software) will increase its own fitness by repelling other robots from the food it finds. As it passes this behavior on to its virtual children, there will be more and more truthful robots until it once again becomes more advantageous to be deceptive.

There are, however, populations of truthful and deceptive robots such that the combination of behaviors reaches a stable point. In this particular experiment, the stable evolutionary endpoint (after 500 generations) was that 60% of the robots were deceivers and 10% told the truth. Furthermore, about a third of the robots were slightly attracted to blue lights, another third were strongly attracted, and the final third avoided them completely. This type of experiment, its progression, and the results are particularly fascinating to me because the robots are behaving and evolving in much the same way as populations of animals do. Examples of both altruism and tactical deception can be found in many different species of animals as well as (of course) in humans, but these little robots offer a unique opportunity to study (and tweak) the evolution of behavior in real time.

[ EPFL ] via [ Not Rocket Science ]



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Erico Guizzo
New York City
Senior Writer
Evan Ackerman
Washington, D.C.

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