Evolution of Adaptive Behaviour in Robots by Means of Darwinian Selection

In spite of the apparent behavioral complexity of the robots, all behaviors were achieved with extremely simple brains consisting of only a handful of neurons.

2 min read
Evolution of Adaptive Behaviour in Robots by Means of Darwinian Selection

M.Waibel-EPFL-LIS-Cooperative-Robots

An essay by my two former PhD supervisors summarizing more than a decade of research in Evolutionary Robotics has created quiteabuzzintheblogo-sphere:

Ever since Cicero’s De Natura Deorum ii.34., humans have been intrigued by the origin and mechanisms underlying complexity in nature. Darwin suggested that adaptation and complexity could evolve by natural selection acting successively on numerous small, heritable modifications. But is this enough? Here, we describe selected studies of experimental evolution with robots to illustrate how the process of natural selection can lead to the evolution of complex traits such as adaptive behaviours. Just a few hundred generations of selection are sufficient to allow robots to evolve collision-free movement, homing, sophisticated predator versus prey strategies, coadaptation of brains and bodies, cooperation, and even altruism. In all cases this occurred via selection in robots controlled by a simple neural network, which mutated randomly. ...


Once one looks beyond the blogosphere claptrap caused by any mention of words like "evolution" or "predator" in the context of robotics, there are some interesting insights from this body of work: Foremost, the experiments outlined in the essay offer an intriguing real-world illustration of evolution at work. Another is that they offer a powerful way to study biological phenomena such as the evolution of group behaviors like communication or altruism in a highly-controlled, real-world system. Yet another is that embodiment does matter  - not only can the use of robots result in stronger testing of hypotheses and in higher predictive power than purely computational models, in some cases it is the best way to gain insights into the complex behavior resulting from a robot's - or animal's - reaction to the environmental changes caused by its own actions.

However, for all the work's merits I think that its limitations may be even more revealing. In spite of the apparent behavioral complexity of the robots, all behaviors were achieved with extremely simple brains consisting of only a handful of neurons. This is surprising, given that even the brains of animals as simple as the nematode worm C. elegans exceed this by an order of magnitude and animals like the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster by a factor 10'000. Clearly, we are far from evolving intelligent robots. Furthermore, the performance of robots invariably stagnated after a few hundreds of generations of evolution across all experiments. For now it is unclear if this is a direct cause of using extremely simple brains, or is tied to deeper reasons such as an inadequate genetic encoding. Either way, we are far from (re-?)creating open-ended evolution in the lab.

If you find this interesting, I suggest you have a look at the essay and accompanying videos

 

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How Robots Can Help Us Act and Feel Younger

Toyota’s Gill Pratt on enhancing independence in old age

10 min read
An illustration of a woman making a salad with robotic arms around her holding vegetables and other salad ingredients.
Dan Page
Blue

By 2050, the global population aged 65 or more will be nearly double what it is today. The number of people over the age of 80 will triple, approaching half a billion. Supporting an aging population is a worldwide concern, but this demographic shift is especially pronounced in Japan, where more than a third of Japanese will be 65 or older by midcentury.

Toyota Research Institute (TRI), which was established by Toyota Motor Corp. in 2015 to explore autonomous cars, robotics, and “human amplification technologies,” has also been focusing a significant portion of its research on ways to help older people maintain their health, happiness, and independence as long as possible. While an important goal in itself, improving self-sufficiency for the elderly also reduces the amount of support they need from society more broadly. And without technological help, sustaining this population in an effective and dignified manner will grow increasingly difficult—first in Japan, but globally soon after.

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