What a Robot ‘Cambrian Explosion’ Means

By Jeremy Hsu | September 4, 2015 9:56 am
The humanoid robot HRP2 made by a team from Tokyo participated in the 2015 DARPA Robotic Challenge. Credit: DARPA

The humanoid robot HRP2 made by a team from Tokyo participated in the 2015 DARPA Robotic Challenge. Credit: DARPA

Half a billion years ago, Earth’s animal life rapidly evolved during the event known as the Cambrian explosion. In the future, growing swarms of robots all talking with one another could spark a similar “Cambrian explosion” for robotic evolution. A robotics expert who has worked for the U.S. military recently published a paper on the technological changes that could rapidly spawn the next generation of robots powered by advanced artificial intelligence. He also weighs the consequences of robots rapidly replacing huge numbers of human workers.

Two technologies could play the biggest roles in rapid robot and AI evolution, according to Gill Pratt, who has served as robotics program manager for the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). First, “Cloud Robotics” could allow robots to share experiences and knowledge through wireless connections and the Internet. Second, “Deep Learning” algorithms allow robots to learn from experience and apply those lessons to more general scenarios. Together, they could lead to more capable robots with the AI brains to handle many more jobs currently done by humans, according to Pratt’s paper published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

“While a Cambrian Explosion in robotics promises to improve the human condition dramatically, it also looms as a disruptive economic force, in part because of its much-discussed potential to make certain human jobs redundant,” Pratt writes. “Yet there is reason to embrace the pending robotics revolution despite such concerns.”

They Took Our Jobs

The Cambrian explosion of robotics could lead to swarms of capable robot workers replacing many human workers in a very short time. That rapid change could easily have a disruptive effect by leaving many people jobless and without much value to offer to the new economy. Eventually, a robot-driven economy might actually satisfy the traditional human demand for goods and services and eliminate the demand for additional labor. Such a world might end up looking like today’s music business; an economy that offers “superstar wages” to a few highly talented people and only pays low levels of income to the rest.

Still, Pratt points to a few possible ways out of humanity’s future dilemma. First, some human services and products will probably sell for higher prices than cheaper robotic alternatives. Today’s examples include hand-crafted goods and live music tickets that sell for higher prices than machine-made goods or music recordings.

Second, everyone might end up owning their own robot worker and enjoying leisure time. But achieving that utopian-sounding ideal would require some initial plan for distributing “robot capital” among humans.

Third, future humans might earn money by selling their “personal preferences” as potential customers. Many tech companies already use online tools to collect and sell information about our personal preferences to advertisers. But a future information economy might enable some way for us to regularly receive payment in exchange for our changing personal preferences.

Predicting the Cambrian Explosion

Such considerations may seem far off in the future. But Pratt devotes most of his paper to describing progress in data storage, battery energy storage, electronics power efficiency, computation power and other technological areas that could help spark the Cambrian revolution in robotics. He also mentions the significant amounts of money tech companies have poured into developing better robots and AI.

“The timing of tipping points is hard to predict, and exactly when an explosion in robotics capabilities will occur is not clear,” Pratt writes. “Commercial investment in autonomy and robotics—including and especially in autonomous cars—has significantly accelerated,with high-profile firms like Amazon, Apple, Google, and Uber, as well as all the automotive companies, announcing significant projects in this area.”

The U.S. military and other government agencies have also been pushing the boundaries of robotics research. During his time with DARPA, Pratt oversaw the U.S. military’s DARPA Robotics Challenge. This summer, the contest awarded a total of $3.5 million to the most capable robots from teams around the world in 2015. Such robots had to demonstrate their capability to handle physical tasks such as turning a valve, tripping circuit breakers, climbing stairs and even driving a car.

In the end, nobody knows exactly when a Cambrian explosion in robotics could happen. But some AI researchers have begun looking to past examples of abrupt leaps in technological progress for clues about the future of AI and robots; they’re even paying “research bounties” worth between $50 and $500 for historical examples. Their hope is that a sudden rise of AI won’t catch humanity completely by surprise.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: technology, top posts, Uncategorized
  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    Humans earn their way with brains, hands, backs, or criminality. A Robo-Anthropocene explosion leaves only brains (2% of population) and criminals; possibly only criminals (J. Automated Reasoning, 19(3) 263 (1997), doi:10.1023/A:1005843212881). A Robo-Anthropocene explosion begs Divine Blight Rule (government with universal real time surveillance, enforcement, and punishment).

    “The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren’t enough criminals one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What’s there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced or objectively interpreted – and you create a nation of law-breakers – and then you cash in on guilt.”

    Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (1957); Richard Nixon, “War on Drugs,” 1971; Barack Obama, “Affordable Care Act,” 2010. Amateurs with slow clocks cannot squeeze hard enough.

  • Edward

    I think the true question we must ask ourselves about mechanized war machines (this is extrapolating the argument to this end as most people will eventually) is who will have control of them? I submit that we must be the ones to research and develop these so that we are the ones who control them, the United States. We have made mistakes, and been the bad guys in several excursions around the world, this I fully recognize, but would we, and the world, do as well having another master? Take nuclear proliferation as the test subject in this- if not our development and subsequent steady hand, would the Russians, a quick developer after us, been so restrained in the use of the weapon to coerce? If we do not develop these will others be as restrained in their use? Our development should be in areas of most ‘help’ to humans, but also in defensive elements which can counter more aggressive leanings elsewhere. We Americans typically hobble ourselves with overly complicated rules and regulations to inhibit misuse, so I must say that I am for our development of artificial intelligence and hope our hand remains as steady as it has thus far.

    • bwana

      As steady as it has been in escalating problems in the Middle East!? Should be interesting times ahead…

  • http://lewbryson.blogspot.com LewBryson

    I for one welcome our new robot overlords.

    (Someone was going to say it…)

  • Overburdened_Planet

    If human made products and services sell for higher prices, who will afford them, that is, if machines take our jobs?

    The same question applies to owning machines.

    And personal preferences can be sold, but only to customers that can afford machines.

    If an information economy is based on paying for changing personal preferences, then our preferences will not change naturally because we will be compelled to change for cash, and not because we want to change.

    Now, if by changing preferences you meant sexbots…;)

  • JaxStravig

    Getting popcorn ready for the PETR’s (People for the Ethical Treatment of Robots) case to make ownership of A.I. Robots equivalent to slavery. Once freed from mankind’s oppression, the real fun begins.

  • Rich Helm

    “rapidly evolved” talk about an oxymoron.

    • Jack

      No contradiction there

      • Rich Helm

        Yes there most certainly is, evolution does not happen “rapidly.” At least not of its own accord.

        • Jack

          Rapid is a relative, not absolute description. The rate of evolution during the “Cambrian Revolution” was rapid compared with most other periods.

          • Rich Helm

            The reality is it was too rapid, far too rapid. Even Darwin couldn’t explain or understand it.

          • Jack

            At the time of Darwin there was no way to accurately date fossils. Therefore Darwin, nor anyone else could determine the rapidity of evolution. What puzzled him was that from the fossil evidence then available there seemed to be no life prior to the “Cambrian Explosion”. We have solved that mystery now with fossils dating back billions of years prior to the CE. The CE itself is an example of an evolutionary radiation where a vacant ecospace opens up, usually due to an extinction event. Apparently at the time of the CE an unprecedented ecospace opened, perhaps due to the first appearance of bifocal vision.

          • Rich Helm

            The problem isn’t that was no life prior to the CE but that the creation of new species during that period happened much too quickly to have occurred through evolution.
            The pervasive patterns of natural history seriously undermine the plausibility of neo-Darwinian theory. The disparity of the major body plans in the Cambrian explosion appear before the diversity of species.

          • Jack

            What evidence leads you to your conclusions?

          • Rich Helm
          • Jack

            I mean research articles.

          • Rich Helm

            So Dr.’s of science giving a lecture isn’t good enough, nonsense. Besides, I’ve already given more to back up my point than you have given to back up yours.

          • bwana

            Some people will simply not watch an excellent hour and a half of “scientific” results… Sadly! But I don’t accept the creationist overtones; total nonsense!

          • Rich Helm
          • Rich Helm

            The Information Enigma – The Cambrian Information Explosion

  • RickPerconte

    “For me, at least, it is a rather daunting challenge to imagine how this can occur on a planet of finite resources that may soon have 10 billion or more people inhabiting it.”

    Once the robots take over, I’m certain they will institute some form resource management and population control.
    For our own good, of course.

    • Jack

      That’s why we are planning to mine asteroids.

    • Ivar Ivarson

      “With Folded Hands” Jack Williamson (1947) as short story.


Lovesick Cyborg

Lovesick Cyborg examines how technology shapes our human experience of the world on both an emotional and physical level. I’ll focus on stories such as why audiences loved or hated Hollywood’s digital resurrection of fallen actors, how soldiers interact with battlefield robots and the capability of music fans to idolize virtual pop stars. Other stories might include the experience of using an advanced prosthetic limb, whether or not people trust driverless cars with their lives, and how virtual reality headsets or 3-D film technology can make some people physically ill.

About Jeremy Hsu

Jeremy Hsu is journalist who writes about science and technology for Scientific American, Popular Science, IEEE Spectrum and other publications. He received a master’s degree in journalism through the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at NYU and currently lives in Brooklyn. His side interests include an ongoing fascination with the history of science and technology and military history.


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