People who work in robotics prefer not to highlight a reality of our work: robots are not very reliable. They break, all the time. This applies to all research robots, which typically flake out just as you’re giving an important demo to a funding agency or someone you’re trying to impress. My fish robot is back in the shop, again, after a few of its very rigid and very thin fin rays broke. Industrial robots, such as those you see on car assembly lines, can only do better by operating in extremely predictable, structured environments, doing the same thing over and over again. Home robots? If you buy a Roomba, be prepared to adjust your floor plan so that it doesn’t get stuck.
What’s going on? The world is constantly throwing curveballs at robots that weren’t anticipated by the designers. In a novel approach to this problem, Josh Bongard has recently shown how we can use the principles of evolution to make a robot’s “nervous system”—I’ll call it the robot’s controller—robust against many kinds of change. This study was done using large amounts of computer simulation time (it would have taken 50–100 years on a single computer), running a program that can simulate the effects of real-world physics on robots.
What he showed is that if we force a robot’s controller to work across widely varying robot body shapes, the robot can learn faster, and be more resistant to knocks that might leave your home robot a smoking pile of motors and silicon. It’s a remarkable result, one that offers a compelling illustration of why intelligence, in the broad sense of adaptively coping with the world, is about more than just what’s above your shoulders. How did the study show it?
Is our species, Homo sapiens sapiens, the first cyborg species? Gizmodo/New Scientist has a fascinating article up about how humans evolved as a result of technology. Timothy Taylor, an anthropologist and archaeologist at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom, submits a theory I am very inclined to believe: that humans evolved from tool-using proto-human primates. This evolutionary path resulted in a “survival of the weakest,” which Taylor explains:
Technology allows us to accumulate biological deficits: we lost our sharp fingernails because we had cutting tools, we lost our heavy jaw musculature thanks to stone tools. These changes reduced our basic aggression, increased manual dexterity and made males and females more similar. Biological deficits continue today. For example, modern human eyesight is on average worse than that of humans 10,000 years ago.
Unlike other animals, we don’t adapt to environments – we adapt environments to us. We just passed a point where more people on the planet live in cities than not. We are extended through our technology. We now know that Neanderthals were symbolic thinkers, probably made art, had exquisite tools and bigger brains. Does that mean they were smarter?
Human beings are the peak of evolution, right? Our advanced brains allow us to poke one another on Facebook, send rockets to the moon, and order complex drinks at Starbucks. We can even fall in love. How are we able to do all of that? NPR’s Science Podcast has been doing a running series “The Human Edge” in which they discuss various things about humans that make us, well, human. NPR’s John Hamilton tackled brain evolution and how we humans still carry parts of other ancestral animal brains within us. Feel that pebble in your shoe? Thank a jellyfish. Ever duck before a rogue Frisbee collides with your noggin? Thank a lizard. Remember where you left your keys? Thank a mouse.
Hamilton interviewed David Linden from John Hopkins University who explained that our brain is the way it is because evolution is “the ultimate tinkerer and cheapskate.” Evolution built our brain by taking simpler brains and just piling more brains on top – like adding scoops of ice cream to an ice cream cone. Hence, the pieces of our brain inherited from these other creatures are largely unchanged. The result is that our advanced, intricate, special gray-matter is spectacularly inefficient, poorly designed, and ill-suited to many of our daily needs. On the flipside, evolution’s Frankensteinian cobbling together of various animal brains is precisely why human beings can experience higher emotions like love. Our ice-cream-cone-brain has created some of our best, and most uniquely human, attributes. After the jump is an illustrated guide of how the forces of natural selection shaped your mighty mind from distant relatives of jellyfish, lizards, and mice. Read More
It’s been a long time in the making, but Spore has finally been released today for Windows and Macs. The brainchild of Will Wright, (best known as the creator of The Sims) this video game allows the player to go from controlling a protoplasmic blob in a tide pool to commanding a galactic empire. DISCOVER interviewed Will Wright about the Big Thoughts behind Spore in 2006, but what’s it like as a game?