Tricksy evolution proves its worth

How do you create a sophisticated, clever robot? Let it evolve. So say researchers from the University of Sussex, who have "artificially evolved" the brains and the bodies of real machines

October 31, 1997

The researchers, from the Centre for Computational Neuroscience and Robotics, say that just as IQ tests are wrong to equate intelligence with the ability to solve abstract problems, the idea that clever robots can be created using computer programs is "absolute madness".

It seems that our enthusiasm for IQ tests and chess-playing computers is the latest in a history of misunderstandings about the brain.

"Early in the last century, people thought about brains as steam engines. Later, they were telephone exchanges," said the CCNR's Inman Harvey.

But our ideas about intelligence, rooted in the notion of the brain-as-computer, prevents us from taking advantage of all the tricks that 3.9 billion years of evolutionary history gave humans before they developed language.

Dr Harvey said: "If we want to understand the mechanisms that make us human, beginning with intellectual problem-solving is the wrong place to start."

Instead, the Sussex team, with an artificial-life approach, concentrates on the ability to survive. Taking their inspiration from nature, the scientists developed ways of artificially evolving the systems that control, and the physical features of robots.

Nick Jacobi, a researcher at the centre, said: "Artificial evolution works by testing possible brain structures created at random and seeing which works best. The winners are reproduced with some mutations, and the cycle repeats."

Using computer simulation to speed up the process, the scientists have produced novel designs for robot brains, electronic circuits, and aircraft wings.

Jacobi, who is writing his PhD thesis, has designed simple simulations that run extremely fast. Robot control systems that would have taken more than a year to produce can be made overnight using his methods. These robot brains can then be downloaded into machines.

Dr Harvey said simulations yielded new insights, partly be-cause artificial evolution could produce designs that did the job but were not biased by people's prejudices.

But he also warned that such robots designed to survive in an uncertain environment added uncertainty for us. "I think we will have a load of artificially-evolved technical artifacts. But how will we decide if they are acceptable?"

Research papers

Research papers relating to the main stories on this page can be found on the following sites:

http://www.dai.ed.ac.uk/ (Edinburgh)

http://www.cogs.susx.ac.uk/users/inmanh/ (Sussex)

http://www.ee.ic.ac.uk/research/neural/neural.html (Imperial)

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