Will Big Brother be cultural watershed for robots?

April 27, 2007

A multidisciplinary team is setting up a " Big Brother house " for robots. As in the reality TV show, the robot participants will be under constant observation to see how they interact and how their behaviour changes over several months in a confined space.

The team, led by robot expert Alan Winfield of the University of the West of England, will organise 60 miniature robots, all of which are programmed to interact and imitate each other, into "villages".

Because the robots cannot imitate each other perfectly, unexpected differences will emerge when one robot tries to copy another. This will lead to changes in behaviour.

Once the robots have been interacting for a while, the project team will change the robots' neural networks to make them better at recognising and responding to the emerging behaviours.

By alternating the two phases of the experiment over several months, the researchers hope eventually to produce a set of novel robot behaviours that are qualitatively and quantitatively different from those displayed at the start of the experiment. This can be likened to an emerging "robot culture", they say.

Professor Winfield said the experiment could shed light on how culture evolved and could have implications for human, animal or artificial societies. He said: "We expect to see primitive behaviours emerging - perhaps even something we might recognise as the beginnings of dance or language."

In an earlier similar experiment, one robot developed a fault in its wheel, Professor Winfield said. Other robots copied the resulting wobble, which spread throughout the group.

"This is one of the reasons why we're using real robots rather than computer simulations," he said. "Real robots go wrong, and they do not copy perfectly - they can only copy the movements that their sensors pick up."

Professor Winfield's team includes a theoretical biologist, a philosopher, a social scientist, an art historian and a cultural theorist, all from different universities.

The four-year project is the result of an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council workshop that brought together academic thinkers from a wide range of disciplines.

The team is planning to set up a webcam to enable schoolchildren and academics to observe the robot society.

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