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Darwin's Devices: What Evolving Robots Can Teach Us about the History of Life and the Future of Technologyby John Long
Synopses & Reviews
What happens when we let robots play the game of life?
The challenge of studying evolution is that the history of life is buried in the past—we can’t witness the dramatic events that shaped the adaptations we see today. But biorobotics expert John Long has found an ingenious way to overcome this problem: he creates robots that look and behave like extinct animals, subjects them to evolutionary pressures, lets them compete for mates and resources, and mutates their ‘genes’. In short, he lets robots play the game of life.
In Darwin’s Devices, Long tells the story of these evolving biorobots—how they came to be, and what they can teach us about the biology of living and extinct species. Evolving biorobots can replicate creatures that disappeared from the earth long ago, showing us in real time what happens in the face of unexpected environmental challenges. Biomechanically correct models of backbones functioning as part of an autonomous robot, for example, can help us understand why the first vertebrates evolved them.
But the most impressive feature of these robots, as Long shows, is their ability to illustrate the power of evolution to solve difficult technological challenges autonomously—without human input regarding what a workable solution might be. Even a simple robot can create complex behavior, often learning or evolving greater intelligence than humans could possibly program. This remarkable idea could forever alter the face of engineering, design, and even warfare.
"Long, director of Vassar's Robotics Research Laboratory, describes a wonderfully creative series of experiments conducted with autonomous fishlike robots that, among other qualities, can search for food and avoid predators. In short, these 'tadros' (tadpole robots) can compete with each other in a mock evolutionary battle for survival. Long begins with first principles, his three simple rules of evolution: you score points for every child you create; bonus points for a child with offspring; and you use any means necessary to keep your offspring alive. Long's process of designing the 'tadros' and experiments are fascinating and give unique insights into high-level science. For example, he designs his 'tadros' to swim fast, an evolutionary advantage that results in a 'wobble,' thought to be an evolutionary disadvantage. But surprisingly the combination of wobble and speed confers an evolutionary advantage. Long deciphers these unexpected results with a delightful sense of humor and an infectious awe at, and enthusiasm for, discovery and the elegant mechanisms of evolution. For readers who like serious science, this is a captivating tour of the marriage of technology and biology. B&w illus. Agent: Laura Wood, FinePoint Literary Management." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Why using natural selection to design robots is revolutionizing our understanding of life.
Robots have come a long way since the days of futuristic metallic humanoid dreams. In Darwins Devices, biorobotics expert John Long takes readers on a tour of his own work and thinking—showing how evolutionary concepts can revolutionize design and engineering, while using evolved robots to unlock the biology of living and extinct species.
Long himself uses robots to answer two primary sets of questions. The first is about living organisms, especially fish: how do they get around, catch food—simply, how do they do what they do? The second is about long-dead organisms, including one of the toughest questions of them all: why did animals ever evolve backbones, and once they did, why did they prove so successful? But theres no reason to stop there—as Long himself argues, the most important aspect might just be the principles hes developing, which boil down to the power of dumb evolution to quickly output brilliant designs.
Darwins Devices is not just an amazing trip through the laboratory of a very fertile mind—its proof that both science and engineering can benefit when we simply sit back and let natural processes take control.
Biologists are pioneering a new way to study evolution. By building autonomous mobile robots that simulate animal behavior and subjecting them to selective pressures, they are now able to observe the heretofore glacial process of evolutionary adaptation. In turn, these mechanisms are revolutionizing ideas about engineering and design. In Darwin’s Devices, biorobotics expert John Long examines this powerful approach to improving our understanding of biology and the machines we rely on daily.
Darwin’s Devices is a trip through the laboratory of a fertile mind and the herald of a new era in experimental science. But more than that, it is proof that both science and engineering can benefit when we simply sit back and let natural processes take control.
About the Author
John Long is a Professor at Vassar College, with joint appointments in Cognitive Science and Biology. He serves as Director of Vassars Interdisciplinary Robotics Research Laboratory, which he co-founded. Long and his robots, Madeleine and the Tadros, have garnered widespread press coverage in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and more. He lives in Poughkeepsie, New York.
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Computers and Internet » Artificial Intelligence » Robotics