It was only last month that futurists Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking warned about the dangers of intelligent machines, and a new research project led by the University of Cambridge won't do much to put their minds at ease. Scientists have created a mother robot that can not only build its own children robots, but mimic the process of natural selection to improve their capabilities with each generation.
The process begins with a robotic arm and a set of five plastic cubes with motors inside. Each cube features a unique "genome" made up of a combination of between one and five genes. This genome gives each cube its own set of attributes, relating to its shape, construction and motor commands.
The thinking is that just as species in nature mutate and genes are deleted, added and merged to adapt to different environments, the mother robot would facilitate its own version of evolution. Given only a single command to build a robot capable of movement, without any human intervention or computer simulation, the mother robot did just that.
The robotic overlord was put to use across five separate experiments, in which it designed, created and then tested generations consisting of ten children. It then tested their performance by measuring how far each child was capable of traveling within a certain amount of time. The best performing children advanced to the next generation unchanged, while new genomes were formed for slower ones in the group through mutation and merging genes.
This technique proved a success. The researchers report that the information gathered from each test drove the evolution of the following generation. So much so, that the robots in the final generation moved with an average speed of more than twice that of the fastest robots in the first generation. The mother was able to boost their performance by improving the design and inventing new shapes and gait patterns, including some designs that humans would not have been able to conjure up.
The overall aim of the project is to uncover ways robotics can receive a boost from aspects of the natural world. This means both through more intelligent machines and shaping the way that they move. These smart little blue cubes don't look likely to mount a challenge to mankind any time soon, but do indicate how robots, when left to their own devices, may be better at crafting machines than we are in the not too distant future.
"Natural selection is basically reproduction, assessment, reproduction, assessment and so on," says lead researcher Dr Fumiya Iida of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering. "That’s essentially what this robot is doing, we can actually watch the improvement and diversification of the species."
The research findings were published in the journal PLOS One.