by October 1, 2001 0 comments

This one seems to be right out of Isaac Asimov’s imagination–robots that can ‘give birth to’ new robots. The concept is still on the drawing board, but experiments have proved that it’s possible. Researchers at the Brandeis University conducted an experiment with small robots called ‘Tupperbots’ to get them to reproduce, that is, exchange genetic material.

These robots had a Tupperware body, infrared communications, a microcontroller, two inputs and two outputs, a rechargeable battery, and an omni-directional infrared communications link that let them interact with each other. Each robot also had an EEPROM (Electronically Erasable Programmable Read-Only Memory) chip with a program (algorithm) on it. The control architecture was a feed-forward neural network.

The test setup comprised a pen with a floor that had steel strips connected to power supply. When the robots were in good contact with the floor, their battery would get charged, and would provide power when the contact with the floor was broken. The robots’ task was to reach a source of light connected to the center of the pen. This also involved interacting with other robots headed in the same direction, and moving around enough to reproduce. When all robots were moving towards the light and came within 4 cm of each other, they would exchange their ‘genes’, that is, some part of their algorithm, through the inter-robot infrared communications link. Thus, robots were continuously ‘evolving’ in the process of reaching the light.

When the robots reached the light, the infrared link on the robot received a signal from an infrared beacon above the light, which triggered a pre-programmed behavior–the robot would face the light, go to the edge of the pen, do a random turn, and start all over again. Every time a robot reached the light, its energy levels would increase, and every time it ‘reproduced’, they’d decrease.

The scientists are now testing this evolutionary behavior in more complex tasks and control architectures to check whether robots can indeed become an autonomous species like mankind.

Pragya Madan

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