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Watch a Robot Evolve

It’s the mother of all robots

smithsonian.com

Look out, humans! Robots can evolve, too. Sort of. Researchers have designed a mama robot that can build increasingly better baby robots — without help from humans, reports Mashable’s Lance Ulanoff.

In a study published June 19 in PLoS ONE, a team at Cambridge University in the U.K. equipped a robot with the ability to make a generation of new robots — bumbling blue plastic cubes with motors — using a basic robotic arm and gripper. Mama robot built ten babies at a time and analyzed how far and how quickly they could move.

In this case, the programmed construction template serves as the baby robot’s “genome,” with “genes” controlling traits like shape and motor commands. Over time, mutations arose. Some improved the robot’s ability to move, while others left it immobile. Across ten generations and five experiments, mama refined the baby design, continually selected the best-moving babies and preserved their traits in the next generation.

It’s not evolution in the truest sense because these babies don’t ever grow up and create generations of their own, explains Ulanoff. However, the results do hint at the possibility of artificial evolution using a natural selection process. Aside from building progressively more adept children, the mama robot also came up with new shapes and gait patterns that would not even cross the mind of a human.

Could robots that can artificially evolve turn on us one day? Don’t worry: The tech isn’t quite there yet. This mama robot might be creative, but she doesn’t pose considerable danger to the human race.

About Helen Thompson
Helen Thompson

Helen Thompson writes about science and culture for Smithsonian. She's previously written for NPR, National Geographic News, Nature and others.

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