Robotics: ID, Organization, Evolution, and Genesis

Date: Wed Sep 06 2000 - 05:37:16 EDT

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    USAToday (August 31, 2000, p. 4A) came out with the following story. I have
    not yet received my copy of NATURE on which the story is based. Assuming
    that the story is a reasonable interpretation, I am posting it here. I
    thought it may be of interest to some.


    Computer Designs and Makes Robots with Little Human Aid

    By Matthew Fordhal
    . c The Associated Press

    A computer programmed to follow the rules of evolution has produced offspring
    for the first time, designed and manufactured simple robots with minimal help
    from people.

    The 8-inch automatons did not take over the world or even vacuum the lab.
    Instead they crawled across a tabletop, exactly as they were digitally bred
    to do, said Jordan Pollack, a Brandeis University computer scientist.

    ''It's not what our robots do that is so surprising,'' he said. ''They're not
    humanoid robots, They don't raise their eyebrows and make you giggle. But
    what they did do was autonomously designed and manufactured.''

    Pollack and colleague Hod Lipson merged automatic manufacturing techniques
    with evolutionary computing to create a major milestone in the field of
    artificial life.

    Their results appear Thursday in the journal Nature.

    The computer that evolved the designs was told only what parts it would be
    working with, the physics of the environment in which its offspring would be
    moving, and the goal of locomotion.

    Over several days, the computer thought up different designs and methods of
    movement, creating traits that worked and failed. Like dinosaurs, woolly
    mammoths and dodo birds, the failures were cast into the dustbin of history.
    The most promising designs survived and passed their success to future
    generations. Hundreds of generations later, three robots were manufactured by
    a prototyping machine.

    ''It evolved various kinds of locomotive mechanisms - all surprising, given
    there was no human coming up with how to do it,'' Pollack said. The little
    white robots were made of bars, actuators, ball joints, motors and circuits.
    People intervened only to insert the motors into the plastic parts spit out
    by the prototyping machine.

    By having a computer create designs using natural selection, researchers
    edged closer to solving two of robotics' biggest obstacles: robots' lack of
    versatility and their high cost of development.

    Robots engineered by people typically function only under specific conditions
    with limited ability to adapt to changing situations. A simple robot that
    vacuums a home, for instance, could cost millions to develop and sell for
    $5,000 after engineers figured out a way to make sure it doesn't crash into
    furniture or fall down stairs, Pollack said.

    Ultimately, the Darwinian approach could revolutionize everything from
    manufacturing to space exploration. ''Down the road, if we could have a
    thing like this in space, you could send the building blocks and let them
    evolve themselves,'' said Yoseph Bar-Cohen, director of a robotics lab at
    NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. ''That would be fascinating.''

    The next step, the researchers said, will be to incorporate sensors into the
    robots so that success or failure in the physical world can be built into
    future generations.


    I am frustrated by the unwarranted claim that this is an example of Darwinian
    evolution and natural selection. It is actually artificial selection, or
    perhaps just a breeding project, with experimenter intervention at least one
    critical point.

    I looked at this story in a much different way, as I am sure many of you
    immediately did as well.

    First, the entire experiment was intelligently designed. It would not have
    happened if Pollack and Lipson hadn't conceived and executed it.

    Second, a goal was specified--a robot that will crawl across a tabletop "goal
    of locomotion".. A prime characteristic of natural selection, however, is
    that it has no long range goals. On the other hand, an inherent
    characteristic of design is purpose. Thus design, not natural selection was
    the basic causal agent involved in the production of these robots.

    Third, the environment was specified--a tabletop. It's physics were
    described to the computer. Nothing random about this environment.

    Fourth, the necessary structural components were selected and supplied by the
    experimenters. The computer was told what they would be. Where did the
    parts come from?--especially the motor without which locomotion would have
    been impossible. Clearly, they were previously designed, that is,
    constructed with a purpose in mind of becoming parts of a robot. Would the
    computer have been able to scavenge for the necessary parts, or find and
    select the parts it needed out of a bin full of various parts without having
    been told which ones to choose?

    Fifth, natural selection kicked in only after the project had been organized,
    and its purpose defined and communicated to the computer, and the environment
    specified, and parts supplied.

    Finally, after all of the above, we get something that looks somewhat like
    natural selection in action.

    Sixth, the experimenters had to intervene to supply and insert motors and
    other parts where needed.

    I submit, however, that the whole project is a pretty accurate model of the
    way nature works. Design must come first. Purposes must be built in.
    Materials need to be supplied. Only then can natural selection function in a
    constructive manner. Once a long range purpose has been designated, natural
    selection can operate in the way Darwinians say it does, by selecting the
    most adaptive phenotypes to survive in a given environment and attain the
    long-range objectives supplied by design.

    There is also an uncanny parallel to Genesis 1: 26 ff. here that I find
    interesting. God said, "Let us make man in our image and after our
    likeness"--the basic design, conception of the plan. "And let them have
    dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over
    the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing"--the
    purpose or intent of the design. "So God created man in his own image, in
    the image of God created he them, male and female created he them"--execution
    of the design. "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it,
    and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the over the birds of the
    air and over every living thing"--repetition of the purpose or intent.
    "Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face
    of the whole earth"-- providing the parts needed to complete the design and
    defining the environment. Having designed the basic parameters, God created
    the first humans and placed them in the world where the laws of nature,
    particularly the processes of development, were allowed to complete the
    designed project. The outcome was human beings, not just robots.



    AP-NY-08-31-00 0900EDT

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