Unriddling Robots

Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. opened in Prague on this day in 1921. The play was soon being produced and debated worldwide, and the coinage “robot” — the play’s initials stand for “Rossum’s Universal Robots” — soon became the new way of referencing a very old concept. Derived from the Czech word for “forced labor,” Čapek’s robots begin enslaved but eventually rule the world, driving their human masters to the brink of extinction and evolving some of the better human emotions themselves.

The intersection of evolution and robotics inspires Darwin’s Devices, John Long’s study of “What Evolving Robots Can Teach Us About the History of Life and the Future of Technology.” A biology professor at Vassar College, Long and his team use an ever-adapting series of bio-robotic tadpoles (“Tadros”) to help explain fish evolution:

Like a clumsy criminal, adaptation leaves behind many clues in the DNA and anatomy of extinct and living species. But adaptation never leaves behind witnesses or surveillance tape. Biologists inevitably have to guess at the process of evolution. The best guesses about what went on come from reconstructing events. Using the clues — the physical evidence — good investigators can piece together a step-by-step sequence of places, agents, and interactions that most likely caused the outcome.

And what can we do to test this sequence? We can build models, let them run, and see if their behavior matches our predictions based on our evolutionary reconstruction. But we can also do one better: let the models evolve.

Aimed at the non-specialist, Long’s final chapter (“So Long, and Thanks for All the Robotic Fish”) ends with a warning about next-gen robotics: “The reality is that evolving robots are and will be created for academic, industrial and military purposes. This means that we should all become students of robots of any kind, whether they be evolving robots, nonevolving autonomous robots, or semiautonomous and remotely controlled military robots. We need to understand robots so we can proceed with due caution and deliberation. No secrets. No surprises.”

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.