Darwin's Devices: What Evolving Robots Can Teach Us About the History of Life and the Future of Technology

Overview

What happens when we let robots play the game of life?
 
The challenge of studying evolution is that the history of life is buried in the past—we can’t witness the dramatic events that shaped the adaptations we see today. But biorobotics expert John Long has found an ingenious way to overcome this problem: he creates robots that look and behave like extinct animals, ...

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Darwin's Devices: What Evolving Robots Can Teach Us About the History of Life and the Future of Technology

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Overview

What happens when we let robots play the game of life?
 
The challenge of studying evolution is that the history of life is buried in the past—we can’t witness the dramatic events that shaped the adaptations we see today. But biorobotics expert John Long has found an ingenious way to overcome this problem: he creates robots that look and behave like extinct animals, subjects them to evolutionary pressures, lets them compete for mates and resources, and mutates their ‘genes’. In short, he lets robots play the game of life.
 
In Darwin’s Devices, Long tells the story of these evolving biorobots—how they came to be, and what they can teach us about the biology of living and extinct species. Evolving biorobots can replicate creatures that disappeared from the earth long ago, showing us in real time what happens in the face of unexpected environmental challenges. Biomechanically correct models of backbones functioning as part of an autonomous robot, for example, can help us understand why the first vertebrates evolved them.
 
But the most impressive feature of these robots, as Long shows, is their ability to illustrate the power of evolution to solve difficult technological challenges autonomously—without human input regarding what a workable solution might be. Even a simple robot can create complex behavior, often learning or evolving greater intelligence than humans could possibly program. This remarkable idea could forever alter the face of engineering, design, and even warfare.
  An amazing tour through the workings of a fertile mind, Darwin’s Devices will make you rethink everything you thought you knew about evolution, robot intelligence, and life itself.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Long, director of Vassar’s Robotics Research Laboratory, describes a wonderfully creative series of experiments conducted with autonomous fishlike robots that, among other qualities, can search for food and avoid predators. In short, these “tadros” (tadpole robots) can compete with each other in a mock evolutionary battle for survival. Long begins with first principles, his three simple rules of evolution: you score points for every child you create; bonus points for a child with offspring; and you use any means necessary to keep your offspring alive. Long’s process of designing the “tadros” and experiments are fascinating and give unique insights into high-level science. For example, he designs his “tadros” to swim fast, an evolutionary advantage that results in a “wobble,” thought to be an evolutionary disadvantage. But surprisingly the combination of wobble and speed confers an evolutionary advantage. Long deciphers these unexpected results with a delightful sense of humor and an infectious awe at, and enthusiasm for, discovery and the elegant mechanisms of evolution. For readers who like serious science, this is a captivating tour of the marriage of technology and biology. B&w illus. Agent: Laura Wood, FinePoint Literary Management. (Apr.)
From the Publisher

Neil Shubin, Professor, University of Chicago, and author of Your Inner Fish
“Robots hold a key to our past, present, and future in John Long’s fascinating Darwin’s Devices. Telling the story of the exciting science at the boundary of biology and engineering, Long takes us on a tour of how science is done, how new ideas emerge, and how insights to ourselves can come from surprising places.”

George V. Lauder, Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University
“John Long gives us an engagingly written and highly personal book that introduces his new approach to understanding the past using evolving robots. His unique perspective is sure to inspire others and broaden our views on how robots can inform our understanding of evolution.”
 
David Levy, author of Love and Sex with Robots
“John Long weaves a fascinating journey of scientific exploration which he describes with a highly infectious enthusiasm. Long’s field is the creation of autonomous robots that can teach us about the evolution of animal behaviour—a complex subject which he analyzes and simplifies with great clarity. Darwin’s Devices is a thoroughly stimulating read.”
 
Steven Vogel, James B. Duke Professor, Duke University
“Whether in laboratory or kitchen, making something always improves your understanding of how it works. In this book, John Long traces his path toward better understanding the evolution of fish swimming by making robots that swim. His models quite literally embody the way the process of natural selection acts on performance in seeking food or not becoming food. It’s a personal account of real-world science, complete with the bumps and bruises, the thickets of thorns. It’s about the way we experimentalists go about things—not always pretty, but highly addictive in the doing and almost as seductive in the reading.”
 
Kirkus Reviews
“Lively and intriguing.”
 

Booklist
“[A] lucidly written description of [Long’s] research…. Using ingeniously engineered devices called evolvobots that mimic carefully selected animal features, Long and his team have been probing such mysteries as how the flexible spines of fish and mammals developed, and whether or not brains are really necessary for some species’ survival. Especially inspiring is Long’s demonstration that biorobotics is not only revolutionizing the study of biology but also providing new enthusiasm for engineering technology’s value in novel applications. A must-read for aficionados of both evolutionary theory and cybernetics.”
 
Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Long’s process of designing the ‘tadros’ [tadpole robots] and experiments are fascinating and give unique insights into high-level science…. Long deciphers [the] unexpected results with a delightful sense of humor and an infectious awe at, and enthusiasm for, discovery and the elegant mechanisms of evolution. For readers who like serious science, this is a captivating tour of the marriage of technology and biology.”
 
New Scientist
“Though [Long] is a gifted storyteller, this is no simple fish tale. The engineering draw of robots is clear, but Long also emphasises the value for science, showing how robots can serve as physical models of biological organisms; evolving biorobots can shed light on why organisms evolved as they did; and robot interaction can illustrate coevolutionary dynamics, as between predators and prey…. With Darwin’s Devices, Long reminds us that science is always an adventure, and that new technology only drives us faster and further into the unknown.”
 
BostonGlobe
“[Long] manages to balance fairly detailed and frequently entertaining accounts of the nuts and bolts of robot research with occasional forays into big picture, what-does-it-all-mean thinking…. [H]is discussion was both intelligent and philosophically informed, a rare thing in contemporary science writing.”
 

Laura Miller, Salon
Darwin’s Devices is part Descartes, part MacGyver and part Douglas Adams, turning from rumination on the possibility of intelligence residing in a brainless body to tips on making artificial fish vertebrae out of coffee stirrers …. One of the most intriguing and important aspects of Darwin’s Devices is the way it places the reader in the lab, at the shoulder of people doing hands-on science, sharing in their frustrations (over disappointing data, recalcitrant grant committees and astutely critical colleagues), their successes and their failures. And Long does this so lucidly that you find yourself caught up in the process, grasping the basics and eager to learn the results. It’s the best depiction of how science really works that I’ve ever read.”
 
Nature
“A book on robotics by a marine biologist sounds a bit fishy, but Darwin’s Devices is anything but. John Long takes us on a journey through the wonderful, oceanic world of research on the evolution of the vertebrae of extinct species. Long’s work is innovative because of his use—and strong defence—of modelling with physically embodied robots, rather than the usual software simulations of computational biology…. Long’s chatty style made me laugh out loud at times. But beneath the levity lie robust and sometimes powerful arguments about biomimetics…. [T]his is a sound and hard-hitting work…. Darwin’s Devices represents a step forward in biomimetics. And, cleverly hidden among the discussions and the humour, gems of scientific philosophy shine.”
 

Maclean’s
“Long’s trials, errors and successes should prove enlightening to anyone interested in evolution or the future of robotics.”

Science News“Clearly, it’s been a labor of love for the author and his scientific collaborators. And through Long’s humor and clever descriptions, readers get a sense of how the design concepts underlying these devices—and other robotic animals—have evolved.”

Science“Reading Darwin’s Devices is like listening, over drinks, to a voluble, engaging, and funny scientist tell you about his work…. Long draws you into a compelling and wide-ranging conversation. This includes discussions of the mechanics of fish backbones, how we practice science, the nature of evolution, what it means to be intelligent, our dystopian robot future, and, most important, the crucial role of good models in science…. Accessible and thought-provoking, Darwin’s Devices provides an exemplary account of scientific practice for the general reader.”

Kirkus Reviews
Long (Cognitive Science and Biology/Vassar Coll.) traces his path from a doctoral student studying the evolution of fish vertebrae to his present position as director Vassar's Interdisciplinary Robotics Laboratory. Although biologists depend on computer modeling to study neural networks, predator/prey relations and virus interactions, the author is frequently asked, "What do robots have to do with biology?" His short answer is that autonomous robots--even the simplest propeller-driven designs with an embedded computer and a sensor--have agency and can move around and interact with their environment. Long explains how a blunder in an early version of his doctoral thesis led to his later work with robots. His hypothesis was that vertebrae strength and flexibility evolved because it enhanced a fish's ability to compete for food. He developed a computer model to correlate the relationship between the elasticity and flexibility of a marlin backbone to its swimming speed, but was dismayed to realize that he had inadvertently violated the laws of physics. His simplified assumptions had transformed the would-be marlin into a perpetual-motion machine. With a two-dimensional computer model, such an error was possible, but not a three-dimensional one that actually moved. Long's first self-propelled robot had a fairly simple design--an embedded minicomputer, one light sensor and a backbone built to mimic varying structural aspects of a marlin vertebrae. Natural selection would be modeled on the ability of a robot to reach a target first in a competition of six robots. His first model failed because his rules deducted points when the robot wobbled, which was accounted as an energy loss. In fact, as Long learned, wobble gave the robot greater flexibility in reaching a target and was a survival advantage. More complex robots allowed him to model predator/prey relationships and target acquisition more realistically, and he was able to consider broader issues such as the relationship between goal-directed behavior and animal intelligence. Lively and intriguing.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465021413
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 4/3/2012
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 824,498
  • Product dimensions: 6.20 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author


John Long is a Professor at Vassar College, with joint appointments in Cognitive Science and Biology. He serves as Director of Vassar’s Interdisciplinary Robotics Research Laboratory, which he co-founded. Long and his robots, Madeleine and the Tadros, have garnered widespread press coverage in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and more. He lives in Poughkeepsie, New York.
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1 Why Robots? 1

Chapter 2 The Game of Life 23

Chapter 3 Engineering Evolvabots 43

Chapter 4 Tadros Play the Game of Life 69

Chapter 5 The Life of the Embodied Mind 95

Chapter 6 Predator, Prey, and Vertebrae 131

Chapter 7 Evolutionary Trekkers 167

Chapter 8 So Long, and Thanks for All the Robotic Fish 205

Acknowledgments 235

Notes 239

Index 261

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