|Credit: Nick Cheney/Cornell University|
A computer program that lets virtual robots "breed" and reproduce has resulted in a huge variety of functional designs for real-life robots of the future— and many of them are better than the ones humans could develop.
The resulting virtual robot shop, run, jump and shuffle through a virtual field. They look like demented jellyfish — one looks kind of like a headless horse made of Jell-O. Another looks a bit like an elephant dragging itself by its trunk.
Yet the virtual robots are the result of entirely computer-generated "evolution." The designs were created by the computer, with almost no human input, and could someday result in better designs for robots in the real world, scientists say.
The program, built by members of the Creative Machines Lab at Cornell University, starts with a variety of cubes: Some are soft, some are stiff, and some expand and contract like muscle.
The team told the computer program to put those cubes together in very simple ways.
"We didn't do any kind of design," said Nick Cheney, a Ph.D. student in the lab. "We didn't say, ‘You should have four legs,’ or ‘You should have a symmetric gait.’ We just say, ‘Here's a bunch of building blocks. Start from the ground up, and make something.’"
The first "robots" just looked like jiggly cubes. But the creatures were given the ability to "breed" and combine their digital DNA with others’ to create offspring. Others performed "asexual reproduction," simply generating new versions of themselves with slight "genetic" variations. [Read also: Today's Humans Ready to Love Tomorrow's Robots]
The algorithm rewarded the quicker robots with more "children." Over many generations, the robots evolved into a startling array of creatures, which were nicknamed according to their defining movement — L-Walker, Incher, Push-Pull, Jitter, Jumper, just to name a few.
"They can move in ways that you or I or an engineer would never think of," Cheney said. In fact, when the team asked scientists to design walking robots by hand, not one of the scientists was able to beat the computer-generated robots.
These robots were entirely virtual, but their designs may someday inspire real-world robots, Cheney said. If evolution can create so many different animals that move effortlessly through the world, he argued, why shouldn't computer evolution inspire robots that can travel just as smoothly?
Even if "smoothly," in this case, means more galumphing and less gliding.