Robots Shed Light on Evolutionary Processes

Machines give us clues about communication in the animal kingdom

Chimps, birds and bees are just a few of the many animals that communicate with each other when searching for food. Since everyone’s got to eat, communication during foraging is essential among social animals. In order to study how different types of communication strategies might evolve, the University of Lausanne (UNIL) and the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) teamed up to conduct a joint research project.

¨Animal kingdom communication systems are very complex¨ points out Laurent Keller (UNIL), one of the project’s lead researchers along with Steffen Wischmann and Dario Floreano (EPFL). In fact, a lot of these systems are so complex, researchers must devise models in order to understand them more thoroughly. Using 100 groups of 20 robots, researchers studied the evolution of communication strategies among the robots throughout 1000 generations.

Each robot was able to communicate the presence of a virtual food source through the use of a light that could be shone in various colours. They were also equipped with wheels and cameras giving them mobility and awareness of their environment. What was guiding the robots’ behaviour? Genes of course! Just as in nature, these were made to evolve through mutation and selection through out the course of successive generations.

Results of this research stress that random factors seem to be an important part of evolutionary processes; distinct communication systems evolved among groups of robots operating in identical environments. The study also showed that populations that have developed a fairly effective communication strategy are not likely to drop it for the next strategy that comes along because to do so would require significant changes in the way information would be transmitted and received. This is similar to the reason why human languages are unlikely to change rapidly through generations.

You can read more about this research recently published in the PNAS  (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States) magazine and if you’re interested in other European projects involving the development and use of social robots, check out the Robot Companions for Citizens Flagship Initiative which Dario Floreano is also involved in. You may also be interested in the European project EFAA (Experimental Functional Android Assistant) which is  coordinated by the SPECS lab at Pompeu Fabra University.

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