Robots Get Cultural

Using machines to study social behaviour

How does culture emerge in human societies and those of other social animals? To tackle this question, a study funded by the UK’s  Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) lead by the University of Bristol and 5 other UK universities, is combining the expertise of researchers from diverse disciplines including : Computer science, social science, philosophy, theoretical biology, art history and cultural theory and robotics.

The study revolves around an artificial society of real robots which are programmed to exhibit different types of primitive behaviours. Robots will then be able to copy each others behaviours. Particular ones may mutate because of the noise and uncertainty in the robots’ sensors and actuators and those that are successfully copied will continue to be copied, selected, and varied by members of the population in multiple cycles.

The study will include two phases: one where trials will be carried out in real time and another where a genetic algorithm (GA) will be run. The purpose of running the GA will be to simulate the process of evolution by allowing emerging behaviours to become hard wired into the robot’s controllers.

Over the course of the trials, researchers hope that new behaviours will begin to arise and that some may be considered indicators of a sort of pre-culture. Naturally, they don’t expect these behaviours to have much meaning in the context of human cultures, but it will provide a way for researchers to identify and interpret these patterns of behaviour within the closed context of the artificial society: ¨In a sense we will be using robots like a microscope to study the evolution of culture,”explains Alan Winfield, Engineer and Roboticist at the  University of the West of England.

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