Robotics and Evolution

In December 2007, researchers in Switzerland announced that they had created the first robots capable of a form of evolution – and had found something surprising along the way.

What they’d done was build a number of machines programmed with basic survival protocols, and put them in a dark room. Their mission was to find food, or perish.

Inside the room, there were a number of ‘food sources’, electrical power boosts. Some of these ‘meals’ were better than others, and a few were even ‘poison’, carrying a negative energy value.

After a period of time, the robots all reported in, and those with the highest percentage of success were declared the survivors. The robots were all then reprogrammed with strains of code mixed from the winning units, to create the effect of reproduction, and a little bit of random code was thrown in, to mimic natural mutation.

Naturally, as the process went on, the robots became better and better at finding the ‘good’ food sources, and avoiding the poison.

But what is most startling, after a time, several generations in to the experiment, the researchers noticed that some of the robots were signaling to other robots when they found food. They used built-in lights to communicate their finds to the rest of the community.

This trait for communication strengthened with each new generation, until the researchers were sure of their findings: the robots had learned to use a primitive language.

The significance cannot be understated. These robots were all initially programmed to fend for themselves. A survival of the fittest model was the goal, but the robots circumvented this element of their objective, and began to form the building blocks of a cohesive society.

Shocking as this may seem, there is more. Some of them even learned how to lie. A few of the robots, in an effort to promote their own odds of survival, would seek out the poison. Once located, they would then ‘blink’ the signal for “safe food here”, and move away.

Beyond the amazing development of basic language, though, there is another consideration far more telling, exemplified by the fact that some learned how to lie: Communal behaviors seem to be a natural aspect of evolution. These robots were built to carry out their protocols as best they were able, and they decided for themselves that the best way for each individual to survive was to work together.

Predatory behavior seems to be a survival advantage, but even that has been shown to be secondary to the larger issue of an evolved society. While the creatures are artificial, their achievements are not – the programmers did not instill any such directives into the units.

The spontaneous development of language alone is enough to show that even machines can learn to live in cooperation. What’s more, given the nature of their programming, it seems that such a state of affairs is actually a survival advantage; the survival directive enhanced communal development.

Even the predatory units learned to communicate, even if only to lie (a development which itself cannot be understated). That goes to show that even in the most basic of environments, the tendency towards community – and language – is a clear survival advantage. The predatory drive is secondary to the communal factor.

Aside from the significance to robotics and the field of artificial intelligence, these results are important to the study of how life, real life, developed. If communal behavior lends an edge in the game of survival, then we are now much closer to understanding why our civilizations arose, why multicellular life came to be, and even why the earliest protocells, mitochondria and chloroplasts, banded together with other celloids to form the first modern cells.

This experiment has taught us that language is a natural consequence of evolution. It has shown us that diversification can and will take place in even the most rudimentary populations.

But, most of all, it has shown us living together, helping each to other get by, is the secret key to survival. This realization, coupled with the unexpected revelation into the probable function and behavior of the earliest life on Earth, has taught us far more than we’d ever dreamed possible from a group of basic automatons.