September 3, 2015 Leave a comment
A pair of researchers at the University of Texas, Austin has discovered that mass extinctions can be good for developing better robots. Risto Mikkulainen and Joel Lehman have been working with computer models of robots with the intention of getting them to evolve to walk smoothly on two legs. In a recent computer model, they found that mass extinction helped to propel that evolution forward.
The basic idea is that, despite wiping out significant genetic information from the Earth, mass extinctions actually give the most adaptable lineages opportunities to evolve. As whole species have vanished after, say, the extinction of the dinosaurs, other creatures have a wealth of new niches that they can adapt to survive within. Destruction brings about a flowering of new creativity, as it were.
What Mikkulainen and Lehman did was to start with some simple robot designs, or computer models of them anyway, and let them evolve over subsequent generations until they filled a number of provided niches, many of which had nothing to do with walking, much less walking upright on two legs. After a while, they randomly killed off the robots in 90% of the niches through a “mass extinction.”
The surviving robots were able to evolve much faster than previous generations had, as they had a huge variety of niches that they could fill. And, overall, the simulations that including mass extinctions developed better walking systems than those that did not include mass extinctions.
Not only do these computer models support biologists who think that mass extinctions are followed by a boom in new species, but they can also help us develop better robots in the future. The idea of essentially evolving the best robots for specific tasks may sound like something form science fiction, but it’s something we’re working with already, and now we might be able to evolve robots better and faster for all kinds of important tasks.