May 11, 2005

A Robot that Builds Copies of Itself

An interesting article on BBC News referring to an article in Nature about a robot that builds copies of itself. This kind of thing is really interesting, however --- in light of how complicated biological machines actually are, I was disappointed by these “robots” --- I know it’s just a proto-type of sorts (and I should think of it as such) --- but it’s really sort of unimpressive.

The title in Nature is “Robots master reproduction” --- hardly!
US researchers have devised a simple robot that can make copies of itself from spare parts. Writing in Nature, the robot's creators say their experiment shows the ability to reproduce is not unique to biology.
Well frankly, this seems pretty odd; I mean biology and more importantly intelligence created these “replicators” and so I’m not sure how that makes it “unique to biology.”
Their long-term plan is to design robots made from hundreds or thousands of identical basic modules. These could repair themselves if parts fail, reconfigure themselves to better perform the task they have been set, or even to make extra helpers.
Humm. “Reconfigure to better perform the task they have been set” does that mean like actual intelligent adaptation, or like --- how a tree will lean toward the light? Also, by helpers do they mean in the sense that these “clones” so to speak would actually help the others, as in joining together? Or just maintain the cycle of replication. I suppose they envision full on intelligence and communal behavior, but how?
So far the robots, if they can be called that, consist of just three or four mobile cubes. Each unit comes with a small computer code carrying a blueprint for the layout of the robot, electrical contacts to let it communicate with its neighbours, and magnets to let them stick together.
Basically, it’s really dumbed-down DNA it sounds like …
By turning and moving, the cubes can pick up new units, decide where they belong, and stack them alongside each other to make new devices. In a little more than a minute, a simple three-cube robot can make a copy of itself.
I guess I should be more impressed by this, but come on --- it makes a cube, from … four pieces of perfectly fit “walls” that will pretty much only align in that way due to the system programmed, and the available materials.
That offspring version can then make further copies. It's only a toy demonstration of the idea, but lead researcher Hod Lipson, of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, has bold plans for these intelligent modular machines.
Intelligent, hum. Not sure I’d go that far, at least --- not at the moment, seems to me they don’t even come close to the simplest bacterium.
The researchers have previously used aspects of evolution to help them design robots.
Or one might jest, ‘aspects of Intelligent Design’ as appose to ‘aspects of evolution.’ Oh, but of course Richard Dawkins would say I’m being an idiot.


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