Robot evolution throws light on deep-sea Jurassic combat

Robots wag their tail fins and bob along like bathtub toys in a pool at a New York state college lab. Their actions are dictated by microprocessors housed in round plastic containers, the sort you'd store soup in.

It hardly looks like it, but the two swimming robots were set loose in the little pool to study evolution, acting out predator-prey encounters from roughly 540 million years ago.

The prey robot, dubbed Preyro, can simulate evolution.

This is not like robot evolution in the "Terminator" movie sense of machines turning on their human masters. Instead, Vassar College biology and cognitive science professor John Long and his students can make changes to the tail of Preyro to see which designs help it avoid the predator robot.

"We're applying selection," Long explains, "just like natural selection."

Long is among a small group of researchers worldwide studying biology and evolution with the help of robots that can do things like shimmy through water or slither up shores. Long's robots, for instance, test theories on the development of stiffer backbones. The researchers believe the machines will catch on as technological advances allow robots to mimic animals far better than before.

Microprocessors are now tinier and more sophisticated. Building materials are more pliable. The same technology driving the use of electronic prosthetic limbs and vacuuming robots also is giving scientists a sophisticated tool to study biology.

"In the past, if you think about it, robots wouldn't work because we could only make these big metal things with rotating joints that were really stiff ... and that's not how nature is," said Robert J. Full, professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Full's lab at Berkeley has built robots that can creep like cockroaches or climb like geckos. In Switzerland, researchers built a bright yellow salamander robot a few years ago that can swim and walk to investigate vertebrates' transition from water to land. They posted a Web video of the robot squirming out of Lake Geneva.

At Harvard University, George Lauder, professor of organismic and evolutionary biology, studies fish locomotion with the aid of robotic fins. He says scientists are not trying to build spitting images of animals, but rather to mimic certain characteristics -- a fin or a spinal column -- to study how they work. Scientists then alter that characteristic to see how it affects performance.

The small amount of robot research performed so far has yet to dramatically alter evolutionary studies, but it has helped researchers evolve their understanding of some animals.

Consider Madeleine the swimming robot. Madeleine is roughly the size and shape of a big bed pillow with four flippers sticking from its sides, but it was used to study a 45-ton marine reptile that patrolled the seas in the Jurassic Period.

Fossil records show that the massive pliosaur, dubbed Predator X, had two sets of largely symmetrical flippers, indicating the animal used all four to swim. Long said that sets Predator X apart from modern animals like otters, sea lions and turtles, which tend to use one set of flippers for propulsion and the other for steering.

Researchers studying Predator X asked Long to investigate why the creature used all four flippers for swimming. Madeleine was programmed to swim with two flippers, then all four. The robot demonstrated that using four flippers to swim could be a bad proposition, energy-wise. But they do provide a sort of turbo-boost for quick accelerations -- handy for catching dinner.

"The otter and the pliosaur both swim the same speed," Long said, "but, man, that pliosaur can really take off."

The Preyro robot experiment allows Long to take his evolutionary studies a step further.

By setting up Preyro in a pool with another autonomous robot -- a predator named Tadiator -- Long and his students simulated an evolutionary scenario. They wanted to examine qualities that would help vertebrate sea creatures of the Cambrian Period forage for food without becoming lunch for predators. Specifically, they wanted to test the hypothesis that the ancient creatures' need to scoot away fast from predators drove the evolution of stiffer tails.

Students could stiffen Preyro's backbone by fitting plastic rings (representing vertebrae) over a jelly-like column running down the tail designed to simulate the biological structures of ancient sea creatures. More rings made for a stiffer tail.

They found that changing the size of Preyro's tail fin had no effect, but that backbones stiffened with vertebrae helped Preyro swim away from danger faster. Seven vertebra worked the best; any more made the tail too stiff. They concluded that the evolution of multiple vertebrae could have been influenced by the need to avoid predators while foraging.

Robot builders like Long still use computer simulations to complement their work. But Long says swimming robots like Madeleine and Preyro have advantages over computer simulations because it is extremely difficult to simulate the interaction between a flexible solid -- like an animal's tail -- and a liquid.

"The thing about robots is, robots can't violate the laws of physics," he said. "A computer program can."

Lauder said there's no substitute for building a device that can replicate the minutely complex features of an animal. He expects the rise of robots in biological research to accelerate as more advances are made.

"The next 20 years are going to be amazing, I think," Lauder said.



Taken from the New Zealand Herald

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence