Could robots be programmed to evolve?

The Terminator might be the the eventual outcome from evolving robots, but we're still some way off from an army of Arnies just yet.

6th January 2016
Could robots be programmed to evolve? (© University of Cambridge)

Asked by: Tim Roberts, Leicester

Yes. In research that was published in August 2015, teams in Cambridge and Zurich built robots (pictured above) that evolve through successive generations.

The ‘mother’ is a robotic arm that builds ‘baby’ robots out of small cubes. Each cube has a mechanism where one side can waggle. When you place it on a surface, it clumsily drags itself around. The mother glues these moveable cubes together in various arrangements. Some combinations move further and faster than others. The mother robot builds each arrangement using assembly instructions in the form of a ‘genome’ that is passed between successive generations of robots.

The mother is programmed to insert random mutations into each generation. Some offspring move around better than their forerunners, but others do worse. The mother rejects deficient generations but uses the genetic blueprints of successful ones to build subsequent offspring. In the lab, after only 10 generations, the robots performed twice as well as those at the start of the process.


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