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Thinking Evolution

Evolution is a complicated and demanding Mistress. Mostly misunderstood and largely unknown. She spawns misinformation, debates, arguments and even a religion (Pastafarianism). Given the shroud of mystery surrounding evolution, it only makes sense to, well, make sense of evolution prior to any attempt at evolving robotics.

One could spend a lifetime studying all the nuances that go into making up evolution and barely scratch the surface; from biology to genetics to molecular chemistry to astrophysics, and everything in-between. Not wishing to use up the years I have left in this lifetime without ever building another robot, I believe a quick overview and some ground "rules" (understandings) will suffice quite nicely. Of course, like the robot, my understanding of what should come next will also evolve along this process.

Given the subject of evolution as it relates to robotics, a *MUST* read for anyone and everyone is Crabs Take Over the Island by Anatoly Dnieprov published as part of Russian Science Fiction 1969. The premise used in the story is one that would be the best method of evolving a robot, i.e. Natural Selection. For our purposes, natural selection is a process that takes a bit too long to work out. Instead, we will ignore science for this part of the evolutionary process and opt for a more spiritual view by using Intelligent Design. For those less willing to read the above linked wiki articles, I'll be nice enough to provide a brief overview of what I mean.

Natural Selection is the fundamental basis of evolution where members of a species with "good" (desirable) genetic traits are more inclined to survive and produce offspring, versus those that contain "defective" (less desirable) traits. Natural Selection is combined with genetic mutation (the theory that there is no such thing as a perfect copy) to produce evolution. In order for genetic mutation to occur, generations of duplicates must be produced before a visible mutation is generally present (although not always). The Natural Selection part either kills off the duplicates that lack the good mutations or they don't get the chance to breed (Blue-Footed Booby is a good example of how that works).

Intelligent Design is a spiritual idea that, from a scientific perspective, revolves around the belief that there is no way in hell that all this happened by chance. The odds are just too astronomical, and therefore a divine helping hand must have shaped the creatures of this Earth. Of course it is still a spiritual thing and not really science (hence why I am a Pastafarian), but for the purposes of evolving robotics it will work nicely.

Ideally, a combination of the two theories (I use the word as both a scientific term and a more literal term) would work best, whereby several "models" for each stage of the robotics evolution could be created with testing to see which worked best. Lacking that level of time and funding, I will work under the assumption that the model I create is the best of that generation possible (it really won't be, but this is my blog and I can assume anything I want, so there). That will be our first rule: I am the robotic creator and I know best.

Our second rule involves the learning process, or rather the doing process. Why creatures do the things they do. My thought on this, and yours may differ but it is likely wrong, is there are three things that make a creature (humans included) do anything. The first of these is genetic hard coding. The simplest of organisms up to the most complex (i.e. US) have genetic hard coding built in. Breathing is a good example for the human side and the way a spider makes its web is one for the animal side. This principle is the most basic and easiest to duplicate in robotics, it just involves hardwiring in responses.

The second level that makes a creature do something is to teach it. Not all creatures are capable of this feat, but most are, even a goldfish (as proved by Mythbusters). This is everything from Pavlov's Dog to momma bird showing baby bird how to fly. For robotics, this equates to response algorithms programmed into the robot all the way up to the latest in robotic learning of teaching a robot human movement (among other things) by duplication. The algorithms range from the simple to the complex; and it is where robotics is currently stalled out at the moment.

The third, and final, level for creatures doing something is self teaching. The "because I can" principle. This is learning responses where an animal figures out not only the best way of doing something, but the why it should do something in the first place. It is this last part that is the distinction from the second level, the creature learning that it first needs to do something in response to its own conditions or the environment, and then learning what that thing is it needs to do. Surprisingly, many animals are capable of this, but not all. Watch dragonflies around a mirrored building and you will see that they don't quite learn not to fly into the windows, no matter how many times they do it.

The final rule for my grand adventure is progression, and to recognize its necessity. Just because something can be done at a higher level, does not mean it should. As an example, going back to breathing, just because we can control our breathing does not mean we should strip away the hardwired coding. Sleep would be rather disastrous. Likewise, everything that can begin as a hardcoded function should begin at that level. Start simple, and keep simple available.

These are my rules, or understandings, that will be used for guiding me towards evolving a robot through the generations. Every step I take will be broken down to the simplest forms possible, and every solution I come up with will be the best I can present. They might not be the best possible, but sometimes it is not the best that survive evolution. In the end I hope to stir up my own mind into new ways of thinking about robotics, and hopefully not go broke in the process.

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I Am. When? on : The Evolution Project

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Before I really begin to delve too deeply into what I am terming "The Evolution Project", I thought I should come up with some sort of definitive goals or objectives, as well as rules and guidelines for those goals. And what better day to write

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