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Robots Learn to Share

Thursday, August 11th, 2011
non-sharing robots

The coming robot apocalypse has just had another startling setback. Robots in a simulation at the University of Switzerland were given a camera for eyes, wheels for movement, and a desire to pick up small discs for food. Instead of ruthlessly destroying each other in a mad scramble for the limited food resource, or turning on their masters in a sudden yet inevitable betrayal, the robots took a third path. They learned to share. There were two aspects to the experiment. First, robots were created in the lab to be about two centimeters high. They had two wheels with which to move, a camera, some infrared sensors that could pick out food disks from the background, and a small neuronal network for a brain on the inside. They were given a desire to collect small disks. Then their movements and other aspects were recorded and put into a simulation so that the scientists – Markus Waibel and Dario Floreano – could see how variations on the design would compete over time. The simulation could easily run through hundreds of generations of robots, each slightly different from the other. After simulating 500 generations of evolution, the latest and most successful designs were put back into the real robot bodies to evaluate their performance in the real world.

When the simulation and real world behaviors of the robots were verified to correlate, the researchers added one more factor to the robots – the robots were given the ability to share food disks. Since robots were evaluated based on how many food disks they collected, two robots who had worked independently to collect average amounts of food disks would most likely be eliminated, while one robot that had gotten a large amount of food disks from a helpful neighbor would be more likely to survive to the next round. Also, larger food disks were introduced that required several robots to move. Robots who were closely related ‘genetically’ worked together to collect larger disks that singular predator robots could not steal, ensuring that their genetic line would succeed and be passed onto the next generation. Robots who behaved in this altruistic manner became very successful. However, this same batch of robots first developed more primitive abilities, such as lying in wait for other robots and preying on them by stealing their food. Some also learned to circle the walls, looking for food caches created by other robots, rather than searching for their own food. The altruistic behavior developed later, after a harsh and cutthroat predator-prey period.

Potential Impact

In the age when robotics development is being so heavily pushed in Japan and Korea, knowing that robots can do something besides blindly follow orders and make everyone vaguely uneasy is heartening. The robots in this study learned to share with each other, thinking of the group more than the individual. They also learned to cooperate and accomplish tasks that none of them would be able to do alone. These are both important steps in robotic development and should be looked into as fundamental parts of robotic programming in the development of robots the world over.

In Japan, the singing and dancing robots under development there have not been very practical when trying to deal with the Fukushima nuclear disaster, in which robotic help would be very useful. Nevertheless, the robotics development in Japan in the area of entertainment and companionship keeps progressing. Korea also has some singing and dancing robots, along with soccerplaying robots. It has the Robo World Cup out of one of its top research universities, KAIST, and works to develop robots to fight fires and keep watch over the Demilitarized Zone. There is also a development underway in Korea to create an English-teaching robot to meet the high demand for English language education in the country. Robots are seen differently in these countries than they are in the West. In older Japanese culture, for instance, robots may be associated with clockwork-driven wooden dolls that were popular in the Edo period. The entertainment and companionship aspects of Japanese robotic development definitely agree with this interpretation. In Korea, a Confucian society which very strongly emphasizes unequal power relationships, robots are seen as the new low in their hierarchical society, the perfect servants.

The robot in the West, on the other hand, has been a standard bogeyman in science fiction books and movies for hundreds of years now. Even before the term robot was introduced, the golem of fiction was pretty much the same thing. Also, the iron men created by the Greek gods to protect their treasure operated in the same way that we now imagine robots to operate. The inhuman, relentless, plodding presence can easily bring terror into the heart of anyone. Robot-related worry is twofold. First, robots would invariably be developed to do jobs that people do not want to do, and they would always have to work for us. They would be created to be slaves, in other words. And since it is so easy to anthropomorphize almost anything and even easier when the object looks vaguely human, people always get the impression that robots would resent their slavery, as humans would. Then it is one simple further step from imagining a robot that resents its sub-human status to a robot that would rebel and demand something more from its creators.

Robotic rebellion has driven billions of dollars into the entertainment industry, and it is still often in the minds of people when they see benign robotic singers or vacuum cleaners in IT shows.

But if robots can learn to work together, and if they can learn to cooperate to accomplish greater tasks, they can certainly learn to work together with humans. They can be taught to understand that cooperation helps us all achieve greater tasks than those we could only do alone, or that those Swiss robots could do alone. If all robots could be built like these tiny 2-centimeter high heroes, the future robotic world would certainly be a safer place to dream.

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