August 31, 2002
Electronic evolution

New Scientist reports:

A self-organising electronic circuit has stunned engineers by turning itself into a radio receiver.

This accidental reinvention of the radio followed an experiment to see if an automated design process, that uses an evolutionary computer program, could be used to "breed" an electronic circuit called an oscillator. An oscillator produces a repetitive electronic signal, usually in the form of a sine wave.[...]

when they looked more closely they found that, despite producing an oscillating signal, the circuit itself was not actually an oscillator. Instead, it was behaving more like a radio receiver, picking up a signal from a nearby computer and delivering it as an output.

A very interesting experiment indeed. Similarly, recently a computer hooked to a winged robot "learned to fly" (also reported in the New Scientist)
[Researchers] built a winged robot and set about testing whether it could learn to fly by itself, without any pre-programmed data on what flapping is or how to do it.

To begin with, the robot just twitched and jerked erratically. But, gradually, it made movements that gained height. At first, it cheated - simply standing on its wing tips was one early short cut.

After three hours, however, the robot abandoned such methods in favour of a more effective flapping technique, where it rotated its wings through 90 degrees and raised them before twisting them back to the horizontal and pushing down.

Computerized evolution is pretty cool and I think there is great potential here - imagine self-repairing "creatively problem-solving robots" exploring the universe when they are too far away to get instructions from home (you don't have to go further than Mars for remote control to be impractical...). Now just let's watch out for that grey goo... ;-)

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