Swarm-bots spontaneously evolved ways to work together and communicate.
Experiments show that speeding up the evolutionary process can create a new breed of robot function and communicate as a team -- without human interaction

Imagine swarms of small robots, working together autonomously, forming ad hoc groups to accomplish tasks too big or complex for a single bot. That's precisely what some Swiss scientists recently achieved after programming a group of robots to mimic the evolutionary process found in biological colonies of insects such as ants or bees.

Roboticists at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne collaborated with biologists from the nearby University of Lausanne to demonstrate that robots can spontaneously evolve ways to communicate and interact to accomplish a joint goal. In the demonstration, a group of bots were programmed with an attraction to objects they identified as "food" and an aversion to objects designated as "poison." The objects were clearly visible to the robots from a distance of several meters, but could not be identified until the robot approached within inches of the object.

The robots, which were equipped with colored lights for signaling each other, were programmed with random sets of behaviors, dubbed "genomes" by the scientists. The genomes defined how each robot would process sensory information, and how it would move and operate its flashing lights. The robots were then subjected to a process simulating evolution, in which the genomes of successful robots were recombined and replicated, while genomes of robots that did not perform well were phased out.

After 500 generations of the synthesized "natural selection" process, the robots began to exhibit swarm behaviors, such as alerting each other when they located food or poison. By changing the parameters for success -- giving a lower priority to accomplishing group tasks, for example -- the scientists also observed mutations that included misleading or antisocial behaviors, such as intentionally luring other robots away from food.

The scientists have postulated that the methods they are developing to evolve robot behaviors will be simpler and less time-consuming than programming a bot's every move, eventually producing more sophisticated behaviors than are currently possible through traditional programming methods. The robots used in the project were initially developed for the European Commission-funded Swarm-Bots Project, which conducted experiments involving small robots that worked together to move large objects and navigate difficult terrain.

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