Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s “Techwise Conversations.”

Computers are sometimes thought to be electromechanical representations of our minds, and if so, then robots are electromechanical representations of our entire selves—minds plus bodies. We ought, then, to be able to learn about ourselves—as selves, and even as a species—by building and studying robots. But there’s a problem. Most robots are built for very specific purposes, and therefore only do very specific things. They move a part on an assembly line, or weld a joint, or vacuum the floor, or scurry through rubble looking for bodies or bombs.

My guest today is building general robots, with an eye to studying robotic evolution, in order to better understand biological evolution.

John Long is a professor in the biology department at Vassar College and is the director of the Interdisciplinary Robotics Research Laboratory there. He’s also the author of a new book,Darwin’s Devices: What Evolving Robots Can Teach Us About the History of Life and the Future of Technology, published last month by Basic Books.

He joins us by phone from Poughkeepsie, N.Y.

John, welcome to the podcast.

John Long: Well, Steven, great to be here, and I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you.

Steven Cherry: John, maybe let’s just start with an example. Tell us about the Tadro—now this is a fish robot that’s programmed to seek light.

John Long: Yeah, that’s right. It’s a special kind of biorobot, so it’s built to mimic the behavior of fish. So, seeking light is something that fish do because life hangs around light—that’s the basis of where we get photosynthesis, creating in our plants and floating algae, sugar, and everybody wants sugar on some level, or the other animals that eat sugar. So we start with a robot whose job it is to seek out the light and the food that’s there.

Steven Cherry: Now, you call these “biorobots,” and they’re actually embodied robots; they’re not digital simulations. Tell us what they look like.

John Long: That’s right. Digital simulations are something we do do, but these are physically embodied robots, and they are quite literally swimming Tupperware, which does not sound very exciting. But we make them exciting, because the swimming Tupperware has in it a computer, which is doing the calculations of what to do for behavioral output, so it’s the “brain,” if you will, taking sensory input and then converting it into motor output. And so dipping down from the surface of the water is a biomimetic tail, a specially designed soft and flexible structure that has variable number of bones called vertebrae in it, and so we are actually interested in evolutionary processes, in particular what went on 500 million years ago at the origin of the group of animals to which we belong, called vertebrates.

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