Bots Battle, Breed in A.I. Test
By Michelle Delio
2:00 a.m. Feb. 7, 2002 PST
Smart robots equipped with energy-sucking fangs and big appetites will soon be locked in a struggle for survival as they attempt to create their own civilization.
In an experiment that sounds like a science-fiction film plot but is actually as close to real life as artificial intelligence can get, several dozen "predator" and "prey" robots will be released next month into a prepared habitat at the Magna Science Adventure Centre in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, in the north of England.
Once released, the robots -- programmed only with the most basic of survival instincts -- will need to quickly learn how to feed and breed in order to survive.
Their creators hope the robots will evolve by adopting the sorts of survival tactics employed in the wild by animals, but there is no guarantee that anything will happen. Once released, the robots will be completely on their own, in what is being billed as the largest experiment ever in artificial intelligence.
If the robots are successful at building a civilization, the results of the study could be applied to create teams of worker robots destined for employment in deep outer space or undersea exploration.
Magna's evolving robots are the brainchild of Professor Noel Sharkey, the technical adviser for BBC's TechnoGames, an Olympic-styled event for mechanical athletes, and a frequent judge on the television show Robot Wars.
The robots were designed by Sharkey and the Creative Robotics Unit at Magna, which is located in Rotherham, England. Visitors to Magna will be able to watch as the robots struggle to create an evolutionary ecosystem.
According to Sharkey, the prey robots will feed -- which in this case translates to charging their batteries -- by grazing under "trees" made of light. The prey will (hopefully) find the trees by using their built-in solar sensors. Complicating the matter somewhat, the prey will only be able to charge their batteries by positioning their solar panels in exactly the right place under the trees.
The predators won't have an easy time of it either. They will feed by hunting down the prey bots, immobilizing them, and then inserting an "energy sucking fang" into a specific spot in order to transfer battery power to themselves from their prey.
The robots' world will be delicately balanced like a natural ecosystem. For example, if the predators go berserk and kill all the prey by sucking up all of their juice in one big binge, then the predators themselves will also, eventually, starve and die.
Both the predator and the prey robots will be controlled by neural network "brains." Neural nets are a programming system based on the working of a human brain. A program or object powered by a neural net can learn from its own actions.
The robot's brains are 32-bit Hitachi 7045 SH2 microcontrollers, which will take input from the robots' built-in sensors and then send instructions to the robots' motors. Information gleaned from the infrared sensors not only allows the robots to navigate around the arena without bumping into things, but also to perform what Sharkey refers to as "infrared sniffing."
The prey are programmed to be sensitive to the infrared signature of the predators and will use this to detect their approach and presumably flee or hide. The predators will use the infrared signature of the prey to hunt them down.
Once a robot has proved itself as a successful specimen of prey or predator, it will be allowed to breed.
Each robot has a set of artificial genes that are used to construct its neural network. When two robots breed, their genes will be uploaded into a computer. Offspring will be created by combining a random selection of genes from two robots. These new genes will then be used to build new neural network controllers that will be used in new robots.
A spokesman for the Magna center said the Living Robots exhibit will be the largest experiment in evolutionary artificial intelligence ever conducted and the first artificial intelligence experiment ever conducted on a co-evolving pack of predators and a herd of prey.
Sharkey and his team think the prey robots will eventually learn to form herds to protect themselves, and the predators will figure out the benefits of hunting in packs, but there's no guarantee. The robots could also just wander around their habitat aimlessly until their batteries drain down.
The Living Robots show is slated to open to the public on March 27 as a permanent exhibit, assuming, of course, that the robots do figure out how to survive in their brave new world.