The Technium

Evolution of Bots

This high gloss German commercial for Saturn electronics is wonderful eye candy. Everything I’ve seen in technology convinces me that autonomous robots are an inevitability. And once launched, self-guided robots will no doubt “evolve” — although not by natural selection.

The chief question is how much will robots look like animals, or humans? Because they live on Earth and have to deal with us at our scale and all the natural forces at that scale, they will tend to look familiar. Gravity, air resistance, torque and friction, for examples, are inescapable common problems which tend to steer the design of robots to common solutions. Like animals they may have either two or four legs, stereoscopic eyes, tubular insides, hands, etc. To the extant that some robots will do the kind of work that we have used animals for (such as transportation, hauling) those robots will converge toward animal forms.

But most of the work we want done by robots is work we humans and animals are probably not designed for, therefore those robots will tend to diverge from animal forms. The ones we interact with most will also tend to our form simply for communication reasons. The rest will evolve into their own alien forms. I suspect that after several hundred years we’ll see a full-blown taxonomy of “natural” robot genres. You can think of airplanes (once they are autonomously piloted) as an example of one class of robot species. You see one and say, that’s an airplanebot.

There will be fish bots, crab-like bots, mole-ish bots, ant bots, to start the list with animal analogs. Better said would be creep bots, crawl bots, scrub bots, sneak bots, lube bots, and so on.

And we’d have two larger categories: domesticated bots and feral bots. Domesticated bots come home to roost, and to be breed by humans. Feral ones are out on their own. They find their own sources of energy, self-repair, and high-jack some means to reproduce.  There may be a day in the far distant future when one could scramble over a junk yard heap and find some kind of scavenger bot. Not Wall-e exactly, but some more insect-like contraption that is able to scrape together enough  power to survive and breed. The first will most likely be more like a plant than animal.

Collecting them will start out as an kid’s hobby, and the realm of amateurs. Eventually science will pay attention to this emerging taxonomy.

  • Matthias

    Saturn is not a car company, but a retailer of consumer electronics. But an amazing ad anyway :-)…

  • Nirav V. Patel

    A bit off the point of the post here but I think the commercial is for an electronic store in Germany that is called Saturn.

    • Kevin Kelly

      @ Nirav: Ooops!. I’ll fix.

  • Neil in Chicago

    Many robots will have human-like hands, simply because of the jillions of tools and implements already around which are designed for hands.
    Similarly, I expect that a substantial number of robots will be compatible with already existing stairs, doorways, and sidewalks.

  • Alex

    The first (as in a “stack” meaning) autonomous robot that comes to many minds today is WALL-E from Pixar movie. The robot continues to do work (“directive” as the robot-speaking way) for hundreds of years.
    Of course, not going into all the emotions shown by him (it?), how much evolved can we expect these robots to be? And, as Kevin has pointed this evolution as non-natural, can we bend this word meaning?
    Believing that new robots and machines alike are built one after another, the ones that really are sucessful and stick are the evolved ones. Unless we strict that natural means air-breathing-pumping-heart evolution, we can abstract that these robots are fit for what they are purposed to do, much like an eagle for flying and a lion is for cutting meat.
    My point is that although I don’t see clearly a way for the robots to evolve without human interaction (at least as far I can think of, realistically), their history might as well be told someday the same way we put those darwinian monkey-to-human diagrams. And look, we do it already putting apple-II-to-iMac all over the internet.

  • Tom Mazanec

    Neil Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age” features evolving “mites” (biologically external) and “sites” (bilogically internal), near-invisible microbots based on nanotechnology. They come up with unique solutions to problems. One character does not design microbots, he simply collects them from the wild and studies them.

    • Kevin Kelly

      @ Tom Mazanec: I had forgotten that from Diamond Age, but it fits perfectly.

  • Adam Holland

    I think I am going to have to mention Philip K. Dick’s “Claw” stories.

  • alan p

    Re bots not self-evolving by natural selection – with genetic algorithms it is possible for intelligence to evolve via “natural” (aka evolutionary) selection, and one assumes at some point they can self-build new bots so could reproduce by similar selection approaches as well.