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URSI robotics project uses autonomous robots to study the process of evolution

Two Vassar students are studying the behavior of some robots this summer in what biology professor John Long calls the “Evolutionary Olympics.” And while the project, conducted as part of Vassar’s Undergraduate Research Summer Institute (URSI), is still in its early stages, Long and his students say they’re learning that robots do have the capacity to evolve.

URSI fellows Lily Yachen Sun ‘14, a biology major, and Ben Morse ’14, a cognitive science major, with their robots
URSI fellows Lily Yachen Sun ‘14, a biology major, and Ben Morse ’14, a cognitive science major, with their robots

“We’re beginning to see how and why organisms evolve, not just because of genetic coding but because of how they interact with the world,” says Lily Yachen Sun ’14, a biology major who is conducting the research with Ben Morse ’14, a cognitive science major.

Equipped with optical sensors that tell them how to move, the four-wheeled robots have the ability to maneuver around each other as they react to red and green lights hanging over them. Each robot has a different genetic code that is translated into instructions for building their bodies and nervous systems. Some of them perform their assigned task—finding the green light and avoiding the red—better than others.

Over the course of multiple evolutionary trials, the robots who are best at finding the green light are rewarded with more “offspring,” a new generation of robots whose genetic coding differs slightly from that of its “parents.” Sun and Morse predict that gradually, after many generations, the gene pool improves as those with the best traits propagate more often.

“What we’re doing is creating a genetic map and seeing how it morphs from one generation to the next,” Morse explains.

Long, who is overseeing the project along with psychology professor Kenneth Livingston, says the role faculty members play in the summer research project differs markedly from what they do in the classroom.

“We’re not teachers—we’re collaborators—because all of us are ignorant of the outcome,” he says. “There aren’t computer codes for everything that’s happening. Some of the behavior comes from the physical interactions of each robot with the other robots and with the rest of their world.”

Another URSI student, Catherine Morgan ’15, is working on ways to make the science of robotics more accessible to young people. Morgan is designing a video game in which the player assumes the role of a robotics engineer.

“The game takes place in outer space, where robots are used to create a new environment in a place where humans can’t survive,” she explains.

Morgan says the game will be designed as an app for smart phones “to teach middle schoolers the basics of robotic coding.”

Morgan, Morse, and Sun all say their experience in the URSI program enabled them to learn what being a research scientist is like.

“I’m a computer science major, but I’d never built an app before, and I knew very little about robotics, so this experience helped me gain an insight into how science works,” Morgan says. “You want your research to run in a straight line, but it rarely does.”

Morse agrees. “One thing I learned this summer is that science is very messy,” he says. “We faced a lot of hardware problems and software problems setting up our experiment. Just when you think you have something nailed down, you run into something else and have to retool.”

Overcoming such challenges made the URSI project that much more rewarding, Sun says. “Every scientist wants to test theories, and it’s as exciting as it is frustrating,” she says. “It’s been inspiring to work on this project and learn how to solve problems you can’t anticipate. This is real science.”

Long says he enjoyed watching his students work together to solve the problems they faced.

“What they all discovered this summer is that science is a real social enterprise,” he says. “One of my goals in this project was to show students what real research is like, and while we are still in the early stages of answering all our questions, I think they’ve taken the next step in their science education.”

Posted by Office of Communications Wednesday, August 21, 2013