Robots deployed at orders of magnitude different size scales, and that retain the same desired behavior at any of those scales, would greatly expand the environments in which the robots could operate. However it is currently not known whether such robots exist, and, if they do, how to design them. Since self similar structures in nature often exhibit self similar behavior at different scales, we hypothesize that there may exist robot designs that have the same property. Here we demonstrate that this is indeed the case for some, but not all, modular soft robots: there are robot designs that exhibit a desired behavior at a small size scale, and if copies of that robot are attached together to realize the same design at higher scales, those larger robots exhibit similar behavior. We show how to find such designs in simulation using an evolutionary algorithm. Further, when fractal attachment is not assumed and attachment geometries must thus be evolved along with the design of the base robot unit, scale invariant behavior is not achieved, demonstrating that structural self similarity, when combined with appropriate designs, is a useful path to realizing scale invariant robot behavior. We validate our findings by demonstrating successful transferal of self similar structure and behavior to pneumatically-controlled soft robots. Finally, we show that biobots can spontaneously exhibit self similar attachment geometries, thereby suggesting that self similar behavior via self similar structure may be realizable across a wide range of robot platforms in future.
Organisms result from adaptive processes interacting across different time scales. One such interaction is that between development and evolution. Models have shown that development sweeps over several traits in a single agent, sometimes exposing promising static traits. Subsequent evolution can then canalize these rare traits. Thus, development can, under the right conditions, increase evolvability. Here, we report on a previously unknown phenomenon when embodied agents are allowed to develop and evolve: Evolution discovers body plans robust to control changes, these body plans become genetically assimilated, yet controllers for these agents are not assimilated. This allows evolution to continue climbing fitness gradients by tinkering with the developmental programs for controllers within these permissive body plans. This exposes a previously unknown detail about the Baldwin effect: instead of all useful traits becoming genetically assimilated, only traits that render the agent robust to changes in other traits become assimilated. We refer to this as differential canalization. This finding also has implications for the evolutionary design of artificial and embodied agents such as robots: robots robust to internal changes in their controllers may also be robust to external changes in their environment, such as transferal from simulation to reality or deployment in novel environments.
Typically, AI researchers and roboticists try to realize intelligent behavior in machines by tuning parameters of a predefined structure (body plan and/or neural network architecture) using evolutionary or learning algorithms. Another but not unrelated longstanding property of these systems is their brittleness to slight aberrations, as highlighted by the growing deep learning literature on adversarial examples. Here we show robustness can be achieved by evolving the geometry of soft robots, their control systems, and how their material properties develop in response to one particular interoceptive stimulus (engineering stress) during their lifetimes. By doing so we realized robots that were equally fit but more robust to extreme material defects (such as might occur during fabrication or by damage thereafter) than robots that did not develop during their lifetimes, or developed in response to a different interoceptive stimulus (pressure). This suggests that the interplay between changes in the containing systems of agents (body plan and/or neural architecture) at different temporal scales (evolutionary and developmental) along different modalities (geometry, material properties, synaptic weights) and in response to different signals (interoceptive and external perception) all dictate those agents' abilities to evolve or learn capable and robust strategies.
It costs a stupendous amount of money to send something from the surface of Earth to the surface of Mars, and there are severe limits on the volume and mass that you can send at any one time. In order to stuff the maximum amount of science into the minimum amount of space, NASA has had to get creative, with landers and rovers designed to be lightweight and foldable. At NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, in Pasadena, Calif., engineers have long been trying to cram as much robot as possible into the absolute minimum amount of space, and a team of roboticists there recently showed us their latest creation: PUFFER, the Pop-Up Flat Folding Explorer Robot. It's designed to pack down nearly flat for transport, and then re-expand on site to investigate all the places a bigger rover can't quite reach. The overall idea with PUFFER is that you'd pack a bunch of them along with the next Mars rover, and send them out whenever you want to go somewhere that it would be either risky or impossible for the larger rover to go.