By Will Dunham
It's an achievement that inspires notions of robots with consciousness
and independent minds.
Scientists said on Thursday they created a brainy, four-legged robot
resembling a starfish that can sense damage to its body and, on its
own, think up a way to recover.
Researchers Hod Lipson and Victor Zykov of Cornell University and Josh
Bongard of the University of Vermont made a robot that observed its
own motion using built-in sensors in its joints and then generated its
own concept of itself, or at least its physical structure, in its
It used this internal model of itself to figure out how to walk on its
four legs and eight motorized joints.
"In the beginning, the robot starts off and does not know what it
looks like. You look at it, and you see that it's a four-legged
machine. But the robot itself doesn't know that. All it knows is that
it could be a snake, it could be a tree, it could have six legs,"
Lipson said in an interview.
Lipson said the robot used various movements of its joints, first to
generate hypotheses and then to formulate an accurate conception of
The researchers then tested the robot's ability to adapt to new
situations -- in this case injury -- by shortening one of its
legs. "The robot knows something's wrong," Lipson said.
Animals can compensate for injury by changing movements, like limping
to favor an injured leg. Machines can be programmed to react to a
problem in a certain way. But when they are damaged in unexpected
ways, they usually are doomed.
This plucky robot responded by generating on its own a new concept of
its structure, accurately sensing it had been altered, and then
devising a new way to walk using a different gait to compensate for
The robot's smarts, awareness of itself and ability to adapt on its
own separates it from its mechanical brethren.
The study was published in the journal "Science."
'THINKING ABOUT ITSELF'
"We don't really think this is self-consciousness, which is a robot
thinking about itself thinking," Lipson said. "But I do think it is
moving in the direction of consciousness, like a cat, that kind of
Aside from contributing to a philosophical debate, the research has
practical implications -- giving hope to people who envision sending
robots that can adapt to unforeseen circumstances to explore other
worlds or the ocean floor.
"There is a need for planetary robotic rovers to be able to fix things
on their own," Bongard said in a statement. "Robots on other planets
must be able to continue their mission without human intervention in
the event they are damaged and cannot communicate their problem back
Christoph Adami of the Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life
Sciences in Claremont, California, wrote a commentary accompanying the
research titled, "What Do Robots Dream Of?" -- an allusion to science
fiction writer Philip Dick's 1968 novel, "Do Androids Dream of
Adami described how a robot like this one might perform in unknown
territory, exploring the landscape and then "dreaming" of new methods
to overcome obstacles it had encountered.
"And even though the robots ... seem to prefer to dream about
themselves rather than electric sheep, they just may have unwittingly
helped us understand what dreams are for," he said.
Reminded of malicious robots and computers turning on their human
masters in movies like "The Terminator" and "2001: A Space Odyssey,"
Lipson was not worried.
"We just pull the plug out of the robot. That's all," Lipson said.
"There are more immediate things to worry about than to worry about
Copyright 2006 Reuters Limited.
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