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"Robo-Babies" -- The Discovery Files

The Discovery Files
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In a first-of-its-kind experiment, a roboticist from the University of Vermont created both simulated and actual robots that change their body forms while learning how to walk. And, over generations, the roboticist's simulated robots also evolved, spending less time in "infant" forms and more time in "adult" four-legged forms.

Credit: NSF/Karson Productions

Audio Transcript:

Baby 'Bots (Sound effect: robotic baby cry) They Just Grow Up so Quickly.

I'm Bob Karson with the discovery files -- new advances in science and engineering from the National Science Foundation.

Most of the time, when engineers set out to build a robot, they design fixed body parts and program the robot's behavior. But new experiments at the University of Vermont show there may be a better way: build a robot baby and let it develop its behavior -- learning and adapting while its body is "growing up" and changing shape.

(Sound effect: toy robotics sounds) Roboticist John Vongaurd conducted experiments using simple Lego mindstorm kit robots in over 5,000 computer simulations. The challenge for the robots was to make their way over to a light source without tipping over. The creatures experimented with various motions, depending on their body form at the time -- slithering, shuffling and eventually walking. To Vongaurds' surprise, these 'evolving' robots learned to walk sooner than the ones with fixed body parts, and were better at challenges they hadn't faced before -- like being knocked with a stick.

In simulated models, the robots demonstrated 'learning' patterns similar to a human infant (Sound effect: happy baby sound), moving, then balancing, then refining motions based on interactions between its brain and its body.

The experiments demonstrated for the first time that learning to walk while flat, squat and then upright, makes robots better walkers than those designed to walk upright from the start.

I'm hoping if I leave enough clothes on the floor, my robotic vacuum cleaner will eventually learn to do laundry. Like that's gonna happen.

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