The future of robots: more R2D2 than C3PO

We often envision robots as near-replicas of the human form. Perhaps, that’s why so many find the idea of a robot serving you breakfast more than a little unsettling.

But what if, like humans, robots need to evolve on their own, shaped by their environment and conditions?

Is this really the future face of robotics? (We hope not!)

An international research team, including Professor Dave Winkler from the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science, have offered a bold glimpse into what the robots of the future could look like. And it’s nothing like C3PO, or a T-800 Terminator.

New CSIRO-led research, published in the journal Nature Machine Intelligence, shows robots could soon be taking their engineering cues from evolution.

An animal like a manta ray or a kangaroo may look unusual to human eyes, but is perfectly calibrated for its environment.”

Professor Dave Winkler

Manta rays have evolved to thrive in their environment, and robots could soon be following suit.

A new system, acting as a universal designer, could use algorithms based on natural evolution to automatically design robots for specific missions.

Using these algorithms, robots adapt to different environments, by combining a variety of materials, components, sensors and behaviours.

La Trobe’s Professor Winkler said advanced, computer-based modelling could then rapidly test these robots in simulated, ‘real world’ scenarios to decide which prototype is best suited to each mission.

“The end result would be simple,” Professor Winkler said.

“Small, highly integrated, highly specialised, and highly cost-effective robots would be precision engineered for their task, environment, and terrain.

“One example would be a robot designed for basic environmental monitoring in extreme environments. It would need to traverse difficult terrain, gather data, and eventually fully degrade so as to not pollute the environment.

The Sahara desert’s punishing conditions could soon be putting robots to the test.

“Another example would be a robot designed for work in the Sahara Desert, using materials that can survive punishing heat, sand and dust. It could be solar powered, slide across sand dunes, and use the harsh UV light as a trigger to eventually degrade.”

Within 20 years, robots could be designed from the molecular level up to perform their mission in extremely challenging environments.

Their progress would emulate the incredibly diverse adaptation animals have undergone to survive in their environment.

“Evolution doesn’t care what something looks like. It searches a much wider design space and comes up with effective solutions that wouldn’t be immediately obvious to a human designer,” Lead Author from the CSIRO, Dr David Howard said.