Machine Nature: The Coming Age of Bio-Inspired Computing
by Moshe Sipper. McGraw-Hill. 2002. 262 pages. Available from the Futurist Bookshelf, www.wfs.org/bkshelf.htm. Check price/buy book.
Using Evolution to Design Software
by Lane Jennings
Since the mid-nineteenth century, Charles Darwins theory of evolution has helped explain how species of animals and plants in nature were able to change and improve over time. Today, scientists are applying Darwins insights in radically new ways--treating machines and computer programs as if they were living species, then "breeding" selected pairs over multiple generations to achieve breakthroughs in design and efficiency.
In his new book, Machine Nature, Israeli computer-science professor Moshe Sipper offers some remarkable examples of this approach. In one experiment, Brandeis University researchers Pablo Funes and Jordan Pollack simulated Darwinian evolution for a bridge. Using plastic bricks from a standard Lego set, they measured the comparative strength of every possible combination between two Lego pieces and set an evolutionary goal for their ideal bridge--a specific distance to be spanned. They then wrote a computer program to determine whether a particular bridge design would work by evaluating the stresses at every point.
But instead of trying to design a bridge directly, the researchers began with arbitrary segments of linked bricks, compared them, and selected those whose traits most nearly matched those of their ideal bridge. They then mixed parts from the selected segments in new ways, compared these new combinations against their ideal again, repeating this same evolutionary process many times inside the computer.
The end result was an elaborate assemblage of Lego bricks that spanned the necessary distance with acceptable strain at every point. When actually built this evolved bridge looked like something a cartoonist might have drawn, but it held.
Sipper explains in clear and simple prose the theory and results of many other cutting-edge experiments--from robot fireflies and crickets to a BioWatch that can heal itself when damaged--and explores the exciting practical applications these experiments could lead to. He concludes with a glossary of terms applicable to computer science and robotics today--such as adaptive, fuzzy, iconic, and parallel--and adds a few surprising terms that might well be used a few years from now--such as artistic, feeling, witty, and zealous.
This is a stimulating and enjoyable book likely to fire the imagination of a high school or college student. It is sure to offer nonscientists a better understanding of modern research aims and methods while demonstrating the potential long-term value of even seemingly trivial achievements in the laboratory.
Reviewed by Lane Jennings
[Reviewed in THE FUTURIST July-August 2003]
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