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Imagine a world where robots re-create themselves--without the help of humans. Sound like a scenario only Hollywood could create? Not so, says computer scientist Hod Lipson at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. Last summer, Lipson and his colleague Jordan Pollack developed the world's flint robot to design and build another robot! "It took us about two years to create," says Lipson.

The "mother robot" still needs a helping human hand to put the final touches on its creation--like plugging in the newborn's motors and microchips (tiny plastic chips wired with electronic components). But improved models will soon be able to "reproduce" without human help. The invention, Pollack says, could lead to a workforce of "humanoid robots" smart enough to design and build everyday machines like personal computers and dishwashers.

How do you get a robot to create another robot? "We taught the robot to mimic the process in nature called natural selection, which allows generations of living things to change and adapt over time," explains Lipson.

First, they armed the mother robot with basic physics and engineering know-how using a computer program, a detailed set of instructions the computer translates into a series of numbers. On its own, the robot then designed thousands of blueprints for "baby robots" and crunched complex math problems to predict how far and how fast each robot would move in the real world.

By churning out hundreds of generations of robot blueprints--selecting and reproducing only those that tested better than average--Robo-Mom was able to create a design for the perfect offspring. Next, it sent its building instructions to a small machine that Pollack says is like "a cross between an inkjet printer and a Play-Doh factory." It spit out and assembled plastic pieces of the baby robot, including movable joints and limbs.

So far, the baby bot can only crawl forward, but improved models will be able to perform more complicated tasks, like walking upstairs. Worried about a future world of robotic Frankensteins? Relax, says Pollack: "I don't believe it's possible for a machine to get out of control and start eating old fax machines to make babies."
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Title Annotation:development of robot that creates another robot
Publication:Science World
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 22, 2001
Previous Article:Short Takes.
Next Article:National Engineers Week.

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