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A Cambrian Explosion…of Robots?

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Cambrian explosion

The past year saw a number of new kinds of robots enter into real life: walkers, spiders, jumpers, snakes, and even cyclocopters, not to mention self-driving vehicles. According to Wired, a new epoch has begun, and it is driven by intelligent design:

Roboticists are honing their robots by essentially mimicking natural selection. Keep what works, throw out what doesn’t, to optimally adapt a robot to a particular job. “If we want to scrap something totally, we can do that,” says Nick Gravish, who studies the intersection of robotics and biology at UC San Diego. “Or we can take the best pieces from some design and put them in a new design and get rid of the things we don’t need.” Think of it, then, like intelligent design — that follows the principles of natural selection.

Before, in the Robot Precambrian period, there were robots, but they tended to be rooted to one spot in a factory, lacking sensors and lacking brains. In one word: they were “plant.” Now come the “animal” robots: robots that move, sense, adapt, and learn.

Reporter Matt Simon thinks this is the beginning of a “Cambrian explosion” of new forms. The Robot Cambrian period has begun. Why? Because technology reached a threshold where cost has fallen and capabilities have increased so much that we can suddenly afford robots that are both smart and mobile. Suddenly a lot of things are possible that weren’t before, and a vast space of new possibilities is quickly being explored.

The original Cambrian explosion was an enormous increase of biological animal forms that seem to have appeared very suddenly with very few if any antecedents. Many scientists believe they appeared because another critical threshold was reached; the atmosphere finally contained enough oxygen to fuel more energetic lifeforms.

For sure, oxygen allows animals to exist, and natural selection would select them if they began to exist, but what made them begin to exist? What could have designed all their complicated sensors (the Wired article mentions vision), nerves, and actuators (muscles)? Previous natural selection? Some people really really believe it but honestly we don’t see anything like that, and I am not going to hold my breath waiting to see it demonstrated. There are also good theoretical reasons to think it wouldn’t happen: like Conservation of Information.

When it comes to mass-produced robots, the equivalent of natural selection is “market forces.” Market forces used to frown on animal robots because they were so expensive and frail. From 2017 on, market forces seem to be smiling upon animal robots. But either way, market forces don’t actually create them.

The real cause of technological explosions is intelligent design.

Image credit: EinGefangenerMoment, via Pixabay.