Robots wag their tail fins and bob along like bathtub toys in a pool at a Vassar College lab. Their actions are dictated by microprocessors housed in round plastic containers, the sort you’d store soup in.
It hardly looks like it, but the two swimming robots were set loose in the little pool to study evolution, acting out predator-prey encounters from roughly 540 million years ago.
The prey robot, dubbed Preyro, can simulate evolution.
This is not like robot evolution in the "Terminator" movie sense of machines turning on their human masters. Instead, Vassar biology and cognitive science professor John Long and his students can make changes to the tail of Preyro to see which designs help it avoid the predator robot.
"We’re applying selection," Long explains, "just like natural selection."
Long is among a small group of researchers worldwide studying biology and evolution with the help of robots that can do things like shimmy through water or slither up shores.
Long’s robots, for instance, test theories on the development of stiffer backbones. The researchers believe the machines will catch on as technological advances allow robots to mimic animals far better than before.
Microprocessors are now tinier and more sophisticated. Building materials are more pliable. The same technology driving the use of electronic prosthetic limbs and vacuuming robots also is giving scientists a sophisticated tool to study biology.