Robots used to study evolution

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.

"In the past, if you think about it, robots wouldn’t work, because we could only make these big metal things with rotating joints that were really stiff … and that’s not how nature is," said Robert J. Full, professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Full’s lab at Berkeley has built robots that can creep like cockroaches or climb like geckos. In Switzerland, researchers built a bright yellow salamander robot a few years ago that can swim and walk to investigate vertebrates’ transition from water to land. They posted a web video of the robot squirming out of Lake Geneva.

At Harvard University, George Lauder, professor of organismic and evolutionary biology, studies fish locomotion with the aid of robotic fins. He says scientists are not trying to build spitting images of animals, but rather to mimic certain characteristics–a fin or a spinal column–to study how they work. Scientists then alter that characteristic to see how it affects performance.

The small amount of robot research performed so far has yet to dramatically alter evolutionary studies, but it has helped researchers evolve their understanding of some animals.

Consider Madeleine the swimming robot. Madeleine is roughly the size and shape of a big bed pillow, with four flippers sticking from its sides, but it was used to study a 45-ton marine reptile that patrolled the seas in the Jurassic Period.

Fossil records show that the massive pliosaur, dubbed Predator X, had two sets of largely symmetrical flippers, indicating the animal used all four to swim. That sets Predator X apart from modern animals like otters, sea lions, and turtles, which tend to use one set of flippers for propulsion and the other for steering, Long said.

Researchers studying Predator X asked Long to investigate why the creature used all four flippers for swimming. Madeleine was programmed to swim with two flippers, then all four. The robot demonstrated that using four flippers to swim could be a bad proposition, energy-wise. But they do provide a sort of turbo-boost for quick accelerations–handy for catching dinner.

"The otter and the pliosaur both swim the same speed," Long said, "but, man, that pliosaur can really take off."

The Preyro robot experiment allows Long to take his evolutionary studies a step further.

By setting up Preyro in a pool with another autonomous robot–a predator named Tadiator–Long and his students simulated an evolutionary scenario. They wanted to examine qualities that would help vertebrate sea creatures of the Cambrian Period forage for food without becoming lunch for predators. Specifically, they wanted to test the hypothesis that the ancient creatures’ need to scoot away fast from predators drove the evolution of stiffer tails.

Students could stiffen Preyro’s backbone by fitting plastic rings (representing vertebrae) over a jelly-like column running down the tail designed to simulate the biological structures of ancient sea creatures. More rings made for a stiffer tail.

They found that changing the size of Preyro’s tail fin had no effect, but that backbones stiffened with vertebrae helped Preyro swim away from danger faster. Seven vertebra worked the best; any more made the tail too stiff. They concluded that the evolution of multiple vertebrae could have been influenced by the need to avoid predators while foraging.

Robot builders like Long still use computer simulations to complement their work. But Long says swimming robots like Madeleine and Preyro have advantages over computer simulations, because it is extremely difficult to simulate the interaction between a flexible solid–like an animal’s tail–and a liquid.

"The thing about robots is, robots can’t violate the laws of physics," he said. "A computer program can."

Lauder said there’s no substitute for building a device that can replicate the minutely complex features of an animal. He expects the rise of robots in biological research to accelerate as more advances are made.

"The next 20 years are going to be amazing, I think," Lauder said.

Link:

John Long’s lab at Vassar College

tags

Robots used to study evolution

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.

Read the full story at eCampus News

tags

Microsoft takes on Google in web search

Aiming to make a dent in Google’s search engine dominance, Microsoft Corp. is rolling out a redesigned search site in the coming days that could give students and educators a new option and different tools for internet research and other academic endeavors.

Microsoft hopes the new site, called Bing, will lure more web surfers than the two most recent incarnations of its search technology, Live Search and MSN Search.

Bing includes touches intended to make everyday web searching a little less haphazard. Bing also tries to make it easier for people to buy things, book travel, and find credible health information. Educators are hoping the search site’s much-hyped functionality will reach into education-related research.

To mount a credible challenge to Google, Microsoft tried taking over Yahoo last year. But after Yahoo rebuffed its $47.5 billion offer, Microsoft turned its attention to improving its own Live Search.

Some of Bing’s features showed up on a Microsoft blog in March, when the new site was known as "Kumo." The most obvious difference is a bar of links running down the left-hand side of Bing’s search results pages. Some searches–especially ones for celebrities or travel destinations–yield a group of links to help narrow results into categories. For pro athletes, it might offer links for statistics and highlights. For Thailand, categories include weather and real estate.

Bing also lists related search terms on the left, not at the bottom of the page like Google does. It keeps track of recent searches even if the user isn’t signed in to a Windows Live account, and it gives people a way to eMail links from that search history or post them on Facebook.

A CNET News review, based on a preview, said Bing is better about including news articles in its search results, and its video search results surpass those of Google.

For some types of queries, Microsoft is positioning Bing as a destination rather than a quick gateway to other sites. For airfare searches, Bing produces results from Farecast, a travel-comparison startup that Microsoft acquired last year. Microsoft is still working out some bugs, so for now users have to know a few tricks for it to work consistently. A search using airport codes, such as "SEA to SAN," brings up ticket prices and links to see more, but "Seattle to San Diego" turns up news stories about the cities.

Bing also tries to guide searchers to trustworthy information about medical conditions. Type in "chicken pox" or "tendinitis," and the first result is a Mayo Clinic article. (Google’s top result for chicken pox comes from kidshealth.org; for tendinitis, it shows a Wikipedia link.)

Microsoft isn’t banking on beating Google, said Mike Nichols, a general manager in the company’s search group. But Microsoft does want to transform its also-ran search image.

"We want to capture a unique position in consumers’ minds. They need to know why is it that they should use this product," Nichols said. "As opposed to saying, we’re a new search engine, we do everything a little bit better than the other guys."

Matt Rosoff, an analyst for the independent research group Directions on Microsoft, said he thinks Microsoft’s search results are usually on par with Google’s, and he appreciates the new features.

Combined with an aggressive ad campaign, Microsoft has a chance to increase its share, he said, but he added: "I have to wonder whether users are really crying out for a new search engine."

History has not been kind to even the best search innovators. Many companies, including Amazon.com and IAC/InterActiveCorp., and startups like Hakia, ChaCha, and Cuil, have tried to improve on the basic "10 blue links" format of search results, but Google has so far been unstoppable.

Microsoft’s last effort, Live Search, failed to catch on in part because the software maker didn’t do much to promote it. Marketing is no guarantee of success–IAC heavily advertised makeovers of Ask.com, only to never see the site breach the top three. But this time, Microsoft appears to be taking no chances. Ad Age reported Microsoft plans to spend as much as $100 million on advertising Bing.

Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft has been stuck in third place in internet search behind Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc. for years. Its share of U.S. search queries was 8.2 percent in April, according to the most recent data from the research group comScore Inc. Google was used for 64.2 percent of queries, and Yahoo’s share totaled 20.4 percent.

The numbers are important from a revenue standpoint. Google’s sales–$4.7 billion in the first quarter–are tied to its search dominance, because companies will pay to reach a wider audience. Microsoft, by contrast, posted a quarterly loss in its online advertising business.

"We want to do better," Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said May 28 at the Wall Street Journal‘s "D: All Things Digital" conference in Carlsbad, Calif.

"There are times in our history where we’ve felt a little bit like Rocky," he continued, referring to the fictional underdog boxer. "It takes persistence. You don’t always get things right."

When asked why Microsoft chose the name "Bing," he said, "The name is short, it’s easy to say, it works globally."

Link:

Microsoft Bing

tags