Artificial Intelligence Researchers Want Survival of the Fittest for Robots

By Nicholas West

Worldwide neuroscience research conducted under Obama’s BRAIN project, as well as similar research sponsored by the European Union exceeds $1 billion combined. The goal is nothing short of decoding the human brain. While there are many embedded initiatives associated with this type of research, the production of artificial intelligence that can rival or even surpass humans is at the forefront.

One recent development sought by the European Union is shocking: a cloud network called RoboEarth where robots can do their own research, communicate with one another, and collectively increase their intelligence in a full simulation of human interaction. It has been dubbed a “Wikipedia for robots.” It introduces a type of family learning – essentially the nurture part of the equation where nature can only be mimicked. Once established, some of the autonomous functions that have been implemented will transcend beyond merely self-directed communication, and will enter the sphere of evolutionary intelligence.

This drive for embedding evolutionary principles into robotics forms the cornerstone of new research at the University of Wyoming’s Evolving Artificial Intelligence Lab where the stated goal is to introduce the concept of natural selection so that robots will evolve as rivals to their human counterparts.

Concerns are finally beginning to mount about the unintended consequences of creating something that has the potential to be smarter than us, as Stephen Hawking has been discussing lately. Nevertheless, research into artificial intelligence continues full steam ahead.

One Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) scientist recently echoed Hawking’s dire warning about the imminent arrival of a primitive form of A.I. which might impart the violence inherent in what we consider to be primitive forms of nature to produce “terminator robots.” Steve Omohundro’s full study is titled “Autonomous technology and the greater human good” which appeared in the Journal of Experimental & Theoretical Artificial Intelligence. It begins:

Military and economic pressures are driving the rapid development of autonomous systems. We show that these systems are likely to behave in anti-social and harmful ways unless they are very carefully designed.

More disturbing still are statements made by George Zarkadakis, an artificial intelligence engineer, who believes that intelligent robots will move toward procreation as they will wish to produce superior offspring. Through a simple software swap, new intelligence could be created, as well as the likelihood of other upgrades like virus protection. Incidentally, the organic component of this is also being researched by geneticists as downloadable DNA via our own human Internet.

Just as we humans naturally wish that our own children become healthier, more intelligent and longer-lived versions of ourselves, so too will increasingly self-aware systems. The research at the University of Wyoming is embracing this potential:

A Darwinian process is set up so that the better programs will have lots of copies (versions similar or identical) in the next generation and less desirable software is eliminated. (emphasis added)

What makes some programs ‘better’ than others is determined by the person setting up the experiment (e.g., the ability to get out of mazes, drive a car without crashing, control a legged robot, etc.). Over time the software gets better and better since mutations (random changes in the programs) and ‘sex’ (combining a portion of the code of one program with a portion of another) will occasionally produce a program that is a slight improvement over its parents. This slightly better software will thrive for a while until it too is replaced by the next slightly better software.

Lead researcher, Jeff Clune, has lofty ambitions that should be taken seriously as his lab has produced award-winning students and grants from NASA. Commenting on the potential of the “mutations” and code swaps, he states:

We’re trying to harness the power of evolution. It’s an extremely creative and powerful design force. Can we use that process to evolve robots? We can harness it, and when we do, evolution comes up with something smarter than humans can design.


We want to engineer robots that rival nature and are as agile and smart. (emphasis added)

With the rapid advances made in the realm of 3D printing, self-aware artificial intelligence could “breed” at the molecular level and likely begin printing out their code-upgraded progeny. Sound crazy? Clune states just such a potential:

These small changes can add up to produce jaguars, whales, Olympians and poets.

While futurists such as Ray Kurzweil, a director of engineering at Google, tend to discuss a transcendental age of Spiritual Machines where humans only benefit from their own enhanced intelligence as well as the coming super A.I, the opposite reality should be equally – if not more strongly – considered. This wave of new technology is a fundamental transformation, not simply a new gadget that can be upgraded or phased out.

While Jeff Clune claims to add ethics to his lectures, his following statement demonstrates a decided lack of concern for where this genie is headed once let out of the bottle. Apparently, his role as a scientist is just to open the bottle and see what happens:

 “You as the designer get to say what you want and it’s up to evolution to produce and accomplish that goal,” Clune said. “I thought the best way to understand my own brain was to build one. I’m learning a lot about how evolution did it by doing it myself.”

Robots are already beginning to “win” in the economic struggle for survival. Where else will their competitive evolution take them?

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