Sometimes it is the simplest questions that are the hardest to answer. A team of scientists led by Vassar College‘s John Long wanted to figure out why vertebrates have a backbone, but had no way to test ideas about how early fish evolved because those kind of fish no longer exist. To re-create early fish life, the team turned to robots. Robots, they argue, are better than digital models because they are more accurate, can’t defy the laws of physics, might actually help us develop useful robotic outcomes, and they are cool. Well, they didn’t mention that last part, but robots do add a certain cool factor.
The robots the team created are modeled on fossil fish that no longer exist. They built several prey robots that would get ‘eaten’, and also built a predator robot to seek out the ‘fish’. The twist in this tale is that the robot prey fish were given the ability to evolve their behavior and some physical capabilities over generations. They wondered if the ability to evolve a backbone could help the fish escape the predator or help it find food.
The project was a success, as they were able to get the robots to evolve with the selection pressures – to avoid getting eaten and find food – as the driver for evolution development of the backbone. The robotic fish evolved to an optimum backbone configuration that allowed them to better escape. This work not only helped the scientists answer their question but helps robotics engineers find creative solutions for getting robots to tricky places. Now when your kids ask why we have a backbone, you can mention something about robots in the answer.