POUGHKEEPSIE, NY - Vassar College’s biorobotics expert John Long has gained wide praise for his 2012 book “Darwin's Devices: What Evolving Robots Can Teach Us About the History of Life and the Future of Technology”, from such prominent and varied publications as Science, Scientific American, Nature, Popular Science, and Salon.com, as well as from Marketplace public radio, MSNBC, and the Discovery Channel. “Darwin's Devices” explores Long’s innovative use of animal-inspired robots to conduct evolutionary research, which he will discuss in a free public lecture on Friday, September 28 at 12:00 noon in Olmsted Hall room 300, as part of the Vassar College Center for Collaborative Approaches author series.
Long explains that the challenge of studying evolution is that the history of life is buried in the past -- we can’t witness the creatures and the dramatic events that shaped the adaptations we see today. But he has found an ingenious way to overcome this problem: he creates robots that look and behave like extinct animals, subjects them to evolutionary pressures, lets them compete for mates and resources, and mutates their software-driven ‘genes.’
In Darwin’s Devices, Long tells the story of these evolving biorobots, how they came to be, and what they can teach us about the biology of living and extinct species. Long’s robots replicate aspects of creatures that disappeared from the Earth long ago, and demonstrate in real time what happens when they respond to unexpected environmental challenges. For example by designing biomechanically correct models of backbone that function as part of an autonomous robot, he gains insights on how and why backbones evolved in the first vertebrates. Perhaps the most impressive feature of these robots is their ability to illustrate the power of evolution autonomously, without human input.
John Long chairs the Vassar College biology department, holds a joint appointment in Cognitive Science, and is co-director of the Vassar Interdisciplinary Robotics Research Laboratory he helped found. Well before publishing “Darwin’s Devices”, Long’s research with his “Madeleine” and “Taro” robots had gained press coverage from the New York Times, Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and other outlets.
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