Thursday, February 28, 2008

How and Why do we have Culture?

In the run up to Science Week (7-16 March) the BA have been asking both the public and scientists for their big questions (see my previous blog What do Aliens look like). When I was asked for my Big Question I didn't have to think too hard, because I'm part of just about the most exciting research project of my life. That project is called The Emergence of Artificial Culture in Robot Societies, and sets out to answer the question "how can culture emerge as a novel property of social animals?" or to put it another way "how and why do we (humans) have culture?".

Of course you may be wondering what business a robot guy (me) has to do with a question of - essentially - evolutionary anthropology, which on the face of it has nothing to do with robotics. Well, firstly I've spent the last ten years working on Swarm Robotics - basically building robot swarms to try and understand how swarm intelligence works, and a robot swarm is a kind of primitive society of robots. Secondly, that work has opened my eyes to the extraordinary power of emergence, or self-organisation*. And thirdly, I'm passionate about trying to work on research problems that completely cross discipline boundaries, ideally across the arts/humanities, social- and natural-science boundaries. The question "how and why do we have culture" is just such a question.

I won't explain now how we intend to address this research question in detail. Suffice it to say that we are going to use a radical approach - which is to build a society of real robots, program them with (what we believe to be) a necessary and sufficient set of social behaviours, then observe them free running. Of course the big question then is will anything happen at all that is capable of being robustly interpreted as evidence of emerging proto-cultural behaviours and - if it does - would we even recognise it (since this will be an emerging robot- not human- culture; an exo-culture if you will).

I'm privileged to be part of a team that includes a computer scientist, theoretical biologist, philosopher, social scientist and art historian/cultural theorist. For more detail here is the announcement on EPSRC grants on the web. Not least in order to mitigate the risk that we fail to recognise anything interesting that might emerge, but also because we strongly believe in Open Science, the whole project will be on the web - live robots, data and all - as soon as we're up and running.

And here's a picture of 2 of the robots we plan to use (called e-pucks). We've added some 'ears' so that they can chirp at each other; the artificial culture lab will have around 50-60 of these robots.

*Emergence is - in my view - both ubiquitious (everywhere from physics, to life, intelligence and culture, to galaxies) and for more important than I think we realise. I would go so far as to say that I believe natural selection (although beautiful and powerful) is on its own insufficent to explain the astonishing complexity of many biological and societal systems. I think you need natural selection + emergence.

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