Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Robotic Visions goes nationwide

Really great news. We learned today that our EPSRC bid to take Robotic Visions nationwide has been granted.

Let me explain what Robotic Visions is. About a year and a half ago we (that is Walking with Robots) ran an event in London called the Young Person's Visions conference, co-organised with the excellent London Engineering Project and the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE). We brought about 20 young people - aged between 16-18 - to the grand setting of the RAE for 2 days and asked them to think and talk about what kind of robotics technology they would like in their future. They met with and took evidence from roboticists, in much the same way that a parliamentary select committee does, and at the end formed and agreed a set of recommendations. Those recommendations have now been published by the RAE to inform senior members of the academy and other policy-makers: click here to see that report.

See my blog post on that event here: the future doesn't just happen - we must own it. The new grant will now allow us to run the same kind of event in other venues across the UK: Bristol, Newcastle, Aberystwyth, Glasgow and Oxford.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Emergence in Glasgow

Just returned from the excellent 2nd EmergeNet meeting, in Glasgow. EmergeNet is an EPSRC funded network of projects and people linked by an interest in emergence. As the Wikipedia article states, the phenomenon of emergence has been known about for a long time, but it still defies a proper scientific definition. In other words a definition that allows you to look at some complex phenomena and say yes, this is true emergence, but that isn't, and to measure the strength of the emergence (if indeed that is possible).

The reason a rigourous definition of emergence is important is that we can now contemplate designing complex systems that exploit emergence. A swarm robotics system is, for instance, a designed system which relies on emergence but - within the framework of complexity science - many other systems, from molecular to economic, would benefit from a deep understanding of emergence.

There were some truly excellent talks at EmergeNet2 - I'll add a link here when the presentations are online. But from one of those talks here is a link to an astonishing YouTube video from EmergeNet leader Lee Cronin and his team, showing (if I understand it correctly) controlled inorganic crystalline growth of molecular tubes - which looks remarkably organic.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Symbrion debates @Stuttgart

In Stuttgart, at the University, for a Symbrion project meeting. Its been a really tough meeting - which is hardly surprising given that we're one year in and - next month - have the big end-of-first-year review meeting in Prague. So a major part of the meeting has been a dress rehearsal for the review.

However, spending a day and a half with a group of very smart people is always a pleasure, and there were some really interesting issues to debate. One concerns the fundamental question of how much of the Symbrion system should be designed and how much evolved (using evolutionary computing techniques). One could take a purist view and aim to evolve every aspect. My own view is more pragmatic. I think that achieving the aims of the Symbrion project is going to be so difficult that we should resort to artificial evolution only for the parts of the system that we can't design, because we don't know how.

Also, I think there's a 'biological plausibility' argument for taking the pragmatic view. The Symbrion system will be both a swarm of individual robots, behaving like a swarm, and - following self-assembly - a multi-cellular organism, behaving as a single organism. Swarm and organism have, I think, radically different control paradigms; the former fully decentralised and dependent on mechanisms of emergence and self-organisation, the latter centralised and coordinated (by a central nervous system). Of course ant genes must both contain the instructions to build multi-cellular animals (the ants with CNSs and coordinated control, e.g. for walking), and their behaviours which give rise to the colony's collective swarm intelligence. However, Symbrion goes beyond anything seen in nature. We want the Symbrion robots to sometimes behave like complicated ant-like creatures, and sometimes behave like complicated cells in a complex body (that can perform useful coordinated functions). I think if such a thing were possible to be evolved it would have been (except for the fascinating but much-simpler-than-Symbrion case of the social amoeba Dictyostelium discoideum sometimes self-assembling into multicellular structures).

This is why I think engineering a single evolutionary process that can evolve both swarm intelligent control and centralised coordinated control is asking too much.