The lovable boy from Steven Spielberg’s “A.I.”; the army of robots that rise up against their human makers in Terminator films and the one capable of fatherly love; and the many existential quandaries in the Isaac Asimov “I, Robot” book series. These are just a few of the fantastical illustrations of artificial intelligence and robotics in popular culture. But in the 21st Century, there are real scientists making real strides in the field of robotics, and they’re coming up with some creative ways to get kids interested in computer programming and robotics. One sub-specialty garnering a lot of attention recently is “evolutionary robotics.”
Evolutionary Robotics: What It Is and Why You Should Care
What may sound like a “heady” concept is actually a hands-on, practical science that by virtue of its inherent “coolness” (think R2-D2 and Transformers) can attract kids to science and engineering. Learning about robotics of any kind can teach the basics of using the scientific method and foster creativity and problem-solving skills—all critical to the jobs of the future.
According to MIT Press, “Evolutionary robotics is a new technique for the automatic creation of autonomous robots. Inspired by the Darwinian principle of selective reproduction of the fittest, it views robots as autonomous artificial organisms that develop their own skills in close interaction with the environment and without human intervention.”
You can find out more about evolutionary robotics and ways kids can dabble in it by watching this brief video of Dr. Josh Bongard’s keynote speech at the recent STEM Conference in Cleveland, Ohio. Dr. Josh Bongard, an associate professor in Computer Science at the University of Vermont, is a pioneer and leader in this exciting field and has a long list of qualifications and accolades to attest to it.
As Dr. Bongard explains, “[d]esigning, building and studying robots takes us far beyond just the four STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] disciplines: understanding what makes animals smart takes us into evolutionary biology, neuroscience, psychology and philosophy.” Robotics also draws in the “A” from “STEAM” (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) because, as Bongard says, “creating a machine that is not just intelligent and useful but also beautiful requires artistic ability.”
“The Future Is Here, and It’s Freaking Us Out!”
If the mere idea of an autonomous robot with the ability to evolve independent of human beings sends shivers down your spine, it’s only natural. The whole genre of science fiction is built on this fear. During 1980s, there was a lot of backlash from those who feared machines would cost human jobs. In the case of manufacturing, they have; but they have also brought huge increases in productivity, and someone still has to design those machines.
Dr. Bongard notes that “literature and the humanities have long struggled with the dehumanizing forces of technology.” But where others see fantasy or impossibility, Bongard and others in the field of evolutionary robotics see great potential. “The prospect of intelligent machines challenges our belief that we will remain the smartest species on the planet,” says Bongard. The website Chicagoist captured this human feeling of wonder (and uneasiness) when describing the 500 “Finch” robots that Google recently donated to Chicago Public Libraries so kids could check them out and actually program them to draw, walk, and talk: “The future is here, and it’s freaking us out!”
Robotics Activities for Kids
Let’s back up a bit. Isn’t this all a little too much for kids in K-12 to grasp? Not necessarily. Finch the Robot (if your library doesn’t have one, you or your school can purchase one for $99), plugs into your computer using a USB cable, and the kids pretty much take it from there. And all over the country, robotics teams are popping up at forward-thinking schools that are bringing together science teachers, outside companies, and volunteers from industry to coach students to build and operate their own robots using LEGOs and other simple materials. Teams can go on to compete in regional and national competitions, such as the FIRST® Tech Challenge (FTC) and FIRST® Robotics Competition. Schools don’t need a lot of experience or a big budget to participate. In fact, the 2014 FRC Midwest Regional Champions, The “Hawks on the Horizon” robotics team from Horizon Science Academy-McKinley Park in Chicago, made it all the way to World Championships, the very first year their school, which is located in a largely low-income neighborhood, opened.
But, Dr. Bongard asks, “beyond K-12 robot competitions, can young people contribute to these heady pursuits without a specialized degree in robotics?” He thinks the answer is yes. In his keynote speech at The STEM Conference, Dr. Bongard explained the crowdsourced web platform he runs called “Ludobots,” where “participants begin as students but graduate to scientists.” Ludobots allows students to “create and trade robots online, but they also collectively create and test hypotheses about intelligent behavior, regardless of whether that behavior was produced by an organic or artificial machine,” says Bongard.
The website Evolve a Robot puts this theory into practice. According to the site, “Evolutionary Robotics harnesses the process that has led to the complexity we observe in natural organisms: evolution. Brain and body are optimized through an iterative process modifying an individual’s genome. This web portal provides an online tool to observe evolution happening in real-time. Beginning with a randomly generated initial individual, the robot’s genome changes under evolutionary pressures, allowing the animat to move effectively.” Translation: Make the robot move. You can watch it in real-time here.
While we may not be anywhere near having “Rosie the Robot Maid” make our dinner and clean our house like in The Jetsons, this generation of young people has the technology to make huge leaps in robotics. Evolutionary robotics for kids? Why not? All they need is the right tools, creativity, and a good STEM education.