Darwin's Devices: What Evolving Robots Can Teach Us About the History of Life and the Future of Technology Hardcover – Apr 3 2012
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Robots hold a key to our past, present, and future in John Long’s fascinating Darwin’s Devices. Telling the story of the exciting science at the boundary of biology and engineering, Long takes us on a tour of how science is done, how new ideas emerge, and how insights to ourselves can come from surprising places.”George V. Lauder, Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard UniversityJohn Long gives us an engagingly written and highly personal book that introduces his new approach to understanding the past using evolving robots. His unique perspective is sure to inspire others and broaden our views on how robots can inform our understanding of evolution.” David Levy, author of Love and Sex with RobotsJohn Long weaves a fascinating journey of scientific exploration which he describes with a highly infectious enthusiasm. Long’s field is the creation of autonomous robots that can teach us about the evolution of animal behavioura complex subject which he analyzes and simplifies with great clarity. Darwin’s Devices is a thoroughly stimulating read.”
Steven Vogel, James B. Duke Professor, Duke University
Whether in laboratory or kitchen, making something always improves your understanding of how it works. In this book, John Long traces his path toward better understanding the evolution of fish swimming by making robots that swim. His models quite literally embody the way the process of natural selection acts on performance in seeking food or not becoming food. It’s a personal account of real-world science, complete with the bumps and bruises, the thickets of thorns. It’s about the way we experimentalists go about thingsnot always pretty, but highly addictive in the doing and almost as seductive in the reading.”
Lively and intriguing.”
[A] lucidly written description of [Long’s] research . Using ingeniously engineered devices called evolvobots that mimic carefully selected animal features, Long and his team have been probing such mysteries as how the flexible spines of fish and mammals developed, and whether or not brains are really necessary for some species’ survival. Especially inspiring is Long’s demonstration that biorobotics is not only revolutionizing the study of biology but also providing new enthusiasm for engineering technology’s value in novel applications. A must-read for aficionados of both evolutionary theory and cybernetics.”
Publishers Weekly, starred review
Long’s process of designing the tadros’ [tadpole robots] and experiments are fascinating and give unique insights into high-level science.... Long deciphers [the] unexpected results with a delightful sense of humor and an infectious awe at, and enthusiasm for, discovery and the elegant mechanisms of evolution. For readers who like serious science, this is a captivating tour of the marriage of technology and biology.”
Though [Long] is a gifted storyteller, this is no simple fish tale. The engineering draw of robots is clear, but Long also emphasises the value for science, showing how robots can serve as physical models of biological organisms; evolving biorobots can shed light on why organisms evolved as they did; and robot interaction can illustrate coevolutionary dynamics, as between predators and prey.... With Darwin’s Devices, Long reminds us that science is always an adventure, and that new technology only drives us faster and further into the unknown.”
[Long] manages to balance fairly detailed and frequently entertaining accounts of the nuts and bolts of robot research with occasional forays into big picture, what-does-it-all-mean thinking.... [H]is discussion was both intelligent and philosophically informed, a rare thing in contemporary science writing.”
Laura Miller, Salon
Darwin’s Devices is part Descartes, part MacGyver and part Douglas Adams, turning from rumination on the possibility of intelligence residing in a brainless body to tips on making artificial fish vertebrae out of coffee stirrers . One of the most intriguing and important aspects of Darwin’s Devices is the way it places the reader in the lab, at the shoulder of people doing hands-on science, sharing in their frustrations (over disappointing data, recalcitrant grant committees and astutely critical colleagues), their successes and their failures. And Long does this so lucidly that you find yourself caught up in the process, grasping the basics and eager to learn the results. It’s the best depiction of how science really works that I’ve ever read.”
A book on robotics by a marine biologist sounds a bit fishy, but Darwin’s Devices is anything but. John Long takes us on a journey through the wonderful, oceanic world of research on the evolution of the vertebrae of extinct species. Long’s work is innovative because of his useand strong defenceof modelling with physically embodied robots, rather than the usual software simulations of computational biology.... Long’s chatty style made me laugh out loud at times. But beneath the levity lie robust and sometimes powerful arguments about biomimetics.... [T]his is a sound and hard-hitting work . Darwin’s Devices represents a step forward in biomimetics. And, cleverly hidden among the discussions and the humour, gems of scientific philosophy shine.”
Long’s trials, errors and successes should prove enlightening to anyone interested in evolution or the future of robotics.”
Clearly, it’s been a labor of love for the author and his scientific collaborators. And through Long’s humor and clever descriptions, readers get a sense of how the design concepts underlying these devicesand other robotic animalshave evolved.”
Reading Darwin’s Devices is like listening, over drinks, to a voluble, engaging, and funny scientist tell you about his work.... Long draws you into a compelling and wide-ranging conversation. This includes discussions of the mechanics of fish backbones, how we practice science, the nature of evolution, what it means to be intelligent, our dystopian robot future, and, most important, the crucial role of good models in science.... Accessible and thought-provoking, Darwin’s Devices provides an exemplary account of scientific practice for the general reader.”
About the Author
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
To study animal evolution or behavior, you can study the animals themselves, or you can make digital models in your computer, but both of these have limitations that Long describes here. Long is very good about telling readers about the complexities of getting funding, of getting along with other researchers, and of the physical difficulties of making good models. Many of these pages describe the research Long did with fellow scientists and students on evolvabots (robots that evolve) named Tadros. A Tadro is a tadpole-like robot. Tadros are designed to do one thing, swim toward a light source, because, so the story goes, light is going to be where the food is, and seeking light simulates seeking food. Different Tadros were given tails of different stiffness and length and then algorithmically mated and selected to see what sort of tails evolved. Eventually, the experiment really did shed light on why invertebrates started growing backbones, but it only made sense when the robots were sophisticated enough not only to seek light but to escape from a predator. More vertebrae allowed the robots to swim and maneuver faster. No one was around to study ancient animals as they evolved backbones, but the behavior of the robots has revealed what must have been the evolutionary process that was completed and lost millions of years ago. Long says that in a very limited way the Tadros are thinking. The Tadros evolved to smarter feeding or fleeing behavior, and they did this without any changes in their simple brains. Brains, Long assures us, are overrated. "It's not that brains are unimportant. Brains do something - when they are present." Intelligent behavior is a process of dynamic interaction between the body, the brain, and the world in which the body operates. In these experiments the brains and the world stayed the same, and the changes in bodies allowed for smarter behavior. An animal with a smart body may have little need for a smart brain. As limited as the mental processes of tadpoles, fish, or insects must be, and as successful as they are, this model has potential to explain a good deal.
In a final chapter, Long asks, "Why all the fuss about robotic fish? What's in it for you and me? Will a robotic fish become your best friend, save your life, or overthrow an evil dictator. Maybe." He veers into the alarming world where robotic fish are weaponized, and we are just beginning to see this happen. As he says, Maybe. The beauty of this book, though, is in its view of working professionally within science and dealing with the headaches of research, and the emotional responses when the Tadros don't do what researchers had expected. Long is a clear and amusing writer, calling in surprising jokes and references to Lewis Carroll, Monty Python, Buckaroo Bonzai, and _Bringing Up Baby_. There is also a good deal of goofy, clunky humor that, well, geeks like Long and his pals around the Tadro tank are famous for. It's a good book for anyone interested in robots or in evolution or in science in general.
He’s a long time expert on tinkering with robotics. Long is a biorobotics expert and professor of biology at Vasaar College. His two “pet” robots, Madeleine and Tadros, have helped to provide New York Times and Washing Post Press coverage. He and his colleagues have pioneered the emerging field of evolution biorobotics. In addition, he’s taught evolution on the Discovery Channell and the history Channel. He also runs research programs that endeavor to design, construct and evolve biorobots.
The book is rich. When you sink your teeth into its contents, you are enveloped in a world seldom seen in science. Even though it might seem a little scary, robotics is here to stay and Long is a driving force behind it. What we can expect from Long’s work is eye-opening information that may lay clues to behavior to extinct species and also pave the way for where we might be in the future. We can glean insight into evolution, “By letting robots play the game of life.” The author’s work is invaluable and very readable, stirring hours of stimulating, intellectual pleasure.
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