In a laboratory tucked away in a corner of the Cornell University campus, Hod Lipson’s robots are evolving. He has already produced a self-aware robot that is able to gather information about itself as it learns to walk. Like a Toy Story character, it sits in a cubby surrounded by other former laboratory stars. There’s a set of modular cubes, looking like a cross between children’s blocks and the model cartilage one might see at the orthopaedist’s – this particular contraption enjoyed the spotlight in 2005 as one of the world’s first self-replicating robots. And there are cubbies full of odd-shaped plastic sculptures, including some chess pieces that are products of the lab’s 3D printer.
In 2006, Lipson’s Creative Machines Lab pioneered the Fab@home, a low-cost build-your-own 3D printer, available to anyone with internet access. For around $2,500 and some tech know-how, you could make a desktop machine and begin printing three-dimensional objects: an iPod case made of silicon, flowers from icing, a dolls’ house out of spray-cheese. Within a year, the Fab@home site had received 17 million hits and won a 2007 Breakthrough of the Year award from Popular Mechanics. But really, the printer was just a side project: it was a way to fabricate all the bits necessary for robotic self-replication. The robots and the 3D printer-pieces populating the cubbies are like fossils tracing the evolutionary history of a new kind of organism. ‘I want to evolve something that is life,’ Lipson told me, ‘out of plastic and wires and inanimate materials.’
Upon first meeting, Lipson comes off like a cross between Seth Rogen and Gene Wilder’s Young Frankenstein (minus the wild blond hair). He exudes a youthful kind of curiosity. You can’t miss his passionate desire to understand what makes life tick. And yet, as he seeks to create a self-assembling, self-aware machine that can walk right out of his laboratory, Lipson is aware of the risks. In the corner of his office is a box of new copies of Out of Control by Kevin Kelly. First published in 1994 when Kelly was executive editor of Wired magazine, the book contemplates the seemingly imminent merging of the biological and technological realms — ‘the born and the made’ — and the inevitable unpredictability of such an event. ‘When someone wants to do a PhD in this lab, I give them this book before they commit,’ Lipson told me. ‘As much as we are control freaks when it comes to engineering, where this is going toward is loss of control. The more we automate, the more we don’t know what’s going to come out of it.’
Lipson’s first foray into writing evolvable algorithms for building robots came in 1998, when he was working with Jordan Pollack, professor of computer science at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. As Lipson explained:
We wrote a trivial 10-line algorithm, ran it on big gaming simulator which could put these parts together and test them, put it in a big computer and waited a week. In the beginning nothing happened. We got piles of junk. Then we got beautiful machines. Crazy shapes. Eventually a motor connected to a wire, which caused the motor to vibrate. Then a vibrating piece of junk moved infinitely better than any other… eventually we got machines that crawl. The evolutionary algorithm came up with a design, blueprints that worked for the robot.
But perhaps it is not the creation of new life that we fear, so much as the potential for unpredictable emergent behaviour. Evolution certainly offers that. Take viruses: like Lipson’s machines, these organisms exist in the grey area between life and non-life, yet they are among the most rapidly evolving entities on the planet. They are also some of the most destructive; the Spanish Flu of 1918 killed around 50 million people, and some scientists fear that the emergence of some kind of Armageddon virus is only a matter of time. From this point of view, it doesn’t matter whether viruses are alive or dead. All that matters is that they are highly evolvable and unpredictable.
And here’s where things do get scary. If viruses can evolve within hours, computer code can do it within fractions of a second. Viruses are dumb; computers have processors that might some day surpass our own brains — some would say they already have. If we are going to take the risk of giving machines, in Lipson’s words, ‘so much freedom’, we need a good reason to do it. In Out of Control, Kelly proposes one possible reason. Perhaps, he says, the world has become such a complicated place that we have no other choice but to enable the marriage between the biologic and the technologic; without it, the problems we face are too difficult for our human brains to solve. Kelly proposes a kind of Faustian pact: ‘The world of the made, will soon be like the world of the born: autonomous, adaptable and creative but, consequently, out of our control. I think that’s a great bargain.’
According to Lipson, an evolvable system is ‘the ultimate artificial intelligence, the most hands-off AI there is, which means a double edge. It’s powerful. All you feed it is power and computing power. It’s both scary and promising.’ More than 60 years ago, MANIAC was created to ‘solve the unsolvable’. What if the solution to some of our present problems requires the evolution of artificial intelligence beyond anything we can design ourselves? Could an evolvable program help to predict the emergence of new flu viruses? Or the effects of climate change? Could it create more efficient machines? And once a truly autonomous, evolvable robot emerges, how long before its descendants (assuming they think favourably of us) make a pilgrimage to Lipson’s lab, where their ancestor first emerged from a primordial soup of wires and plastic to take its first steps on Earth?