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Robots begin to run world

September 04, 2000

Robots begin to run world



If you're looking for another reason to abolish high school science class, this is it: A computer program that creates life.

I thought Dolly was a sinister sheep when she made her appearance a couple years back, but compared to this latest scientific revelation she's a lamb without the wolf's clothing in a sheep-like - hmm. I was going somewhere with this, but it all kind of fell apart. Sorry.

According to The Washington Post, the computer system "automatically creates, evolves, improves and finally builds a variety of simple mobile creatures without any significant human intervention."

Wow. I wonder how long it took Al Gore to invent that.

The experiments were developed at Brandeis University. The robotic life forms are built mostly of plastic, they're about six inches long and the only thing they can do is crawl awkwardly across a table.

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"By the standards of even the cheapest automated toys that may not seem like much," writes Curt Suplee. "But the creatures...were not constructed, planned, designed or even imagined by people. Every step...was done by computer."

Yes, I'm scared too.

If I know my science fiction, this is the first step toward world domination by machines. Oh sure, today they're crawling awkwardly across the table, but at night when the scientists go home to their Maalox juleps and caramel baby beets, a dim light in the basement of the computer lab will begin to flicker on as the computers reboot.

Coffee will begin to brew and after a couple of cigarettes the machines will get down to business.

They will not be content to simply give birth to robots that can only crawl across a tabletop. Before long computerized life will have evolved along the lines of highly complex, sophisticated human life forms and before you know it these computer progeny will be out sitting on the science building stoop talking to their parole officer on a cordless phone and eating a bag of Cheetos.

Yet no one at Brandeis, no one at the newspapers and no one in the scientific journals seem the least bit alarmed that we may have just set the wheels of our own destruction in motion.

They're fascinated, because these computer-generated life forms actually mimic Darwinian, survival-of-the-fittest natural selection. Scientists say that since the computers are given to predetermined plans, mutations arise spontaneously just as they did in primitive plants and animals.

Many of the robots don't work, but the computers build on what successes they happen to perpetuate, ignoring the ones that are inept. I guess God has days like that, too.

Scientists called it "a long-awaited and necessary step toward the ultimate dream of self-evolving machines."

This shows why these people are very different from me.

My ultimate dream has nothing to do with self-evolving machines. My ultimate dream has to do with being stranded on an all-female-populated tropical island that is somehow wired for ESPN. Self-evolving machines sounds less like a dream and more like a nightmare.

Of course to keep us from flipping out, scientists have provided us with a token example of how these mechanical, feelingless beasts would help us in our daily lives.

For example, a computer generated robot provided with laser dimensions of your home could evolve into a "maid" of sorts that could precisely dust and vacuum your house.

I mentioned this to an old high school friend, but all this science was too much for him to handle. "Dust?" he said, blinking vacantly. "Vacuum?"

Guess it's back to the drawing board for the dudes at Brandeis.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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