You would think that a biologist would have little interest in robots. Carbon-based life forms and silicon and metal gadgetry are different enough that both would have their own specialists working on them. The combination of the two, say in evolving robots, is something considered in science fiction, but it has become an incipient reality. John Long should know; he is a biologist and he does study robots, and he makes them, and he enables them to evolve. In _Darwin's Devices: What Evolving Robots Can Teach Us About the History of Life and the Future of Technology_ (Basic Books), Long has given a layman's introduction to some complicated work with surprising engineering, biological, and even philosophical lessons. Biorobotics is the field of building robotic gadgets to test hypotheses about animal behavior or evolution. It may well be an increasingly important field of study, not only to help understanding how evolution built us and the creatures we see around us, but also in producing robots that are fine-tuned to do our bidding with many more capabilities than our trained animals ever could.
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.