Watching robotic rats have sex could teach us more about evolution

Studying evolution is tricky, it’s a process that happens over countless generations and thousands of years, but the men tasked with studying it live less than a century. Researchers at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology have found one way around the problem: robots. OIST’s Dr. Stefan Elfwing has been using small, rodent-like robots to study the long-term effects of disparate mating strategies, observing the evolution of the simulated species for over 1,000 generations. 

Dr. Stefan Elfwing is a researcher studying evolution at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology (OIST). As you might imagine, observing new evolutionary changes happening around us is a bit of a glacial process. Looking to speed up the process, Dr. Elfwing got his hands on a small colony of mouse-like robots and taught them how to evolve. Evolving robots might sound as if Dr. Elfwing is cobbling together Terminators in a secret lab, but his robots (at least so far) are far more docile than all that. The “Cyber Rodents” were programmed with the need to “mate” and to feed themselves on batteries. Some units, called “Trackers,” focused primarily on finding a mate. Others called “Foragers,” would only mate if they happened to lock infrared ports with the right mate at the right time as they hunted for batteries.

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