The problem with studying evolution, outside of the threats from anti-Darwinians, is that it takes too long. Tracking how a species evolves through a thousand generations, even with rapid reproducers like rabbits, can take decades if not centuries. A scientist figured out a way to reduce that time to hours by programming robotic rodents to mate.
Dr. Stefan Elfwing of the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology’s Neural Computation Unit explains his research in a recent article in the journal PLOS ONE. His Cyber Rodent robots are built with two wheels for mobility, a camera for finding other robots to mate with and batteries to “eat,” electronic teeth for “eating” the batteries to recharge and an infrared port for mating with another robot by passing “genes” or parameters of the program.
Seventy experiments were run with a computer simulating the evolutionary process over 1,000 generations each. According to evolutionary theory, only one, i.e. the best, mating strategy should survive. In some experiments, the winning strategy was the Forager who spent most of its time hunting for batteries and only mated when it saw a pretty face turn towards it. In others, it was the Tracker who spent most of its time hunting for mates.
What surprised Elfwing was that some experiments generated a polymorphic population of both Foragers and Trackers co-existing. The ratio was generally 25% Foragers and 75% Trackers. This proportion is the same as that seen in animals. In general, the polymorphic populations also had the fastest reproduction rate, meaning variety really is the spice of life.
The Cyber Rodent robots are unisex and can mate with any other robot. Dr. Elfwing will now watch to see if and how distinct genders evolve.
If these rodent robots follow the course of nature, eventually they’ll evolve into a Disney movie … or worse.