For release: August 25, 1999
In first case of fully automated
design, computers shape LEGO bricks into various designs without human
It's the first successful leap
from today's computer-aided design into the futuristic realm of fully automated
design, and the first baby step toward the artificial intelligence community's
longstanding dream of evolutionary robotics, where robots might eventually
adopt some form of evolution.
||WALTHAM, Mass. - Evolution,
until now the unchallenged domain of living organisms, may soon become
possible for robots as well. So say computer scientists at Brandeis University,
where a simple computer-based form of evolution - nature's own design strategy
, has succeeded in designing LEGO structures without any assistance from
Brandeis's Pablo Funes and
Jordan Pollack, the researchers who masterminded this achievement, say
this trial-and-error approach to designing LEGO bridges, tables, and cranes
lays the groundwork for robots capable of reworking their own hardware
without any human guidance at all. Their work appears in the most recently
published issue of the journal Artificial Life, and the university has
filed for patent protection on the work.
"The necessity of allowing
robots' brains and bodies to evolve together has been around since the
dawn of evolutionary robotics," says Pollack, associate professor of computer
science in Brandeis¼s Volen National Center for Complex Systems.
"Our view is that in nature there is never a brain without a body, and
that small changes to both must be made in a co-evolutionary fashion."
To make this rudimentary
evolutionary hardware, Pollack and Funes, a graduate researcher, constructed
a computer program capable of plucking out structurally sound LEGO designs
from a sea of possibilities. They then provided the program with simple
optimization goals, such as spanning a distance and carrying a weight -
laying the groundwork for the fully automated design of LEGO-based structures
such as a two-meter bridge, a crane capable of lifting a one-kilogram weight,
and a table that could support the same weight.
After the computer analyzed
hundreds of its own designs and spit out the best ones, Pollack and Funes
broke out their LEGO bricks and built the structures. Almost without exception,
they found, the computer had engineered structures that were structurally
"We're not saying these
structures are engineering marvels, but we've shown that even a simple
evolutionary program, paired with the right physics, can design complex
structures without any engineering expertise from humans. A number of other
researchers have tried to evolve more impressive simulated structures,
but ours are the first to translate into reality," Pollack says.
The computer's design success
was largely a function of its skill in evaluating the integrity of LEGO
structures, which Pollack says can be determined through the patent-pending
algorithms he and Funes developed to analyze torque in networks of the
sticky blocks. The program is no speed demon; it took a day and a half
to design the two-meter bridge. But the cantilevered design it eventually
came up with is, at least in Pollack's estimation, superior for a self-supporting
LEGO bridge of that size.
"What I find most fascinating
about these results," Pollack says, "is that a very simple algorithm 'discovered'
sophisticated structures that took humans many centuries to design - a
cantilever for the bridge, and an inverted triangle for the crane."
The work was partially sponsored
by the Office of Naval Research and the National Science Foundation. With
a new research grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration
(DARPA), members of Pollack's laboratory are now developing similar systems
that feature limited motion, which is expected to allow fully automatic
design of robot bodies and brains.
EDITORS: Two high-resolution
(300 dpi) images (image
one; image two)
are available to illustrate this story. Call Steve Bradt at (781) 736-4203
for more information. LEGO is a registered trademark of the LEGO Group.