Evolution Park Project Summary

The Evolution Park provides an experimental testbed for applying evolutionary computation to the development and control of autonomous robotic systems. In this environment, artificial creatures can evolve in silico, be fabricated into physical forms, be tested under realistic conditions, and even be deployed to assist in scientific investigations of living organisms. The overriding theme of the project is to construct a facility that supports exploration of the interaction of (natural and artificial) creatures with their surrounding environment, and the effects of that interaction on the evolutionary process.

An Objet Connex 350 Multi-material 3D printer enables realization of physical bodies (morphologies) that evolve concurrently with their control systems. The fabricated bodies can be coupled with electroactive polymer materials to produce artificial organisms capable of locomotion without motors. In addition, a collection of specially instrumented aquatic environments will support mixed populations, where robotic fish are used as stimuli to elicit behavioral responses in living fish under conditions manipulated by the experimenter. A collection of high-performance graphics workstations with large monitors facilitate fine-grained, interactive analysis of evolved behaviors in simulated robots, as well as analysis of video data captured by underwater cameras. To maximize its impact, the testbed will be integrated with existing research facilities, including an existing testbed comprising a heterogeneous swarm of indoor mobile robots, a school of robotic fish in a large, custom-built water tank, and a rack-mounted parallel computing cluster for evolution experiments. The combined infrastructure provides a rich computing and communication fabric for studying the evolution and behavior of complex systems.

Intellectual Merit. The Evolution Park facilitates a form of biomutualism, where biology, engineering, and computer science inform one another in synergystic and mutually beneficial ways. Evolved, living systems can inform computing and engineering; computational experiments can inform studies of behavioral evolution and improve robot design; and robots can facilitate testing particular behaviors in living animals. Initially, the testbed will support research projects that address three key aspects of the evolutionary process: (1) coevolution of morphology and behaviors in individuals, (2) evolution of communication among organisms, and (3) evolution of collective mobility behaviors and strategies needed to carry out complex tasks. Collectively, these studies will produce important knowledge on how both artificial and natural organisms respond to dynamic conditions and cooperate with one another. Moreover, the testbed is likely to stimulate many synergistic research activities among a broad, multidisciplinary community of users.

Broader Impacts. On a broader scale, advances in capabilities of mobile robots will benefit many applications in science, engineering, public safety, and national defense. Experimental research, in which prototypes are developed and evaluated in environments that reflect real-world issues and constraints, is critical to that effort. In addition to its primary mission in research, the proposed infrastructure will support several innovative educational and outreach activities. One such endeavor is the Evolution Park Adventure, a framework for hands-on experiments that combine biological principles, computation, and engineering, which will be developed and integrated into university courses, teacher training workshops, summer camps and after-school programs for K-12 students. Such programs will enable students to gain hands-on experience with evolutionary robotics and its applications in science and engineering.

The Evolution Park project is supported by National Science Foundation grant CNS-1059373 titled, "II-EN: Evolution Park - An Evolutionary Robotics Habitat for the Study of Crawling, Swimming and Flying Creatures."