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Robotics Science Technology

Robots 'Evolve' Altruism 360

sciencehabit writes "Computer simulations of tiny robots with rudimentary nervous systems show that, over hundreds of generations, these virtual machines evolve altruistic behaviors. They begin to share small disks — a stand-in for food — with each other so that their comrades' traits are passed on to the next generation. Experts say the study sheds light on why various animals — from bees to humans — help each other out, even when it hurts their own chances to reproduce."
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Robots 'Evolve' Altruism

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  • Robots Randroids? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by guspasho ( 941623 ) on Wednesday May 04, 2011 @01:40PM (#36026232)

    Does this mean that robots are now more evolved than Randroids?

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      No, it means that these scientists should stop using the world "altruism" because they don't know what it means.

    • by NeutronCowboy ( 896098 ) on Wednesday May 04, 2011 @01:52PM (#36026394)

      Yes. Apparently, a few thousand neurons is all that it takes to realize that your own chances of survival go up if you are a member of a group, and that being a member of a group is easier if the other members of the group think you contribute to the group.

      Conclusion: Randians have less neurons than bees, and/or a less complex intelligence than these robots.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by hsmith ( 818216 )
      Christ, do you even think before slamming your face into the keyboard? "Objectivism" does not prohibit working together to benefit each other and yourself. Each side gains by the interaction - well within the bounds of Randian "theory." but it is easier to herp derp along an point fingers.
      • altruism and cooperation are investments without guarantee of return on investment. cooperation is not a bartering situation. nor does your effort to redefine trade to be a form of altruism do anything but prove you don't know a fucking thing about what you are talking about

        • I wish I had mod points.
          Yeah, Randroids haven't grasped the tragedy of the commons situation (in that situation selfishness without trust brings the tragedy).

        • Investments without guarantees is ... risk analysis. The understanding that if you do x, y is more likely is a risk, with not guarantees. If the reward is greater than the cumulative risk, then in the long run, that is exactly what will play out, if not, then it won't.

          Of course humans often don't care about such risk/reward analysis and will override sane behavior and engage in high risk, low reward (lotto/slot machines) on the OFF chance that one CAN get beat the system for a very large reward. I play the

      • Actually evolution can produce altruistic traits even in situations where it detrimental to the altruistic individual. The specific conditions for this are defined by Sober and Wilson in the book "Unto Others." But the basic reason is because natural selection occurs at all levels - genes, cells, individuals, and populations. But, yes, evolution can result in individuals who go against their own best interests ("enlightened" or otherwise), just as the cells in your body normally die "voluntarily" in res
      • by Bob9113 ( 14996 )

        Not to take a cheap shot... well, maybe precisely to take a cheap shot.

        There's a difference between Randroids, Objectivists, and objectivists (small 'o'). Randroids and Objectivists follow a doctrine -- hence, they do not evolve. Perhaps it is not the altruism or resource sharing he was questioning, but the ability for a being to have a different thought than his ancestors.

        I am an objectivist, but I find Objectivists to miss the greatest feature of Ayn Rand's work -- that it leads you to think outside the t

      • Randian thought and Objectivism works on the basic question of, "Is this good for me?" At it's core is selfishness, and quite a few people—from christians to secular humanists—find this selfishness repugnant.

        Before you claim I don't know what I'm talking about, I used to be a Randian drone. It's a sick, inhuman mindset that places self on a pedestal above all others.

    • I think your snark is a bit misplaced. Libertarianism depends on altruism to work. The ability of individuals to apply their money towards the causes they feel are most appropriate is a cornerstone of effective freedom. In theory, there is nothing about altruism that is incompatible with Libertarianism.

      In reality, the ones who acquire the most wealth are inclined not to give "altruistically" due to the cutthroat nature and feelings of entitlement required to rise to the top, and are more inclined to spen
  • by smoothnorman ( 1670542 ) on Wednesday May 04, 2011 @01:44PM (#36026284)
    "Fry: I’m not a robot like you. I don’t like having disks crammed into me unless they’re Oreos, and then only in the mouth."
  • "We help those who are most related to us because they are able to pass some of our genes to the next generation."

    So why do we help people who are not related to us?

    Compassion and caring is not bounded by family boundaries, so it seems to me that the evolutionary advantage behind altruism is still questionable.

    • by 0123456 ( 636235 ) on Wednesday May 04, 2011 @02:02PM (#36026518)

      Compassion and caring is not bounded by family boundaries, so it seems to me that the evolutionary advantage behind altruism is still questionable.

      The vast majority of people care more about themselves than their relatives and much more about their relatives than some starving child in Nowhereistan. Which is precisely what you'd expect from genetic explanations of 'altruism'.

      The real 'altruists' who sacrifice everything to feed starving Nowhereistans are badly programmed (and the end result of such behaviour is probably to cause more starvation as they put Nowhereistanian farmers out of business).

      • by mark-t ( 151149 )
        That's my point. No evolutionary advantage.
        • by 0123456 ( 636235 )

          That's my point. No evolutionary advantage.

          But there is an evolutionary advantage, because your genes are more likely to reproduce if you are 'altrustic' towards people who are related to you. Dying to save three brothers and sisters is likely to spread more copies of your genes than letting them die.

          In fact, you could argue that sending free food to Nowhereistan is an evolutionary advantage, because after you bankrupt the Nowhereistanian farmers they'll all die off and you'll have less competition.

          • by mark-t ( 151149 )

            But there is an evolutionary advantage, because your genes are more likely to reproduce if you are 'altrustic' towards people who are related to you.

            Except people *aren't* just altruistic towards people they are related to. In fact, quite often it's just the opposite... particularly among young people who happen to be an ideal breeding age.

            Sure it can be argued that benefetting your nearby gene pool has evolutionary advantages, but as it's no less common to find that altruistic behavior is exhibited bet

            • Except people *aren't* just altruistic towards people they are related to. In fact, quite often it's just the opposite... particularly among young people who happen to be an ideal breeding age.

              The genetic reward is proportionate to how much of one's genes the recipient shares. Thus altriustic behavior will (and should) drop off outside of children, of family, of relatives, of tribe, finally of all of humanity... however, it never reaches zero as long as the recipient is approximately inside our species.

              And there is the confounding variable that because society rewards altriusm (for obvious reasons), individuals will invest in appearing to be altruistic, especially if they actually are not altruistic. Such behavior will overwhelm the very mild altruism that we are looking to observe between strangers. You need to track down some of those "subject is not aware he is being observed" experiments.

    • by sorak ( 246725 )

      Part of the problem of child-rearing, from an evolutionary perspective is that it is hard to know who your family is. (I'm only talking about in nature. Jokes aside, most animals can't be certain about the father, siblings, etc...

      So, it may make sense to "bond" with those nearby and treat them as family, on the off-chance that it is true.Of course, there are plenty of examples where humans can know they are an exception, but that is the exception, and most evolved traits emphasize quick-and-dirty answers.

    • Your mistrake is in thinking that there are people who are not related to you. We are all cousins; some are simply closer cousins than others.

      Even my cat is your cousin, as is the grapefruit tree in my back yard.

      Indeed, until Craig Venter did his most recent jiujitsu, there hasn’t been a living organism on this planet for billions of years that wasn't your cousin or your aunt or your uncle, if not one of your direct great-great...great-grandparents.

      Once you understand that almost all of your genes are

    • "Compassion and caring is not bounded by family boundaries, so it seems to me that the evolutionary advantage behind altruism is still questionable."

      You quite possibly provided the answer without realizing it--I suspect the advantage comes from the increase in genetic diversity, at least as far as species that utilize genetics are concerned. Family has nothing to do with it--species often mate outside the core familial structure. We humans are a good example. We have developed an actual taboo or disdain for

    • Google "reciprocal altruism" or "Price Equation". Or get a basic education in evolutionary theory before you dismiss it offhand.

    • by IICV ( 652597 )

      So why do we help people who are not related to us?

      Compassion and caring is not bounded by family boundaries, so it seems to me that the evolutionary advantage behind altruism is still questionable.

      I forget what the exact statistic is, but humans are not as genetically diverse as you might think. A completely random stranger shares 1/64th of your genes (that is, by the same metric that states your children share 1/2 of your genes); therefore, by helping them, you are still achieving an evolutionary advantag

    • by Xtravar ( 725372 )

      Humans evolved in small communities, meaning most people you knew were related in some way. Just because it has changed since then does not mean we have adapted to this environmental change.

    • So why do we help people who are not related to us?

      Because we're social creatures and helping socity helps propogate our society, our culture, and ultimately the genes of our cousins.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday May 04, 2011 @01:57PM (#36026456)

    Why are the "quotes" around "evolve" rather than "altruism"? The robots did seem to evolve, but what they evolved was tribalism.

    • Because evolve without quotes could be objectionable to conservative Christians. With quotes, you make it clear you're talking about "pretend" evolution.
  • I, for one, welcome our new altruistic overlords!

  • by Hermanas ( 1665329 ) on Wednesday May 04, 2011 @02:04PM (#36026540)

    Altruism (noun): The principle or practice of unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others - dictionary.reference.com [reference.com]

    According to the strict definition, I don't think any theory of evolution could ever explain true altruism, because for altruism in it's pure definition, there simply is no reason. If it has a personal reason, then it is, by definition, not altruism.

    Now that's out of the way, there are a number of ways that the less-strict form of altruism (let's call it 'altruistic behavior' rather) would be able to evolve. Firstly, as mentioned in TFA (yes, I skimmed it.. there were only 2 comments at the time) - it makes sense to exhibit altruistic behavior if it improves the odds of your immediate relatives to survive, thereby carrying on part your genes. The more genes your share, the closer the relative, and the more likely you are to care 'selflessly' for them.

    But in humans, carrying over genes is not the only reason. There is also the matter of respect, and trustworthiness. In order to convince your allies that you are trustworthy and 'good', you would exhibit selfless acts, with no expectation of return from the person concerned, but definite returns from those you know. By always tipping waiters more than required (selfless by any means), your partner sees your selflessness and gains trust in you. Business partners sees this and are more likely to trust you in business ventures. This all improves your chances of reproduction and survival.

    all this is made possible by our fantastic ability to remember and build mental models of specific individuals and relationships, keep tabs on how others acted in the past, and spread the word of any 'egotistic' act to other members of society by means of language. Anyone who is /not/ altruistic (at least as far as others perceives it), is therefore placing himself in distrust, and a disadvantage for carrying over his genes.

    So no, it's not much of a surprise that altruistic behavior evolves in robots with a built-in desire to spread their own genes. But it still is pretty damn cool.

    • Oh, I love to play with definitions; let me give this a try!

      Technically, the definition specifies "unselfish" behavior. Being that selfish behavior is categorized as caring solely for one's self regardless of others, I would say that true altruism need not be entirely unreasoned or disinterested in one's own benefit. So long as that caring for one's self is done with regards to other people, I think it matches the technical definition of altruistic behavior just fine.
    • by izomiac ( 815208 ) on Wednesday May 04, 2011 @03:29PM (#36027732) Homepage
      Altruism has a functional definition when referring to evolution, since it's more philosophy if you want to think about animals or bacteria acting morally. I can't recall the precise definition off the top of my head, but it's something along the lines of helping another at personal cost. As I recall, there are three major theories as to why organisms do this.

      First is Kin Selection, which is what the article seems fixated upon. Bees and naked mole rats are the classic example. Essentially, it means you'd take a 10% risk of removing yourself from the gene pool to save an individual who shares 15% of your genetic material.

      The second is reciprocity. Vampire bats may give a starving individual a blood meal to save their life, and it's a lot more likely if the starving individual offered a blood meal in the past.

      The third, and most difficult for people who don't understand math to wrap their head around, is trait group selection. Natural selection has a mathematical model. This is a corollary of that model. In nature, animals form large numbers of groups, either transiently or permanently. Within a group, a non-altruist will always out-compete the altruists and reproduce at a higher relative rate. However, groups with more altruists will reproduce at a greater rate relative to groups with more non-altruists. Overall, you often can have altruists increasing in absolute number despite falling in relative concentration within each group. This process is iterated over generations or within multiple (perhaps infinitesimal) groups that the individual forms within it's life. Being a purely mathematical phenomenal, I would suspect this would emerge within any appropriately complex computer model (it did for the one I wrote for my final project in my Evolution elective back in college).

      OTOH, the entire concept of altruism seems offensive to some people. I'm not trying to say any of these are "true altruism", since they happen all the way down to bacteria secreting proteins that deactivate antibiotics, subsequently protecting nearby unrelated bacteria. It's an explanation for observable animal behavior that humans also demonstrate. Plus, "true altruism" isn't a falsifiable hypothesis, so there's little sense in arguing about the moral proclivities of humans, bacteria, chemicals, cultures, or ideas.
    • by Arlet ( 29997 )

      But in humans, carrying over genes is not the only reason..[...].. This all improves your chances of reproduction and survival.

      Apparently, carrying over genes is the only reason.

  • So skynet really did get turned on a few weeks ago?

  • I don't buy it (Score:4, Insightful)

    by xyourfacekillerx ( 939258 ) on Wednesday May 04, 2011 @02:09PM (#36026630)
    I'd like to see the source code and specs, constraints, etc. I've seen robots designed to evolve under certain constraints, that lead to very predictable and obvious traits based on those constraints. For example, if a robot had a goal to pass on its genes, and sharing food was the means to accomplish this, it isn't a surprise that's the result: It didn't evolve that response; it was designed to acheieve it! That's why I'd like to see the actual research. Till then I have to call bogus.
    • For example, if a robot had a goal to pass on its genes, and sharing food was the means to accomplish this, it isn't a surprise that's the result: It didn't evolve that response; it was designed to acheieve it!

      You say that as if they were two different concepts, rather than a rephrasing of the same thing. Either you don't understand evolution, or you don't get what's being discussed.

  • Absolute greed and selfishness are more advanced behaviors than a good amount of selflessness. Indeed, it seems the more advanced the organism, the more extreme the organism is capable of behaving.

    From a purely logical standpoint, if you have 10 widgets, and you only need to consume 5, wouldn't you care if somebody else consumed the other 5? From a long-term perspective, if two can survive through altruism where it would have otherwise been one, the species as a whole will benefit (with natural selection as

  • by daedae ( 1089329 ) on Wednesday May 04, 2011 @02:17PM (#36026732)

    The robots/virtual robots didn't actually evolve altruism as such. I was hoping they were going to say the robots had discovered they ability to recognize weak kin and share food. Instead, the researchers taught the robots how to share, and also changed their optimization problem to "if we both have a decent amount of food, all of our genes will die, but if I give it all away, your genes might propagate." So they just solved the optimization problem they were taught, as opposed to figuring it out on their own.

    Their description of the rudimentary nervous systems make the robots sound like they're related to Braitenberg Vehicles, which are otherwise pretty fascinating.

  • News... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Bobfrankly1 ( 1043848 ) on Wednesday May 04, 2011 @02:36PM (#36027034)
    Robot does what it was programmed to do. Film at 11.

    In other news:
    Mac fanboys still arrogant hippies.
    Windows fanboys still wearing pocket protectors.
    Linux fanboys still have 6 digit Slashdot accounts.
  • by Dcnjoe60 ( 682885 ) on Wednesday May 04, 2011 @02:37PM (#36027054)

    These virtual machine robots are computer programs. So, are they, the robots, actually developing altruistic behavior or are the original program(s) somehow biased to include that behavior? I would posit that what is being "seen" is not some simple evolutionary trait, but an artifact of bias installed in the original programming.

    If you program a device to seek out the possibilities that garner the greatest success, regardless of how that success is defined, won't the device act based on it's programming? Now, if somehow these virtual machine robots are changing their programming as they go, that would be impressive. Of course, being computer simulations, even that feat would be based on the biases imposed in their original programming.

    Even in nature, the simplest organisms, like bacteria, amoebas, etc. don't exhibit this altruistic behavior. Even more complex organisms don't exhibit this behavior and they have been around a lot longer than a few hundred generations of the study.

    The result of the study seems to indicate that altruistic behavior develops when an organism (such as the virtual machine robot) is programmed that way by it's programmer. Of course, then that begs the question for those organisms in real life that exhibit the altruistic behavior, who programmed them?

  • by WebManWalking ( 1225366 ) on Wednesday May 04, 2011 @03:01PM (#36027344)
    We are Devo.

    There's probably a point in there somewhere.
  • Altruism describes decisions to help others for the sake of helping that person. It's irreducible in concept.

    The robots are helping each other due to developed "instinct" to preserve accumulated improvements through further generations, not for genuine care for the well-being other robot in and of itself. This is not altruism.

  • Around 1987 I simulated cannibalistic robot by accident on a Symbolics 3600 in ZetaLisp+Flavors. It was perhaps one of the first simulations of self-replicating robots in a 2D sea of spare parts. The parts were something like a computer, a welder, a gripper, a battery, a radar, and another rock-like item. The first robot was programmed to collect parts to attach to itself to duplicate itself as two similar halves as a sort of repair process back towards and ideal, and then cut itself in two, and then each separate piece was supposed to go off and do the same. But I did not think it through all the way, and the first thing the original robot did as the copy started up was to start to cut the copy in two to reuse the parts because they were the closest available that were not in itself. So, the robot was both cannibalistic and killing its own offspring.

    It goes to show how easy it is to make a mistake designing artificial life. I had to add a sense of "smell" to prevent that from happening, where the robots would set a smell on each item they used and would leave similar smelling items (in offspring) alone.

    I gave a talk about the simulation around 1988 at a workshop on AI and Simulation at CHI+GI in Minnesota, and talked about how easy it was to make robots that were destructive and how much harder it would be to make them cooperative. Afterwards someone from the Army working with DARPA literally patted me on the back and told me to keep up the good work. And that was one reason I stopped working on it. :-)

    And since then we have sadly seen the rise or an ironic use of military robots when robotics could otherwise bring us abundance (like President Obama authorizing a drone strike within days of taking office that allegedly lead to the deaths of three Pakistani children).
    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/us_and_americas/article5575883.ece [timesonline.co.uk]

    But, to the army officer's credit back then, I don't know if he was more interested in the destructive or constructive aspects of what I had to say. And in truth, both construction and destruction are both related in this plane of existence. And we all need some security, the issue is how we go about getting it. An essay I wrote on that:
        http://www.pdfernhout.net/recognizing-irony-is-a-key-to-transcending-militarism.html [pdfernhout.net]

    I do believe robots will learn cooperation. The issue is more if humanity will be wiped out first and then later any robots (if they too survive) might be regretful, or whether we will co-evolve together somehow. As long as much of our R&D is mostly driven by short-term profit maximization and the push to privatize profits and to socialize risks and costs, I don't know...

Syntactic sugar causes cancer of the semicolon. -- Epigrams in Programming, ACM SIGPLAN Sept. 1982