Machines That Fix Themselves
There will come a time when computers and robots don't need humans to program them. For mechanical engineer Hod Lipson, that time is now. And it all starts with his four-legged starfish robot.
Beginning with no idea of what it looks like, the starfish makes random motions and measures how it tilts. It then generates about a hundred different hypotheses about what its structure might be, moves itself again, collects more data to determine which models are potentially correct, and behaves accordingly. It continues this process of weeding out less-useful models until an accurate one is found and takes hold, a process inspired by Darwinian evolution. And if anything happens to it -- for example, it loses one of its legs or falls from a table -- it can then generate a new model to adapt to different circumstances, with no human assistance.
Well beyond smart robots, this self-adapting technology could one day be used to erect buildings that can repair themselves, airplanes that anticipate mechanical problems, and bridges that sense and readjust for potential structural pitfalls.
In the shorter term, a self-modeling robot could be used to explore the planets, repairing and reprogramming itself depending upon conditions on the ground.