New Tech: Artificial Life Forms Created that Evolve Intelligence

VirtualPetrieDish3 Michigan State University (MSU) researchers have developed “digital organisms” called Avidians that were made to evolve memory, and could eventually be used to generate intelligent artificial life and evolve into symmetrical, organized artificial brains that share structural properties with real brains.

Avidians are not imaginary sci-fi alien life forms. They are the digital creations of Charles Ofria and colleagues at Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing. Although they "live" in a computer world called Avida, and replicate using strings of coded computer instructions instead of DNA, they are similar to real life microbes: they compete with each other for resources, replicate, mutate, and eventually evolve to become artificially intelligent life forms. Unlike real-life Darwinian microbes, their evolution can be stopped at any time, reversed, repeated, and the precise sequence of mutations that led to the new trait can be dissected. 

In the image above, a growing population of digital organisms, started from one individual, colonizes an initially empty space (black). As it does so, the population evolves by random mutation and selection, based on each organism's resulting phenotype. Every colored square represents one digital organism, with different colors reflecting different fitness levels. The speed, control, and ease of data collection in the Avida digital evolution platform permits experiments that would be difficult or even impossible with natural organisms. Tens of thousands of generations down the line, some of the descendents will evolve memory

MSU researcher Jeff Clune works with a system called HyperNEAT, which uses principles of developmental biology to grow a large number of digital neurons from a small number of instructions.He translated the artificial neurons into code that could control a Roomba robot.

You can build complex brains from a relatively small number of computerized instructions, or “genes,” he says. Their brains have millions of connections, yet still perform a task well, and that number could be pushed higher yet. “This is a sea change for the field. Being able to evolve functional brains at this scale allows us to begin pushing the capabilities of artificial neural networks up, and opens up a path to evolving artificial brains that rival their natural counterparts.”

Casey Kazan 



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