For the first time we are seeing how it’s possible for robots in the future to design and evolve, manufacture and assemble themselves without human input.


Experts at the University of Oslo, Norway have discovered a new way for robots to design, evolve and manufacture themselves, without input from humans, using a form of artificial evolution called “Generative design,” and 3D printers – although admittedly the team, for now at least, still has to assemble the final product, robot, when it’s printed.

Generative design is something we’ve talked about several times before and it’s where artificial intelligence programs – creative machines, if you will – not humans, innovate new products – such as chairs and even Under Armour’s new Architech sneakers.


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The labs latest robot, “Number Four,” which is made up of sausage like plastic parts linked together with servo motors, is trying out different gaits, attempting to figure out the best way to move from one end of the floor to the other. And while you might look at this video and think it’s weird, or funny remember that this is just the start. Today it’s evolving, trying to learn how to move from A to B in the most efficient manner, but tomorrow – well, it could be “evolving” anything, and all at a much faster rate than humans.

By constantly monitoring its own progress and comparing it with previous attempts, over time it gets visibly better at this simple task.

“It’s now testing variations of its original movement pattern,” says Kyrre Glette, associate professor at the University of Oslo’s research group for robotics and intelligent systems.

The movement isn’t perfect though – of course. After all it’s trying to evolve and evolution is never a simple task. In nature for example around 99.9% of “evolutions” go nowhere and the animals die out, but that’s what evolution is all about – trying new things, failing, and trying again until something works.


Robot Evolution In Action

In this case the robot number four’s instructions come from a computer simulation and since a computer simulator doesn’t perfectly model the real world there’s bound to be some mismatch between the virtual world and the real world, say the team.

The robot was conceived in a “virtual womb” – a generative design computer program that tries out thousands of different simulations and solutions to how the finished machine could best move around its given environment, which in this case is the carpeted floor of Glette’s lab. Glette and his team don’t tell the computer how to solve the problem, they only introduce certain parameters – like the fact that the robot should move from A to B and the AI, the creative machine, does the rest, iterating thousands of times, keeping the best versions and iterating again.


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“It’s artificial evolution. It starts off with very simple combinations of these sausages and simple motors that can move them,” says Glette, looking at an on-screen visualization of the evolution process. Eventually, there are some solutions that manage to move forward just a tiny little bit. Then they are saved and those solutions are then used for coming generations and modified slightly. Eventually you get better and better solutions.”

By running a thousand individual virtual robots through a thousand generations, the computer can come up with a working model within a couple of hours and then it tells a 3D printer to make a real world version of this “pinnacle of evolution,” and all the robotics team needs to do is stick it together using servo motors.

That said though, we are already seeing the rise of 4D printing – printers that both print and can then automatically assemble the newly printed products, so one day there’s no reason why the robots can’t, or won’t, be able to design themselves, print themselves and assemble themselves. And moving one step further on, they might also soon be able to grow themselves in the lab, in the same way BAE are growing drones using new molecular assemblers.

Impressive as these systems might be, they’re still limited to work within the parameters we humans give them. In the future, Glette’s robots might figure out how to get around unexpected obstacles – and could even 3D or 4D print new body parts in the field in order to accomplish the task.


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As expected though hundreds of prominent scientists and experts are already warning about the inherent danger of computers becoming smarter at an ever increasing rate, let alone evolving themselves – and then let alone, again, of letting them be used to evolve and manufacture new robots.

In many people’s eyes this new research has overtones of Skynet – after all while many people think of Skynet as just an “evil” computer program many people forget that it must have been able to design, evolve and manufacture the Terminator robots. After all, they didn’t just materialise out of thin air did did they?

The legendary physicist Stephen Hawking, for example, last year, went on record to warn people about the dangers of runaway AI.

“Once humans develop artificial intelligence it could take off on its own and redesign itself at an ever increasing rate. Humans, who are limited by slow biological evolution, couldn’t compete and would be superseded,” Professor Hawking warned. He also signed a letter in July condemning a potential AI arms race, and this year the UN will debate banning so called “Killer robots”.


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“Once you’ve got artificial general intelligence, you’ve got a computer that’s got all the same smarts as you and I have, that means it can learn. So it’s learning 24/7, it doesn’t get tired,” says Keith Downing, a professor of artificial intelligence at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology.

“So once you get artificial general intelligence, you’re going to quickly accelerate into something they call artificial super intelligence. That’s where the computer is thousands of times smarter than us. So if they’re also smarter than us,” he says, “they could trick us and we could be in trouble.”

Glette though isn’t overly worried about a robotics takeover. That’s partly because he knows what it takes to get a simple, sausage-like robot to figure out to best way of moving across a carpeted floor.

“There’s a lot happening with self-driving cars and Google telling you when to take the next train home,” Glette says, “but we see that there is this complexity challenge, and I don’t think there is any real breakthrough at the moment. I think we will get smarter and smarter solutions, but no real human like intelligence any time soon.”


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In the meantime though he and his team hope to make the robots, and its virtual evolution system, clever enough to operate in real life situations in the future though. One scenario would be sending robots into a nuclear disaster zone to solve any unexpected problems by adapting to their environment, perhaps even printing new tools or body parts in the process.

A self-learning robot could be handy for exploring distant planets, too. But the leap from that scenario to one of computers deciding they are smarter than us and acting on it is, hopefully, some time off – that said though many experts believe that that date is 2045. So maybe you should book your plane tickets to Mars now and avoid the forthcoming robo-geddon.

About author

Matthew Griffin

Matthew Griffin, described as “The Adviser behind the Advisers” and a “Young Kurzweil,” is the founder and CEO of the World Futures Forum and the 311 Institute, a global Futures and Deep Futures consultancy working between the dates of 2020 to 2070, and is an award winning futurist, and author of “Codex of the Future” series. Regularly featured in the global media, including AP, BBC, Bloomberg, CNBC, Discovery, RT, Viacom, and WIRED, Matthew’s ability to identify, track, and explain the impacts of hundreds of revolutionary emerging technologies on global culture, industry and society, is unparalleled. Recognised for the past six years as one of the world’s foremost futurists, innovation and strategy experts Matthew is an international speaker who helps governments, investors, multi-nationals and regulators around the world envision, build and lead an inclusive, sustainable future. A rare talent Matthew’s recent work includes mentoring Lunar XPrize teams, re-envisioning global education and training with the G20, and helping the world’s largest organisations envision and ideate the future of their products and services, industries, and countries. Matthew's clients include three Prime Ministers and several governments, including the G7, Accenture, Aon, Bain & Co, BCG, Credit Suisse, Dell EMC, Dentons, Deloitte, E&Y, GEMS, Huawei, JPMorgan Chase, KPMG, Lego, McKinsey, PWC, Qualcomm, SAP, Samsung, Sopra Steria, T-Mobile, and many more.

  • John#1

    29th January 2017

    I wish those of us in this field were smart enough to avoid pop culture terms like 4D. 4D already has a real meaning, and this isn’t it. This type of ignorance is OK for those out of the know, but for those of us who know better, it’s use and propagation makes us look dumb and opportunistic. Why not just say automated 3D manufacturing? Otherwise, where does it end? 27D printing? 1004D printing? Let’s nip this ignorant jingoism in the bud.

    • Matthew Griffin#2

      30th January 2017

      Hey John, you know how much everyone likes to give things new names – maybe we’ll see 5D printing appear soon where we’re printing across time, as for 6D printing, well that’s anyone’s guess. I’d love to know what you think 27D printing would be though!

      • Jeremy#3

        30th January 2017

        But that’s what John is saying. The 4th dimension is already time. And it takes time to 3D print. The assembly of a 3D printed robot by automated means does not suddenly make it 4D printing. A 4D printer would have to somehow print outside of time, which is not possible (with our current levels of technology, and may never be possible).

        • Matthew Griffin#4

          30th January 2017

          Hey Jeremy, some people think of 4D as “space” but either way it’s all kind of moot anyway – I think the scientists are looking for a name that differentiates additive manufacturing and assembly from just plain old additive manufacturing. As for printing outside of time maybe Einstein would have a suggestion… maybe the next step is using quantum mechanics and superposition to print then teleport goods instantaneously, after all, the Canadians just teleported an E-Mail (go figure)!

  • Javier Arteagoitia#7

    31st January 2017

    Haven’t any of you read any Science Fiction about this subject? You NEVER EVER let an IA self-upgrade and evolve. That always ends reaaaaally bad for humankind. C’mon, be smart and destroy it before terms like “Skynet” start to be a reality.

    Anyway, just in case, I hereby announce my pledge to our future robot-lords as a faithful servant. All Hail Robots!

  • Iain Heron#9

    31st January 2017

    Oh dear. Can we clone Arnie?

  • Antonio Waller Espín#10

    31st January 2017

    Great article. AI is going to accelerate progress in all fields of science. Exciting times ahead!

    • nighthawk#11

      29th June 2020

      with one cup Quantum Computers and a dash of carbon nanotubes and, “Resistance is Futile.”

  • Ignacio Agulló#12

    31st January 2017

    Video: Ooops! 🙁 Failed to find video url

  • Jalil Bashir#18

    4th July 2018

    Few, if any, realise the profound consequences of Digitization, Automation, Robotics, Algorithms, and AI, on the traditional Human Workforce, and the traditional Workplace.

    In a World of Programmes making Programmes, and Machines making Machines, You have been Reduced to a Number, Judged by an Algorithm, and AI is god.

  • nighthawk#22

    29th June 2020

    I’m not going to say this sounds like The Borg, Skynet or I Robot. I lied. Sure sounds a lot like the Borg, Skynet or I Robot.


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