Altruism helps swarming robots fly better, study shows

EPFL to give away 2,500 tiny robots Saturday

iCub, an EPFL robot (photo, ©2011 iCub / EPFL)

(video at end) Lausanne, Switzerland (GenevaLunch) – Why we are altruistic, sacrificing individual gains for the greater good of a group, has just become a little clearer, thanks to hundreds of generations of robots in Lausanne. Researchers in engineering and robotics at EPFL in Lausanne and in biology at the University of Lausanne 3 May reported their findings into the genetics of altruism, a project that involved using robots to more quickly see how altruism develops over generations.

Robotics Festival brings cutting edge robots to public

The latest robot success in Lausanne could increase the size of the crowds expected at EPFL Saturday 9 May when EPFL hosts its fourth annual Robotics Festival:  30 stands with robots, 21 workshops where you can make your own, a robot contest and 2,500 little Superpattt’s being given away are part of the attraction, with expected 10-15,000 people expected to take part (register now to get your Superpattt – in French).

The altruistic robots work was carried out by EPFL robotics professor Dario Floreano and University of Lausanne biologist Laurent Keller.

“Testing the evolution of altruism using quantitative studies in live organisms has been largely impossible because experiments need to span hundreds of generations and there are too many variables,” EPFL notes in a press release. “However, Floreano’s robots evolve rapidly using simulated gene and genome functions and allow scientists to measure the costs and benefits associated with the trait.”

Their paper was published in the journal Public Library of Science (PLoS) Biology. It provides support for what is known as Hamilton’s rule of kin selection, developed in 1964 by WD Hamilton. He proposed a precise set of conditions under which altruistic behavior may evolve. EPFL describes it:

“If an individual family member shares food with the rest of the family, it reduces his or her personal likelihood of survival but increases the chances of family members passing on their genes, many of which are common to the entire family. Hamilton’s rule simply states that whether or not an organism shares its food with another depends on its genetic closeness (how many genes it shares) with the other organism.

‘We have shown that Hamilton’s kin selection theory always accurately predicts the relationship between the evolution of altruism and the relatedness of individuals in a species,’ explains Markus Waibel, lead author of the paper and former doctoral student of both Keller and Floreano.

Hamilton’s rule has long been a subject of much debate because its equation seems too simple to be true. ‘This study mirrors Hamilton’s rule remarkably well to ex-plain when an altruistic gene is passed on from one generation to the next, and when it is not,’ says Keller.”

The study will help biologists but it has already had an impact on other robots at EPFL, notably swarms of flying robots. “We have been able to take this experiment and extract an algorithm that we can use to evolve cooperation in any type of robot,” says Floreano. “We are using this altruism algorithm to improve the control system of our flying robots and we see that it allows them to effectively collaborate and fly in swarm formation more successfully.”

How robots become altruistic after 500 generations