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Darwin's Devices: What Evolving Robots Can Teach Us About the History of Life and the Future of Technology

Popular Science

By: John Long

288 pages, b/w illustrations

Basic Books

Hardback | Apr 2012 | #197696 | ISBN-13: 9780465021413
Availability: Usually dispatched within 6 days Details
NHBS Price: £17.99 $23/€21 approx

About this book

Why is using natural selection to design robots revolutionizing our understanding of life? Robots have come a long way since the days of futuristic metallic humanoid dreams. In Darwin's Devices, biorobotics expert John Long takes readers on a tour of his own work and thinking – showing how evolutionary concepts can revolutionize design and engineering, while using evolved robots to unlock the biology of living and extinct species. Long himself uses robots to answer two primary sets of questions. The first is about living organisms, especially fish: how do they get around, catch food – simply, how do they do what they do? The second is about long-dead organisms, including one of the toughest questions of them all: why did animals ever evolve backbones, and once they did, why did they prove so successful? But there's no reason to stop there – as Long himself argues, the most important aspect might just be the principles he's developing, which boil down to the power of dumb evolution to quickly output brilliant designs. Darwin's Devices is not just an amazing trip through the laboratory of a very fertile mind – it's proof that both science and engineering can benefit when we simply sit back and let natural processes take control.

Robots hold a key to our past, present, and future in John Long's fascinating 'Darwin's Devices'. Telling the story of the exciting science at the boundary of biology and engineering, Long takes us on a tour of how science is done, how new ideas emerge, and how insights to ourselves can come from surprising places.
- Neil Shubin, Professor, University of Chicago, and author of "Your Inner Fish"

"John Long gives us an engagingly written and highly personal book that introduces his new approach to understanding the past using evolving robots. His unique perspective is sure to inspire others and broaden our views on how robots can inform our understanding of evolution."
- George V. Lauder, Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University

"John Long weaves a fascinating journey of scientific exploration which he describes with a highly infectious enthusiasm. Long's field is the creation of autonomous robots that can teach us about the evolution of animal behaviour--a complex subject which he analyzes and simplifies with great clarity. 'Darwin's Devices' is a thoroughly stimulating read."
- David Levy, author of "Love and Sex with Robots"

"Whether in laboratory or kitchen, making something always improves your understanding of how it works. In this book, John Long traces his path toward better understanding the evolution of fish swimming by making robots that swim. His models quite literally embody the way the process of natural selection acts on performance in seeking food or not becoming food. It's a personal account of real-world science, complete with the bumps and bruises, the thickets of thorns. It's about the way we experimentalists go about things--not always pretty, but highly addictive in the doing and almost as seductive in the reading."
- Steven Vogel, James B. Duke Professor, Duke University

"Lively and intriguing."
- Kirkus Reviews

"[A] lucidly written description of [Long's] research[...]. Using ingeniously engineered devices called evolvobots that mimic carefully selected animal features, Long and his team have been probing such mysteries as how the flexible spines of fish and mammals developed, and whether or not brains are really necessary for some species' survival. Especially inspiring is Long's demonstration that biorobotics is not only revolutionizing the study of biology but also providing new enthusiasm for engineering technology's value in novel applications. A must-read for aficionados of both evolutionary theory and cybernetics."
- Booklist

"Long's process of designing the `tadros' [tadpole robots] and experiments are fascinating and give unique insights into high-level science[...]. Long deciphers [the] unexpected results with a delightful sense of humor and an infectious awe at, and enthusiasm for, discovery and the elegant mechanisms of evolution. For readers who like serious science, this is a captivating tour of the marriage of technology and biology."
- Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Though [Long] is a gifted storyteller, this is no simple fish tale. The engineering draw of robots is clear, but Long also emphasises the value for science, showing how robots can serve as physical models of biological organisms; evolving biorobots can shed light on why organisms evolved as they did; and robot interaction can illustrate coevolutionary dynamics, as between predators and prey[...]. With 'Darwin's Devices', Long reminds us that science is always an adventure, and that new technology only drives us faster and further into the unknown."
- New Scientist

"[Long] manages to balance fairly detailed and frequently entertaining accounts of the nuts and bolts of robot research with occasional forays into big picture, what-does-it-all-mean thinking[...]. [H]is discussion was both intelligent and philosophically informed, a rare thing in contemporary science writing."
- Boston Globe

"'Darwin's Devices' is part Descartes, part MacGyver and part Douglas Adams, turning from rumination on the possibility of intelligence residing in a brainless body to tips on making artificial fish vertebrae out of coffee stirrers [...]. One of the most intriguing and important aspects of 'Darwin's Devices' is the way it places the reader in the lab, at the shoulder of people doing hands-on science, sharing in their frustrations (over disappointing data, recalcitrant grant committees and astutely critical colleagues), their successes and their failures. And Long does this so lucidly that you find yourself caught up in the process, grasping the basics and eager to learn the results. It's the best depiction of how science really works that I've ever read."
- Laura Miller, Salon


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Biography

John Long is a Professor at Vassar College, with joint appointments in Cognitive Science and Biology. He serves as Director of Vassar's Interdisciplinary Robotics Research Laboratory, which he co-founded. Long and his robots, Madeleine and the Tadros, have garnered widespread press coverage in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and more. He lives in Poughkeepsie, New York.

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