A distributed artificial evolution research project
"What we are trying to do...is bring artificial life from the virtual world into the physical world"
Sadly, no - it isn't a plot to take over the world using animated mechanicals - the GOLEM project (Genetically Organized Lifelike Electro Mechanics) was an "AI research initiative aimed at harnessing idle CPU power across the Internet, to perform massively distributed evolutionary computation", according to Hod Lipson of Brandeis University.
Simulating evolution in software
Put in simpler terms, any computer attached to the Internet can partake in an experiment to produce virtual creatures capable of movement, from scratch. The concept is simple. A piece of software simulates the evolution of simple machines from simple components. There are five basic components: rigid rods, linear motors and ball joints making up a body, and neurons and synapses comprising a "brain". Beginning with no components, the program randomly selects a small number of components, links them together, and allows the organism to act.
The organism will attempt to move across an infinite plain, and its fitness is determined by how successful it is at locomotion. The construction details are then stored, and another creature allowed to develop. The fitter "robots" can pass their "genes" on to the next generation, and as time passes, the more successful combinations are permitted to survive.
From time to time, the software attempts to locate other machines, and exchanges "genetic material", in the form of blueprints of the more successful organisms. This enables 'breeding' to take place, which over time, enhances the success of the population.
The random nature is maintained throughout - the main server at the Volen Center for Complex Systems does not attempt to retrieve the survivors, but waits until they arrive under their own steam, as it were. The individual organisms remain copyrighted to the originating machine and its owner, even after they have been transferred to another machine.
The Center collates the rate of evolution, and the statistics and 'genetic material' may subsequently used in their research into Artificial Intelligence and the evolutionary process.
The idea behind the project is to study how real-world evolution takes place, by tracking the growth of effective locomotion over time. Some of the more evolved specimens are moderately complex, travelling with rowing, swimming or crawling motions. Some of the more successful life-forms have also been modelled in real life, and pictures and movies are available at the project's website shown below.
The software itself runs as a screensaver, and demonstrates each organism's attempts to move about. Many configuration options are available, including the total population available, the nature of the 'terrain' and simple graphical options. When running, the program also gives an indication of the locomotive efficiency of each creature, and over time, one would hope to see the efficiency increase. The university claims that the communication between machines is secure, and software and updates are available only from the project's internet site.
The user has no direct control over the evolutionary process, other than changing the population size and terrain. This makes sense in terms of the desired model, as outside interference would make the meddler in effect, God in the limited virtual world of GOLEM.
I have been running the screensaver for only a day, and while I had initial problems with the software crashing, it seems to have settled down. There may also be issues of communication if it is run behind a firewall, but the project's designers have issued assurances that these problems will be resolved in future versions.
This is yet another distributed computing project, similar in nature to the SETI, distributed.net, COSM and the Intel--United Devices Cancer Research Project. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, the software is only available for Windows PCs.
Update The Golem online project was terminated in October, but they built, for real, some of the more successful creations. The software is still available at the time of writing, so you can still evolve your creatures. Have fun.