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The Emergence of Artificial Culture in Robot Societies

Issue date: 19 April 2007

UWE logo 'The Emergence of Artificial Culture in Robot Societies'

A team led by Professor Alan Winfield at the University of the West of England has received EPSRC funding for a research project that will look at how 'artificial culture' emerges within a group of robots.

'The Emergence of Artificial Culture in Robot Societies' is a four year project funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), which seeks to understand the emergence of culture as a novel property of social animals in a radical new way by building an artificial society of robots, managing the conditions under which the robots interact and observing how they behave together.

The project team is multi-disciplinary and comprises theoretical biologist Professor John W Crawford (University of Abertay Dundee), philosopher Dr Robin Durie (University of Exeter), social scientist Dr Frances Griffiths (University of Warwick), computer scientist Professor Alistair Sutcliffe (University of Manchester), art historian and cultural theorist Dr Jenny Tennant Jackson (Leeds Metropolitan University) and roboticist Professor Alan Winfield (Bristol Robotics Laboratory).

The project will aim to create an 'artificial culture lab' in which a swarm of about 60 miniature robots organised into groups, or 'villages', will be programmed to interact and to imitate each other. Because these are real, physical robots, when one robot copies another's behaviour it will be slightly different than the original and the differences are sometimes surprising and unexpected. Once the robots have been interacting for a period of time the project team will alter the conditions of the experiment by evolving the robots' neural networks so they are better adapted to recognising and responding to the emerging behaviours. These two phases of the experiment will be alternated several times over a period of perhaps months during which time the robots will learn and copy new behaviours many times. It is hoped that this will eventually produce a set of novel behaviours in the robot society which are qualitatively and quantitatively different from the behaviours at the start of the experiment and which can be likened to an emerging 'robot culture'.

Winfield explains: “Of course the behaviours which emerge and evolve will not be human but decidedly robotic. We do not expect these artificial 'memes' to have any meaning in a human cultural context - they will only be meaningful within the closed context of this artificial society. One of our key challenges in this research will be to identify and interpret these patterns of behaviour as evidence for an emerging robot culture and to see whether this new understanding may shed some light generally on how culture emerges and whether this has any implications for human, animal or artificial societies. In a sense we will be using robots like a microscope to study the evolution of culture.”

The team are also planning to set up a website so that the artificial culture lab can be observed and interpreted over the internet by anyone from school children to fellow academics and enthusiasts.

The project will take four years and the funding is worth £735,507. The funding has been awarded as the result of an EPSRC workshop on 'emergence' that brought together key academic thinkers from a wide range of disciplines and universities.

Editor's notes:

The team consists of:

Professor Alan Winfield, (Engineer and Roboticist, University of the West of England)
Professor John W Crawford (Theoretical biologist, University of Abertay Dundee);
Dr Robin Durie (Philosopher, University of Exeter);
Dr Frances Griffiths (Social Scientist, University of Warwick);
Professor Alistair Sutcliffe (Computer Scientist, University of Manchester);
Dr Jenny Tennant Jackson (Art Historian and Cultural Theorist, Leeds Metropolitan University).

Full details of the research grant can be found on the EPSRC website at:

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