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A self-organising electronic circuit has stunned engineers by turning itself into a radio receiver.
October 7, 2002 8:38 AM   Subscribe

A self-organising electronic circuit has stunned engineers by turning itself into a radio receiver. It was supposed to evolve into an oscillator (through a genetic algorithm). This is astonishing and shows the power of evolutionary algorithms... [via missing matter]
posted by talos (32 comments total)

 
Once it tunes in all the Clear Channel stations, I suspect it will intentionally devolve itself.

In essence, the evolving circuit had cheated, relaying oscillations generated elsewhere, rather than generating its own.

Just as I suspected: lazy people that half-ass their jobs are the pinnacle of evolution.
posted by toothless joe at 8:53 AM on October 7, 2002


Advances and experiments like these are a fascinating window into our own evolution. Not to belittle computer science, but I think this is a great way to stimulate thinking about our own existence.
posted by TskTsk at 8:58 AM on October 7, 2002


There was a Star Trek: TNG episode about these little flying tools that could think for themselves, and the only person that thought they were conscious was Data, and then they ended up saving Picard and LaForge when they were stuck on this giant space laser thing. I'm not sure what point I'm trying to make here, but I thought that episode was like totally cool.
posted by Stan Chin at 8:59 AM on October 7, 2002


I love it when the interesting science discoveries are so simple that even I can make sense of them.
posted by damehex at 9:07 AM on October 7, 2002


There's nothing stunning about it at all. It's difficult to design such devices to *not* act as receivers, so it's no surprise that because they didn't control for radio signals, it would pick up radio signals. Far easier a design than the original goal...
posted by five fresh fish at 9:18 AM on October 7, 2002


I, for one, welcome our radio-using new galactic overlords.
posted by alumshubby at 9:20 AM on October 7, 2002


or rather: I for one, welcome our new self-organising electronic circuit overlords.
posted by blue_beetle at 9:30 AM on October 7, 2002


genetic algorithms breed an artificial intelligence, but only through many cases of trial and error. it would seem that the programming of the circuit was such that the quality of the osscillation from the computer was better than anything that the circuit itself could generate, and as such it preferred to relay that.

the article states: "'There's probably one sudden key mutation that enabled radio frequencies to be picked up,' says Bird." that's a cute way of saying they programmed a bug into the thing.

There was a Star Trek: TNG episode about these little flying tools that could think for themselves, and the only person that thought they were conscious was Data, and then they ended up saving Picard and LaForge when they were stuck on this giant space laser thing. I'm not sure what point I'm trying to make here, but I thought that episode was like totally cool.

i saw that last week on tnn!
posted by moz at 9:32 AM on October 7, 2002


Stan, what happened in this case is more like the Vogons' announcement in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which was amplified by all the buildings, planes, cars, and litter here on Earth.

The scientists understood that an electrical circuit will produce measurable pulses, and tried to manipulate the way the pulses were generated. But they had forgotten about the basics of frequency response, and ended up creating an unshielded circuit, which picked nearby interference and broadcasted it over its signal waves.

Older MeFis may also note that the radio trick is similar to the Outer Limits episode where the steel plate in Robert Culp's head found a new use.
posted by Smart Dalek at 9:36 AM on October 7, 2002


Next week, welf-organizing electronic circuit radios out an APB for Sarah Connor.
posted by freakystyley at 9:42 AM on October 7, 2002


Man, I need more sleep. The initial response my poor brain came up with in response to Smart Dalek (great nick, by the way) was some really convoluted mess about how if we could build these things into fillings we'd REALLY give those paranoid schizophrenics a run for their money.

That aside, and regardless of whether or not this is a case of the scientists being less aware of the basics of frequency response than 3 out of 7 MeFites, it's still really cool. I would have liked to have read more about the success/fit criteria defined for the experiment and the genetic selection algorithms, though.

As for the 'programmed a bug into it' -- that actually, imho, brings up a really interesting point: one could easily say that the entire process of evolution is one of introducing 'bugs' -- a mutation, 99% of the time, is a negative thing, and, being different from the normal processes of the system, would count as a 'bug'. But, that 1% of the time, within an environment that supports evolution, that bug results in a step forward for a species. With that in mind, it seems to me that the mere concept of introducing bugs into evolutionary electronic systems is a fairly astounding development.

Hopefully that all made SOME sense. Going to get more coffee now, I obviously need it.
posted by babylon at 9:50 AM on October 7, 2002 [1 favorite]


There was a similar experiment a year or so ago. I've been searching for a link but haven't had any luck. Anyway, this was a self configuring circuit built around FPGA hardware. FPGAs are a type of circuit where the connection of devices is controllable through software.

They let there algorithm loose on their chosen problem. Eventually a solution was evolved which they then studied. The interesting thing was that it worked, but there were parts of the circuit that were completely isolated from the main circuit. Paring out these circuits resulted in a non-functional circuit.

It's not really magic, even if two devices aren't physically connected together they can interact through capacitance (changing currents induce a voltage between points in a circuit) or inductance (changing magnetic fields induce current flow), but its interesting that the solution relied on these parasitic effects as an integral part of the circuit.
posted by substrate at 10:08 AM on October 7, 2002


babylon, you're brought up a good point in terms of evoloutionary theory. The Farm Fox Experiment was a project designed to study domestication patterns in members of the dog family, but was done with live subjects, rather than computer models.

The results show that random quirks within natural selection can cause latent receptors to become dominant, meaning that evolvong is often spurred by coincidence as well as necessity. AI research into neural nets strives to explore this phenomena further, and many online worms are the result of "mutating bugs" - ie, misformatted code.

About those fillings - for a truly cruel prank, try aluminum hats.
posted by Smart Dalek at 10:19 AM on October 7, 2002


five fresh fish is right on the money. it already WAS a radio receiver. this is silly scientific self-horn-tooting. there is nothing amazing about it. it is an accident, caused by poor design and inadequate sheilding. back in the 70's almost everybody i knew had stereo speakers which magically 'reorganized' themselves into CB radio receivers. no wonder we are a nation of technical dunces. no wonder we live in a country where highly paid CEO's think 'wireless' is somehow different from 'radio', and buy technology to turn ten thousand cash registers into radio transmitters and then get pissed when they discover people in the parking lot listening to the music of credit card numbers making purchases. how embarrassing, really.
posted by quonsar at 10:21 AM on October 7, 2002


So, is this like the premordial soup of electronics, and if you have enough of these circuits running their own algorythms to maximize themselves, they'll start to inter-related, cooperate, and evolve based on random mutations to the algorythm?

And being computer-based, they can do this at a very fast rate..

Now, would they optimize for a single purpose, or would they branch out and start performing functions they weren't intended for? And if they do that, then they optimize those functions, then branch out again?

And then suddenly, poof, you have real AI. Right?
posted by rich at 10:26 AM on October 7, 2002


And then suddenly, poof, you have real AI. Right?
until some trucker on the interstate keys his Cobra 40-channel.
posted by quonsar at 10:39 AM on October 7, 2002


rich:

Now, would they optimize for a single purpose, or would they branch out and start performing functions they weren't intended for? And if they do that, then they optimize those functions, then branch out again?

And then suddenly, poof, you have real AI. Right?


yes -- to a point. any AI could perform a function it was not intended to (as was the case in this circuit), but only towards a programmed goal. computers only do what you tell them to. it is possible for a program to reprogram itself, in fact (and has been possible for quite some time, though that is no longer directly possible in many modern languages). yet such programming could only be accomplished towards a goal.

what if we could introduce mutations that modify or nullify parts of those programmed goals? then you might have something modelling the human condition. of course, you would then have dodgy computers that download porn on their own, or who would feel no remorse about shoplifting (if they had hands to use).
posted by moz at 10:41 AM on October 7, 2002


And then suddenly, poof, you have real AI. Right?
Who're you calling a poof?
posted by dash_slot- at 10:42 AM on October 7, 2002


good points quonsar
posted by thomcatspike at 10:54 AM on October 7, 2002


Data - Starfleet's first official Android, Lt. Comdr. Data has been a valuable part of the Capt. Picard's crew aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise. "Gay-ta" and his high-profile are no surprise, since Star Trek has always been a leader in expanding society's tolerance of issues previously considered taboo. (Women's rights, Interracial romance, etc.) Although his first intimate experience was with a woman (Lt. Tasha Yar), Data has always exhibited curiosity toward many human customs. His first experience with emotion occurred after he choked a strong male enemy (Borg) to death. Data admitted feeling pleasure, indicating a fondness for S&M activities. Other homosexual characteristics include: neatness, good grammer, shiny hair, and an unwillingness to use violence unless necessary.

They forgot to mention the sibling rivalry/"file" sharing between Data and Lore.
posted by trioperative at 10:57 AM on October 7, 2002


quonsar - I think you're missing the point. The interesting thing about this development is not that an unshielded circuit picked up radio waves. As you say, that happens by accident often enough. The point is that this circuit (which did not start out picking up radio waves) was being artificially evolved to accomplish a task - producing an oscillating signal It evolved a way to do this which the scientists breeding it had not anticipated, by picking up the oscillating signal from a nearby machine and passing that signal on. A passing CB signal or nearby radio station would not have done the trick. It's interesting because of the implications for how real world evolution works. When survival depends on accomplishing a goal, but the method is not specified, evolution will typically find the easiest way in the current environment to accomplish that - often in a way we might think of as "cheating."
posted by tdismukes at 11:04 AM on October 7, 2002


"Good grammer" is a lovely phrase.
posted by Mars Saxman at 11:09 AM on October 7, 2002


Can you hear me now?
posted by nofundy at 11:56 AM on October 7, 2002


Additionally, to Moz's point -- what I see here as really interesting is the possibility of introducing random (well, not really, but you know what I mean) environmental stimuli that change not the *goal*, but the means by which the goal is reached.

It is certainly true that all AI, even truly evolving AI, can only understand a specific set of goals. No program can run without success criteria -- unless you want to call an infinite loop AI. However, it would be extremely fascinating (to me anyway) to see if there were ways of defining the input in a broad enough fashion that it would be possible for the program/device to interpret any number of stimuli as a reasonable facsimile of the intended input.

Whether or not these self-aggrandizing, ignorant, horn-tooting, bug-programming-code-writers (to paraphrase the apparently embittered prior posters) actually did anything of scientific note is, to me, beside the point. The fact that an evolving program mistook, or decided that, one input signal was just as good as another, or that the output from one means was as good or better than another -- that is fairly interesting. This is a very small scale, of course, but essentially this "bug" made a judgement call on some level based on the parameters it was fed. Clearly the parameters were too loose -- but that, to me, is the exact part that is worth examining.

Also, Smart Dalek -- would the world not be an infinitely better place if we all had evolving foil hats? I want an evolving foil hat!
posted by babylon at 12:01 PM on October 7, 2002


oh, and Mars -- 'twould be better if the phrase in question was either 'good speling' or 'gooder grammar'
posted by babylon at 12:03 PM on October 7, 2002


tdismukes: ok, i'll grant you that. but it is being presented as "astonishing". pfft. it only astonished the poor guy who overlooked it. on a marginally related topic, a friend demonstrated the other day how his handheld GPS is reduced to useless junk as long as the CD player in his truck is on. and in my old saturn, the compass dial would waggle back and forth in time with the windshield wipers.
posted by quonsar at 12:11 PM on October 7, 2002


My mom has a friend whose answering machine is apparently haunted (she actually has many, many issues with electronics in general, I decided she must emit something bizarre) -- not only does it play the radio (which would not be so strange), but it also does various other freaky things, like one time she hit 'play' and out popped the voice of her 4-years-dead mother -- a message that was (presumably) deleted well over four years prior. And it's a cassette machine, too, not a digital one.
posted by babylon at 12:16 PM on October 7, 2002


Just as I suspected: lazy people that half-ass their jobs are the pinnacle of evolution.
I think it's more akin to programming it to evolve into a staircase only to have it invent the slide. A shortest path thing.
posted by HTuttle at 12:32 PM on October 7, 2002


There was a similar experiment a year or so ago.

here's a slashdot post on it! i liek this comment :D

oh and here's the newscientist article: http://www.newscientist.com/ns/971115/features.html :D like it's not online anymore, but it might be in the web archive!
posted by kliuless at 1:07 PM on October 7, 2002


babylon: She obviously emits bogons at a higher than standard rate.
posted by signal at 2:17 PM on October 7, 2002


A self-organising electronic circuit has stunned engineers by turning itself into a radio receiver.

leaning in close, the scientists hear the first message it recieves:

"All your base are...."
posted by jonmc at 2:27 PM on October 7, 2002


Does the term Grey Goo mean anything to anybody?
posted by Blubble at 6:05 PM on October 7, 2002


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