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

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What happens when we let robots play the game of life? The challenge of studying evolution is that the history of life is buried in the past—we can’t witness the dramatic events that shaped the adaptations we see today. But biorobotics expert John Long has found an ingenious way to overcome this problem: he creates robots that look and behave like extinct animals, subjects them to evolutionary pressures, lets them compete for mates and resources, and mutates their ‘genes’. In short, he lets robots play the game of life. In Darwin’s Devices, Long tells the story of these evolving biorobots—how they came to be, and what they can teach us about the biology of living and extinct species. Evolving biorobots can replicate creatures that disappeared from the earth long ago, showing us in real time what happens in the face of unexpected environmental challenges. Biomechanically correct models of backbones functioning as part of an autonomous robot, for example, can help us understand why the first vertebrates evolved them. But the most impressive feature of these robots, as Long shows, is their ability to illustrate the power of evolution to solve difficult technological challenges autonomously—without human input regarding what a workable solution might be. Even a simple robot can create complex behavior, often learning or evolving greater intelligence than humans could possibly program. This remarkable idea could forever alter the face of engineering, design, and even warfare.  An amazing tour through the workings of a fertile mind, Darwin’s Devices will make you rethink everything you thought you knew about evolution, robot intelligence, and life itself.

About John Long

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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.
Published April 3, 2012 by Basic Books. 288 pages
Genres: Professional & Technical, Science & Math. Non-fiction

Unrated Critic Reviews for Darwin's Devices

Kirkus Reviews

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Natural selection would be modeled on the ability of a robot to reach a target first in a competition of six robots.

Feb 15 2012 | Read Full Review of Darwin's Devices: What Evolvi...

Publishers Weekly

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Long, director of Vassar’s Robotics Research Laboratory, describes a wonderfully creative series of experiments conducted with autonomous fishlike robots that, among other qualities, can search for food and avoid predators.

Feb 27 2012 | Read Full Review of Darwin's Devices: What Evolvi...

City Book Review

We can glean insight into evolution by “letting robots play the game of life.” The book is invaluable, readable, and intellectually stimulating.

Aug 07 2012 | Read Full Review of Darwin's Devices: What Evolvi...


(His research is partly funded by the U.S. Navy.) Long’s trials, errors and successes should prove enlightening to anyone interested in evolution or the future of robotics.

May 10 2012 | Read Full Review of Darwin's Devices: What Evolvi...

Science News

Years ago, Long realized there was something fishy about robots — that is, robots could be made to be fishlike.

May 18 2012 | Read Full Review of Darwin's Devices: What Evolvi...


“But adaptation never leaves behind witnesses or surveillance tape.” In devising Tadros (tadpole robots) and Evolvobots, then introducing external pressures like predators, the need for food, and the success or failure of reproduction, Long and his cohorts set themselves up for some surprises.

Sep 01 2012 | Read Full Review of Darwin's Devices: What Evolvi...

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