How the natural world offers a guide to building the perfect robot – Scotsman comment

Human ideas about robots have evolved rapidly in recent years.

Spot the robot-dog climbs Edinburgh's Blackford Hill, a feat that R2-D2 may have struggled to match (Picture: Heriot-Watt University/PA Wire)

When the first Star Wars films were being made in the 1970s, the fictional versions tended to be decidedly unnatural, like R2-D2, or humanoid, like C-3PO.

However, it turns out that two-legged locomotion is particularly tricky, while wheels are not necessarily the most practical means of getting about in the great outdoors – one problem for the Star Wars film crew was that R2-D2 kept falling over.

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A solution to such problems can be found in nature as demonstrated by a real robot "dog" that is helping scientists at the National Robotarium, based at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, investigate how they could be used to work in hazardous environments. The robot, from the ‘Spot’ range developed by Boston Dynamics, became something of a viral hit after videos of it dancing were posted on YouTube.

Other robots have been based on a range of animals from bees and cockroaches to gecko lizards and bats.

This makes a lot of sense. Evolution could be described as the most powerful computer programme ever created in which the ‘design’ of an organism is fine-tuned over millennia through the process of “survival of the fittest” to produce something that is almost perfectly adapted to its particular niche in an ecosystem.

Homo sapiens is the most intelligent of all the species, but what is truly smart is to acknowledge the limitations of our own knowledge and recognise situations in which the natural world can teach us a lesson.

Dogs sometimes fall over but, unlike R2-D2, they can jump back up pretty quick.

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