John Long

TALK: Evolution Ain’t Revolution

Like animals, real robots are grounded in the limitations of the physical reality of their bodies and their world.  That point is missed by the brain-as-computer metaphorical abstractions of classical AI, which continues to oversimplify cognitive processes.  One biological process that offers an integrated understanding of cognition and AI is evolution.  Biological evolution has no inherent direction, final causes, or goals.  Instead, evolution suffices, combining random and locally deterministic processes to build one-generation-late, just-good-enough solutions some but not all of the time.  We see these complexities in play when we evolve real physical robots in our laboratory.

JOHN LONG is the Director of the Interdisciplinary Robotics Research Laboratory and a professor of Biology and Cognitive Science at Vassar College.  He and his collaborators, including undergraduate researchers, build robots to test ideas about behaviorally autonomous agents. His research with robots draws on fields as diverse as evolutionary biology, cognitive robotics, biomimetics, materials science, and behavioral neurobiology.  Consistent with this multidisciplinary approach, Long serves as an associate editor or an editorial board member on three scientific journals:  Bioinspiration and Biomimetics, Frontiers in Robotics and AI, and Soft Robotics. He has authored Darwin’s Devices: What Evolving Robots Can Teach Us About the History of Life and the Future of Technology and created a lectures series for The Great Courses: “Robotics.”

LAB (link)  BLOG (link)  The Great Courses: Robotics


Chiappetta, M. “Fiction Meets Facts: Robotics in Today’s Sci Fi.” Recurser: The Sci Fi Series Portal. March 2017 (link)

Chiappetta, M. “Parsing the Robotic Future With Vassar’s John Long.” Recurser: The Sci Fi Series Portal. March 2017 (link)

Cho, A. “The Accidental Roboticist. Science Vol. 346, Issue 6206. 10 Oct 2014:192-194 (link)

Niederhoff, G. “We Heart Robots: Evolving Robots. Part 6. John Long Interview.” Big Picture Science Blog, National Science Foundation. 21 Jan 2013 (link)

Cherry, S. “Robots and Human Evolution.” IEEE Spectrum, 20 May 2012. (link)

McDonald, B. “Can Robots Evolve? Quirks & Quarks Interview With Biorobot Engineer Dr. John Long.” Quirks & Quarks.  CBC, 28 April 2012. (link)

Millar, S. “Darwin’s Devices”: Here Come the Robot Fish.” Salon. Apr 8, 2012 (link)

Rizk, C. “Bio-Robots Swim, Swarm, Change, and Shed Light on Evolution.” Techonomy, 22, 22 November 2012. (link)

Sharkey, N. “Robotics: Enter the Evolvabot.” Nature 484. 26 Apr 2012: 449–450 (link)

Webb, S. “Robots, Fish, and Undergrads.” Science Careers, 30 November 2012. (link)

White, M. “Evolution and Robots.” Science Vol. 337, Issue 609220. Jul 2012: 294-295 (link)


Long, J.H. et al. “Evolving Swimming Robots to Study Origins of Extinct Vertebrates.” RoboHub. 09 Dec. 2014. (link)

Long, J.H. “Darwin’s Devices: ‘Evolving robots’ teach us about extinct animals—and may end up an important battlefield technology.” Slate. 04 Apr 2012. (link)


Darwin’s Devices: What Evolving Robots Can Teach Us About the History of Life and the Future of Technology

[From the cover] 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…