What Are Evolvable Electronics? Evolutionary Algorithms and Hardware Collide

July 12th, 2007
Evolvable Circuits

Ever since computers were intelligently designed they have been flirting with the concepts of evolution. I’m mainly referring to evolutionary computation here. If you don’t believe me just watch youthful Richard Dawkins flirt up a computing storm in a BBC Horizon documentary from 1987 around the 14:27 and 26:46 (Don’t forget to check out an introduction to the optical disk at 9:05). Actually, according to this random Wikipedia fact:

In the fifties, long before computers were used on a great scale, the idea to use Darwinian principles for automated problem solving originated.

So what you’re probably wondering is that if computers and Darwinian principles have been flirting for so long, why don’t they just marry each other? Well, according to my exhaustive research, I’m proud to say that they are engaged. It’s pretty hush-hush right now. We don’t often hear about the two together outside the field of artificial intelligence because Evolution has such strong Christian values. That means no sex until after marriage.

The whole situation is the epitome of daytime drama because computers aren’t exactly faithful. Darwinian principles and computers have been dating since the 50′s but computers were unsatisfied with the relationship. Things just got so monotonous, that in the 80′s, computers started seeing Quantum Physics to secretly add some much needed uncertainty to life. But there are plenty of sites out there that discuss that classically forbidden relationship.

Don’t get me wrong, Computers and the principles of Evolution get along great. They have achieved many great things together, see “The Hitchhikers Guide to Evolutionary Computation: Applications of Evolution Algorithms“, so there’s no question that they would make great parents. All they need is to resolve a few relationship issues, consecrate the marriage, and a little Barry White to welcome to the world an adorable baby child! A child that goes by the name of Evolvable Hardware.

Enough with the drawn out metaphor!

Evolvable hardware is a relatively new field that aims to “soften up” our hardware electronics by the application of evolutionary algorithms. A great example of this was done by NASA Engineer Jason Lohn, who led a team to design an antennae for a communications satellite:

Evolutionary algorithms start with a set of human-made specifications from which the program will generate populations of hundreds of designs, each encoded in an artificial chromosome. For an antenna, genes might specify its branching structure and the lengths and widths of each wire.

The program’s first populations will likely be quite rough, varying among themselves in their makeup, but will produce superior designs by repeatedly taking the best antennas and using them as “parents” to make new ones, said researcher Greg Hornby.

“Just like in the real world you’d breed horses or dogs or plants, the computer program breeds the antennas. After a while the population converges and doesn’t get any better. In the natural world, crocodiles and dragonflies are the same they were a hundred million years ago.”

Add to Darwin’s evolution Mendel’s genetics, which says individuals inherit characteristics through the combination of genes from parent cells. Genetic mutation and crossover create new designs called ‘children.’

In a broad sense, genetic mutation makes a random change to a chromosome. In the computational world of artificial evolution a program performs genetic mutations by making small changes to the values of the genes in the artificial chromosome. With crossover, the program combines parts from two good designs to make children.

The antenna was designed by an evolutionary algorithm computationally and the same principles can be used to design LEGO structures. This type of evolutionary hardware design falls under “original design” as Wikipedia puts it. The NASA article finishes on a juicer note, discussing some “adaptive evolutionary systems”:

In addition to automated antenna design, the Evolvable Systems Group builds algorithms that design chips that fix themselves, circuits, coevolutionary algorithms and schedules for satellite fleets. But antennas are a big focus because of their importance in NASA missions and because antennas are difficult to design. In the future, evolutionary designs may become a common tool for designers.

Dare I say adaptive evolutionary systems are a paradigm shift on par with Darwinian evolution in the field of engineering!

I know the whole concept sounds like scary science fiction but autonomously adjusting electronics are entirely plausible. Just think of it on the bright side for us consumers, performance of electronics could finally cease to be a function of money invested and improve as a function of time. Picture this interaction taking place in 50 years:

Rob: “Hey Bob, I just got this awesome 52″ Plasma, the picture quality is so crisp, jealous?”
Bob: “Actually, my LCD has been evolving nicely over the years to keep up with ultra high definition broadcasts, I’m not jealous AT ALL!”.

So how would something like an evolvable circuit work? As illustrated in the diagram below (all copyrights reserved by © Springer), one would start off with the programmable logic circuit like a Field-Programmable Gate Array and take the initial configuration or “chromosome” of the circuit. Preserving the function of the circuit one could evolve the configuration with many different factors considered. The fitness of a give configuration could be tested computationally for improvements over the initial chromosome depending on the situation. So we aren’t really talking about our truck evolving into Optimus Prime after we left it in the garage over the winter, but we are talking about circuits improving efficiency under wildly variable circumstances. Disregarding the possibility of Transformers, applications of this technology are still of global significance.

Basic Idea of Evolvable Circuit

Advancements in digital , analogue, and mechanical hardware are being actively researched. For some of the hottest papers in this field you may be interested in the following collection of papers which are available from Amazon or Springer:

Evolvable Hardware (Genetic and Evolutionary Computation)
by Tetsuya Higuchi (Editor), Yong Liu (Editor), Xin Yao (Editor)

Table of Contents

Introduction to Evolvable Hardware (Tetsuya Higuchi, Yong Liu, Masaya Iwata and Xin Yao)
EHW Applied to Image Data Compression (Hidenori Sakanashi, Masaya Iwata and Tetsuya Higuchi)
A GA Hardware Engine and Its Applications (Isamu Kajitani, Masaya Iwata and Tetsuya Higuchi)
Post-Fabrication Clock-Timing Adjustment Using Genetic Algorithms (Eiichi Takahashi, Yuji Kasai, Masahiro Murakawa and Tetsuya Higuchi)
Bio-Inspired Computing Machines with Artificial Division and Differentiation (Daniel Mange, André Stauffer, Gianluca Tempesti, Fabien Vannel and André Badertscher)
The POEtic Hardware Device: Assistance for Evolution, Development and Learning (Andy M. Tyrrell and Will Barker)
Evolvable Analog LSI (Masahiro Murakawa, Yuji Kasai, Hidenori Sakanashiand Tetsuya Higuchi)
Reconfigurable Electronics for Extreme Environments (Adrian Stoica, Didier Keymeulen, Ricardo S. Zebulum )and Xin Guo
Characterization and Synthesis of Circuits at Extreme Low Temperatures (Ricardo S. Zebulum, Didier Keymeulen, Rajeshuni Ramesham, Lukas Sekanina, James Mao, Nikhil Kumar and Adrian Stoica)
Human-Competitive Evolvable Hardware Created by Means of Genetic Programming (John R. Koza, Martin A. Keane, Matthew J. Streeter,
Sameer H. Al-Sakran and Lee W. Jones)
Evolvable Optical Systems (Hirokazu Nosato, Masahiro Murakawa, Yuji Kasai and Tetsuya Higuchi)
Hardware Platforms for Electrostatic Tuning of MEMS Gyroscope Using Nature-Inspired Computation (Didier Keymeulen, Michael I. Ferguson, Luke Breuer, Wolfgang Fink, Boris Oks, Chris Peay, Richard Terrile, Yen-Cheng, Dennis Kim, Eric MacDonald and David Foor)
But for the sake of greater knowledge internet-wide and advancements in this field, I discovered a torrent of it on PirateBay!

With widespread distribution of evolvable hardware it’s hard not to think about how are lives would change culturally. For example, would we cease to have warranties on our consumer electronics? Would we save electricity? Would Cylons rebel?

Voice your opinions in the comments!

Posted by Chris Filed in Biology, Physics
1 Comment »
One Response to “What Are Evolvable Electronics? Evolutionary Algorithms and Hardware Collide”
fred Says:
February 29th, 2008 at 3:24 am
This might be a bit off topic but the nice thing about buying new electronics is they have a warranty. You are buying something that has moving parts or electricity going to it so it has the potential of breaking, there is nothing you can do but replace it, that does not mean the company that made the product sucks, it means the individual item sucked!

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