Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Evolution of Self-Organized Task Specialization in Robot Swarms

plos |  Division of labor is ubiquitous in biological systems, as evidenced by various forms of complex task specialization observed in both animal societies and multicellular organisms. Although clearly adaptive, the way in which division of labor first evolved remains enigmatic, as it requires the simultaneous co-occurrence of several complex traits to achieve the required degree of coordination. Recently, evolutionary swarm robotics has emerged as an excellent test bed to study the evolution of coordinated group-level behavior. Here we use this framework for the first time to study the evolutionary origin of behavioral task specialization among groups of identical robots. The scenario we study involves an advanced form of division of labor, common in insect societies and known as “task partitioning”, whereby two sets of tasks have to be carried out in sequence by different individuals. Our results show that task partitioning is favored whenever the environment has features that, when exploited, reduce switching costs and increase the net efficiency of the group, and that an optimal mix of task specialists is achieved most readily when the behavioral repertoires aimed at carrying out the different subtasks are available as pre-adapted building blocks. Nevertheless, we also show for the first time that self-organized task specialization could be evolved entirely from scratch, starting only from basic, low-level behavioral primitives, using a nature-inspired evolutionary method known as Grammatical Evolution. Remarkably, division of labor was achieved merely by selecting on overall group performance, and without providing any prior information on how the global object retrieval task was best divided into smaller subtasks. We discuss the potential of our method for engineering adaptively behaving robot swarms and interpret our results in relation to the likely path that nature took to evolve complex sociality and task specialization.

Author Summary
Many biological systems execute tasks by dividing them into finer sub-tasks first. This is seen for example in the advanced division of labor of social insects like ants, bees or termites. One of the unsolved mysteries in biology is how a blind process of Darwinian selection could have led to such highly complex forms of sociality. To answer this question, we used simulated teams of robots and artificially evolved them to achieve maximum performance in a foraging task. We find that, as in social insects, this favored controllers that caused the robots to display a self-organized division of labor in which the different robots automatically specialized into carrying out different subtasks in the group. Remarkably, such a division of labor could be achieved even if the robots were not told beforehand how the global task of retrieving items back to their base could best be divided into smaller subtasks. This is the first time that a self-organized division of labor mechanism could be evolved entirely de-novo. In addition, these findings shed significant new light on the question of how natural systems managed to evolve complex sociality and division of labor.