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

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ISBN-13: 978-0465021413
ISBN-10: 0465021417
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Editorial Reviews


Neil Shubin, Professor, University of Chicago, and author of Your Inner Fish
“Robots hold a key to our past, present, and future in John Long’s fascinating Darwin’s Devices. Telling the story of the exciting science at the boundary of biology and engineering, Long takes us on a tour of how science is done, how new ideas emerge, and how insights to ourselves can come from surprising places.”

George V. Lauder, Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University“John Long gives us an engagingly written and highly personal book that introduces his new approach to understanding the past using evolving robots. His unique perspective is sure to inspire others and broaden our views on how robots can inform our understanding of evolution.” David Levy, author of Love and Sex with Robots“John Long weaves a fascinating journey of scientific exploration which he describes with a highly infectious enthusiasm. Long’s field is the creation of autonomous robots that can teach us about the evolution of animal behaviour—a complex subject which he analyzes and simplifies with great clarity. Darwin’s Devices is a thoroughly stimulating read.”

Steven Vogel, James B. Duke Professor, Duke University
“Whether in laboratory or kitchen, making something always improves your understanding of how it works. In this book, John Long traces his path toward better understanding the evolution of fish swimming by making robots that swim. His models quite literally embody the way the process of natural selection acts on performance in seeking food or not becoming food. It’s a personal account of real-world science, complete with the bumps and bruises, the thickets of thorns. It’s about the way we experimentalists go about things—not always pretty, but highly addictive in the doing and almost as seductive in the reading.”

Kirkus Reviews
“Lively and intriguing.”

“[A] lucidly written description of [Long’s] research…. Using ingeniously engineered devices called evolvobots that mimic carefully selected animal features, Long and his team have been probing such mysteries as how the flexible spines of fish and mammals developed, and whether or not brains are really necessary for some species’ survival. Especially inspiring is Long’s demonstration that biorobotics is not only revolutionizing the study of biology but also providing new enthusiasm for engineering technology’s value in novel applications. A must-read for aficionados of both evolutionary theory and cybernetics.”

Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Long’s process of designing the ‘tadros’ [tadpole robots] and experiments are fascinating and give unique insights into high-level science.... Long deciphers [the] unexpected results with a delightful sense of humor and an infectious awe at, and enthusiasm for, discovery and the elegant mechanisms of evolution. For readers who like serious science, this is a captivating tour of the marriage of technology and biology.”

New Scientist
“Though [Long] is a gifted storyteller, this is no simple fish tale. The engineering draw of robots is clear, but Long also emphasises the value for science, showing how robots can serve as physical models of biological organisms; evolving biorobots can shed light on why organisms evolved as they did; and robot interaction can illustrate coevolutionary dynamics, as between predators and prey.... With Darwin’s Devices, Long reminds us that science is always an adventure, and that new technology only drives us faster and further into the unknown.”

Boston Globe
“[Long] manages to balance fairly detailed and frequently entertaining accounts of the nuts and bolts of robot research with occasional forays into big picture, what-does-it-all-mean thinking.... [H]is discussion was both intelligent and philosophically informed, a rare thing in contemporary science writing.”

Laura Miller, Salon
Darwin’s Devices is part Descartes, part MacGyver and part Douglas Adams, turning from rumination on the possibility of intelligence residing in a brainless body to tips on making artificial fish vertebrae out of coffee stirrers …. One of the most intriguing and important aspects of Darwin’s Devices is the way it places the reader in the lab, at the shoulder of people doing hands-on science, sharing in their frustrations (over disappointing data, recalcitrant grant committees and astutely critical colleagues), their successes and their failures. And Long does this so lucidly that you find yourself caught up in the process, grasping the basics and eager to learn the results. It’s the best depiction of how science really works that I’ve ever read.”

“A book on robotics by a marine biologist sounds a bit fishy, but Darwin’s Devices is anything but. John Long takes us on a journey through the wonderful, oceanic world of research on the evolution of the vertebrae of extinct species. Long’s work is innovative because of his use—and strong defence—of modelling with physically embodied robots, rather than the usual software simulations of computational biology.... Long’s chatty style made me laugh out loud at times. But beneath the levity lie robust and sometimes powerful arguments about biomimetics.... [T]his is a sound and hard-hitting work…. Darwin’s Devices represents a step forward in biomimetics. And, cleverly hidden among the discussions and the humour, gems of scientific philosophy shine.”

“Long’s trials, errors and successes should prove enlightening to anyone interested in evolution or the future of robotics.”

Science News
“Clearly, it’s been a labor of love for the author and his scientific collaborators. And through Long’s humor and clever descriptions, readers get a sense of how the design concepts underlying these devices—and other robotic animals—have evolved.”

“Reading Darwin’s Devices is like listening, over drinks, to a voluble, engaging, and funny scientist tell you about his work.... Long draws you into a compelling and wide-ranging conversation. This includes discussions of the mechanics of fish backbones, how we practice science, the nature of evolution, what it means to be intelligent, our dystopian robot future, and, most important, the crucial role of good models in science.... Accessible and thought-provoking, Darwin’s Devices provides an exemplary account of scientific practice for the general reader.”

About the Author

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.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (April 3, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465021417
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465021413
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #125,103 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I'm a biologist who uses robots to study animals. Counter-intuitive, right? How can you study life by studying machines? It gets better -->

I'm interested in how long-extinct species may have evolved. The trouble is that dead fossils tell no tales: their behavior isn't preserved in the rocks! That's where robots come in. We design a special class of robots, called biorobots, to mimic and simplify animals. We build biorobots to be autonomous, meaning that they act on their own, in the world, without a human remote controller. We use autonomous biorobots to re-enact the game of life, evolution.

For more, read Darwin's Devices! Also visit:

FaceBook page:
Twitter: @DarwinsDevices

By the way, I'm a professor of Biology and Cognitive Science at Vassar College. I'm also the Chairman of the Biology Department and the Director of the Interdisciplinary Robotics Research Laboratory.

But I'm NOT John Long, the famous paleontologist and author, nor John Long, the famous rock climber and author, nor John Long, the author who lives in France, nor John Long, the former Detroit Piston. Phew. Who, then, am I? I'm John H. Long, Jr., the one holding a Ph.D. in Zoology (specializing in biomechanics) from Duke University, and Darwin's Devices is my first book.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on April 27, 2012
Format: Hardcover
You would think that a biologist would have little interest in robots. Carbon-based life forms and silicon and metal gadgetry are different enough that both would have their own specialists working on them. The combination of the two, say in evolving robots, is something considered in science fiction, but it has become an incipient reality. John Long should know; he is a biologist and he does study robots, and he makes them, and he enables them to evolve. In _Darwin's Devices: What Evolving Robots Can Teach Us About the History of Life and the Future of Technology_ (Basic Books), Long has given a layman's introduction to some complicated work with surprising engineering, biological, and even philosophical lessons. Biorobotics is the field of building robotic gadgets to test hypotheses about animal behavior or evolution. It may well be an increasingly important field of study, not only to help understanding how evolution built us and the creatures we see around us, but also in producing robots that are fine-tuned to do our bidding with many more capabilities than our trained animals ever could.

To study animal evolution or behavior, you can study the animals themselves, or you can make digital models in your computer, but both of these have limitations that Long describes here. Long is very good about telling readers about the complexities of getting funding, of getting along with other researchers, and of the physical difficulties of making good models. Many of these pages describe the research Long did with fellow scientists and students on evolvabots (robots that evolve) named Tadros. A Tadro is a tadpole-like robot.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By D. Wayne Dworsky on December 3, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition
A hundred years ago many scholars still doubted the existence of Darwinian evolution. Yet, a few brave thinkers considered even more radical interpretations of our Earthly existence. And now many are treading on the very fabric of sentience. Long speculates on robotic—engineering evolvabots. He invites the reader into the stormy arena of the fine line between science and science fiction. By endeavoring to understand how robots might work, we are realizing what sentience means on a biological level as well. Long is trying to figure it all out. And he is on the right track.

He’s a long time expert on tinkering with robotics. Long is a biorobotics expert and professor of biology at Vasaar College. His two “pet” robots, Madeleine and Tadros, have helped to provide New York Times and Washing Post Press coverage. He and his colleagues have pioneered the emerging field of evolution biorobotics. In addition, he’s taught evolution on the Discovery Channell and the history Channel. He also runs research programs that endeavor to design, construct and evolve biorobots.

The book is rich. When you sink your teeth into its contents, you are enveloped in a world seldom seen in science. Even though it might seem a little scary, robotics is here to stay and Long is a driving force behind it. What we can expect from Long’s work is eye-opening information that may lay clues to behavior to extinct species and also pave the way for where we might be in the future. We can glean insight into evolution, “By letting robots play the game of life.” The author’s work is invaluable and very readable, stirring hours of stimulating, intellectual pleasure.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Natan Avram on February 19, 2014
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The subject is highly interesting and the author has done very significant research that he shares with us. He probes the ability of robots to move and adapt to the environment, which is an important subject both for understanding a possible mechanism of adaptation, and also for practical purposes. While it is good to understand the genesis of an idea or of an experimental setup, sometimes it's rambling. Being a bit more terse would help.
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Matt Darwin on February 24, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This book was commendably laden with scientific fact and did a fair job of elucidating these complicated ideas. However, if you want this for the cool concepts of robot evolution, robotic organisms, and the like, you'll probably be rather disappointed.
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