School of Physics Colloquium

School of Physics Colloquium

The Secret Life of Robots That Do Nothing Useful


April 18, 2022 - 3:00pm to 4:00pm


Klaus Advanced Computing Building / Blue Jeans


1116 East Seminar Room /



Princeton University

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Abstract: We have developed autonomous robots with mutable diploid genes, capable of both death, rebirth and breeding, which move over resource landscapes, landscapes which the robots locally alter, and which can also be changed externally, as in drug therapy. We do this to explore biological evolution, a complex, non-linear process. We map the equilibrium surviving local density of the robots onto a multi-dimensional abstract “success landscape”, success being defined as the collective surviving number of robots after resource stress, mutations, breeding and death. We show it is generally necessary for robot success on an externally and self-modified resource stress landscape to require the exchange of genes between the robots in addition to mutations. Although the map from resources and genetics to success is quite complex, non-linear and multidimensional, our simplified robot evolving swarm illustrates basic rules for success under highly dynamic and spatially complex stress conditions which could be applied to a deeper understanding of controlling intractable diseases via stress dynamics. But they won’t build the car you ordered and are waiting for.

Bio: Professor Robert H. Austin received his B.A. in Physics from Hope College in Holland, Michigan and his Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana in 1975. He did a post-doc at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry from 1976–1979 and has been with the Department of Physics of Princeton University from 1979 to the present, achieving the rank of Professor of Physics in 1989.

He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and was elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences USA. He has served as a President of the Division of Biological Physics of the American Physical Society, and is the present Chair of the U.S. Liaison Committee of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics. He has served as the biological physics editor for Physical Review Letters, serves on numerous review panels for National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), the Burroughs Welcome Fund and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and is the Editor of the Virtual Journal of Biological Physics. He won the 2005 Edgar Lilienfeld Prize of the American Physical Society, was elected in 2008 as a Fellow, American Association of Arts and Sciences, and won the 2014 Delbruck Prize of the American Physical Society.