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Lazaro Gamio / Axios

Robots are normally only good at the task they are programmed to do. Now, scientists have programmed robotic controllers to learn to avoid obstacles and cooperate by mimicking Darwinian evolution.

Just like genes, the robot's programming could mutate and be selected upon. Additionally, like in evolution, the robots could co-opt previous parts of their programming to find solutions more quickly. Because the robots were connected online, when they were close together they were also able to exchange their evolving robo-genomes.

Why it matters: Robots are usually only programmed for one task, and when confronted with an obstacle, they can falter. Online evolution allows them to adapt and learn to find solutions outside of their programming.

"It is not directly analogous to nature, but it is inspired by nature," Luís Correia, a scientist at the University of Lisbon in Portugal and an author of the study told Axios.

What they did: In the study, published Wednesday in the journal Royal Society Open Science, the scientists gave the robots three tasks: avoiding obstacles while moving in as fast as possible with little detours, searching for and finding a small target, and a cooperative task that involved gathering together. Robots that had evolved solutions to the cooperative aggregation task then had faults that mimicked hardware problems injected into their programming to see if the robots could evolve work-arounds.

The bottom line: In the past, online evolution in real-world robots wasn't feasible because there wasn't enough processing power, so learning took days. (Imagine a robot running into an obstacle over and over again, damaging itself as it slowly evolves the programming to go around.) But these real-life robots were given an hour to complete their tasks, and appear to be able to adapt to damage acquired while learning. Although the tasks were very simple, this shows that online evolution is another viable type of robot learning and might let them address more complex tasks in the future.

Go deeper

"Atmospheric river" to whiplash Northern California from drought to flood

A map depicting 24-hour preciptation forecast (inches) ending Monday at 5a.m. local time. Photo: NOAA

A series of powerful "atmospheric river" storms are set dump historic amounts of rainfall across parts of drought-stricken California and the Pacific Northwest from this weekend, forecasters warn.

Why it matters: A strong atmospheric river, packing large amounts of moisture, is predicted to whiplash Northern California from drought to flood.

10,000 trees near giant sequoia groves to be removed after fires

A firefighter looks up at a giant sequoia tree after fire burned through the Sequoia National Forest near California Hot Springs, California, on Sept. 23. Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

"Upwards of" 10,000 trees near giant sequoia groves have been "weakened by drought, disease, age, and/or fire" and must be removed in the wake of California's wildfires, the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks announced.

Why it matters: The damage to these trees, considered "national treasures," and work to remove them means a nearby key highway must remain closed to visitors as they have "the potential to strike people, cars, other structures, or create barriers to emergency response services," per a statement from the national parks.

Obama stumps for McAuliffe, urges Virginians not "to go back to the chaos"

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Former President Barack Obama framed a Nov. 2 gubernatorial race as a bellwether for the Democratic Party and the country, telling a crowd at a campaign event for Terry McAuliffe on Saturday that "I believe you, right here in Virginia, are going to show the rest of the country and the world that we're not going to indulge in our worst instincts."

Why it matters: With just over a week to go before Election Day in the Commonwealth, McAuliffe is bringing out the big guns. The 44th president appeared on the campus of Virginia Commonwealth University to urge supporters to get to the polls.