In a laboratory tucked away in a corner of the Cornell University campus, Hod Lipson’s robots are evolving. He has already produced a self-aware robot that is able to gather information about itself as it learns to walk. Like a Toy Story character, it sits in a cubby surrounded by other former laboratory stars.
There’s a set of modular cubes, looking like a cross between children’s blocks and the model cartilage one might see at the orthopedist’s—this particular contraption was one of the world’s first self-replicating robots. And there are cubbies full of odd-shaped plastic sculptures.
The robots and the 3D printer-pieces populating the cubbies are like fossils tracing the evolutionary history of a new kind of organism. ‘I want to evolve something that is life,’ Lipson told me, ‘out of plastic and wires and inanimate materials.’
Upon first meeting, Lipson comes off like a cross between Seth Rogen and Gene Wilder’s Young Frankenstein (minus the wild blond hair). You can’t miss his passionate desire to understand what makes life tick. And yet, as he seeks to create a self-assembling, self-aware machine that can walk right out of his laboratory, Lipson is aware of the risks:
‘As much as we are control freaks when it comes to engineering, where this is going toward is loss of control. The more we automate, the more we don’t know what’s going to come out of it.’