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I, robot, self-replicate -- therefore I am?

I’ve been thinking about purpose lately — specifically, about what having purpose means to human beings. Many of us would say our purpose is to be a good father or mother or daughter. We’d say our purpose is to do good in our professional lives, whether it’s teaching math to seventh graders or helping a cell phone manufacturer become more efficient. We’d say our purpose is to be good people.

Last week I wrote about Hod Lipson, a robotics engineer at Columbia University who’s building robots that do more than assemble cars or vacuum rugs or predict the weather. Some can learn about themselves by interacting with the environment — figuring how they move and how the world responds to them. Some create impressionistic paintings of a cat or Jimi Hendrix.

In this context, the notion of having purpose becomes somewhat unsettling. What purpose can or should or will drive such “creative machines?”

That question flickered nervously in the minds of audience members at MIT’s EmTech event in Cambridge, Mass., earlier this month, where Lipson spoke about machines that can demonstrate aspects of human inventiveness. He described the work he does on robots as simulating evolution. The process involves putting robot parts into a simulated evolutionary engine, letting them come together and then seeing what comes out.

Columbia University robotics engineer Hod Lipson speaks about his work on “creative machines” at MIT’s recent EmTech event in Cambridge, Mass.

During a question-and-answer session after Lipson’s talk, Erwin Rezelman spoke up. The president and CEO of Urban Integrated, which helps cities use digital technologies to become “smart,” asked whether Lipson assigned a goal for the assembled robot to achieve — say, crawl or walk upright.

Certainly, Lipson said.

“Evolution has amino acids to work with. In this case our robotic evolution process begins with very, very basic building blocks — wires, bars, motors — and puts them together to create something that works,” he said. As the robots evolve and advance, the goals become more abstract, but the process is the same.

Rahul Panicker had another question. Panicker was one of the “Innovators Under 35,” young scientists and engineers highlighted at the event. His featured innovation was a low-cost, portable incubator for premature and low-birth-weight babies that could be operated by anyone, outside a hospital environment.

Machines, he said, need some “objective function” — that’s the goal, or physical or analytical challenge, they’re programmed to take on. What purpose do they have beyond that?

Lipson said he and his team once performed an experiment in which they defined no task — no objective function — and just let simulated variation and mutation happen.

“And you know what came out of that? Self-replication,” he said. “Not to argue that that’s the real purpose of biology and that’s the purpose behind almost everything you see, but that’s the short answer to a very, very deep question.”

That short answer stilled an audience of hundreds that morning in Cambridge. Weeks later, its effect on me has yet to wear off.

Let us know what you think of the story; email Jason Sparapani, features writer, or find him on Twitter @jmsparapani.